Receive Faces

Receive Faces

What do their faces say to you?

The Practice:
Receive faces.

Why?

As our ancestors evolved over millions of years in small bands, continually interacting and working with each other, it was vitally important to communicate in hundreds of ways each day. They shared information about external “carrots” and “sticks,” and about their internal experience (e.g., intentions, sexual interest, inclination toward aggression) through gestures, vocalizations – and facial expressions. Much as we developed uniquely complex language, we also evolved the most expressive face in the entire animal kingdom.

Our faces are exquisitely capable of a vast range of expressions, such as showing fear to send signals of alarm, interest to draw others toward an opportunity, or fondness and kindness to increase closeness and the sense of “us.” These expressions include seemingly universal signs of six fundamental emotions – happiness, surprise, fear, sadness, anger, and disgust – as well as more culturally and personally specific expressions. For example, I know that very particular look that crosses my wife’s face when she thinks I’m getting too full of myself!

Of course, there is no sense in having evolved an extraordinary transmitter – the face – unless we also developed an extraordinary receiver: our remarkable capacities to recognize, sense, and infer states of mind in others from subtle and fleeting facial expressions.

So here’s the question: how often and how well do we use this great receiver? Walking down a busy sidewalk, standing in an elevator, waiting in line at a deli: people usually don’t look very much at the faces around them, and if they look, it’s briefly and without really seeing. Or we grow familiar with the faces around us each day at home or work and then tune out, make assumptions – or are simply uncomfortable with what we might see, such as anger, sadness, or a growing indifference. With TV and other media, we’re also bombarded with so many faces from around the world, and it’s easy to feel flooded by them, and increasingly numb or inattentive.

But as natural as this is, you pay a price for it. You miss important information about the wants of others, and their hot buttons, true aims, anxiety or irritability, or good wishes toward you. You lose out on opportunities for closeness and cooperation, and you learn too late about potential problems, including misunderstandings, ruffled feathers, saying yes but meaning no, or simply boredom with what you’re saying.

More generally, you lose out on the chance to feel connected and part of an “us” – which has been so crucial for well-being, stress management, regulating negative emotions, and coping with life throughout our long history on this planet. Further, when you are not attuned to the faces of others, you can’t give them the deeply important experience of feeling recognized, seen, and understood – which, besides not being kind to them, will often boomerang back to hurt you. And in the broadest sense, receiving the faces of others across the world is an important step toward stitching the fabric of humanity closer together, using the ancient threads that bound us to friends and family long ago on the Serengeti plain.

For all these reasons, try to open to and receive the faces of others.

How?

Look at people in passing you do not know, on the sidewalk, in the mall, in a restaurant, etc. Try this also with people you interact with, where it’s natural to have some eye contact. And experiment with recalling or imagining the faces – or seeing them in photos or videos – of key people from your past.

When you look:

  • Don’t stare or be invasive. Look with respect.
  • Just take a few extra seconds to get past superficial features and take in more of the person. Let him or her come into focus as a unique individual, with specific qualities, such as weariness, good humor, firmness, residues of anger, kindness, perkiness, hopefulness, looking for things to like in life, etc.
  • In particular, look at and around the eyes and mouth, which are major regions of social signaling in our faces.
  • Let yourself not know about the person – especially with people that are familiar to you. It’s OK to note to yourself what you see – “stress” . . . “kindness” . . . “determination” – or to reflect a bit, but mainly be like a child looking at a human face for the first time, startled and delighted by its magnificence.
  • Have a sense of receiving, of letting in, of registering the other person in a deeper way than usual. As it happens, let yourself be moved by the experience.

As you look in these ways, notice any difficulty with taking in faces, which inherently involves opening to others. For example, it could feel a little overwhelming, since a face is such an intense stimulus for human beings as a profoundly social species. Or painful longings for more closeness could be stimulated. Help yourself by receiving faces in small doses, and by staying centered in yourself “here” while knowing that face is over “there.”

Also open to any positive experiences – such as compassion, kindness, humility, connection, or even love – that are stirred up by receiving faces. Enjoy these and take them in. They are wonderful – and a fundamental, vital, and lovely part of your human endowment.



Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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