Is “Resting Bitch Face” a Real Thing?

Do you have resting bitch face (RBF)? Don’t know what that is? Here are some symptoms:

  •  people frequently ask you to smile more
  • people think you’re angry or sad even when you’re not
  • your friends tell you that when they first saw you, they thought you were a bitch
  • pictures of your face never look the way you feel
  • people often ask what’s wrong
  • when people get to know you, they remark about how pleasantly surprised they are to find you’re actually nice
  • people avoid you

“Resting” means that the face looks this way when the person is unprovoked. It’s an every day look. “Bitch” refers to the unapproachable, hostile interpretation of the facial expression. It can also be perceived as contemptuous or annoyed. Either way, it is not warm and welcoming. The overall effect is that viewers are made uncomfortable by the person with RBF and the person with RBF often feels misunderstood and isolated.

 Okay, so this is a pop culture term, not an official diagnosis, but it is a real thing. Our body’s are always communicating what’s going on inside our minds. When this goes offline and we’re not sending accurate messages or we only have a few emotional settings, it’s a sign that something is wrong. In this case, our face is not registering emotion accurately. The most likely culprits are:
Culture. Asian and Eastern European cultures tend to frown on open, loud, and obvious displays of emotion. They are considered rude or vulgar so emotional cues can be more subtle. This is normal for the culture, but may cause confusion in people outside the culture.
Beauty. Some people fear wrinkles and don’t want their face to move, so they don’t smile. If you’ve ever heard your mother say, “Don’t make faces. Your face is going to stick like that,” this is one of those times when this can actually happen. Looks that you practice become habitual. Facial muscles that aren’t used lose tone making it harder to smile naturally.
Deception. Think poker face. People can train themselves to be less expressive. Actors do this all the time. If RBF is chronic, this is not a likely cause. If it’s situational, it’s probably due to deception.
Mental illness. Anxiety, depression, abuse, neglect, and post traumatic stress disorder can do more than mess with your emotions. They can affect the way your face registers emotion. If your face doesn’t register emotional changes, and happiness in particular, this can negatively impact your relationships.

So what’s going on?

In a healthy interaction, a person feels what another person is expressing by simulating it in his own body. The body knows how to do this through vocal intonation cues and facial movement. If someone is smiling and his body language is congruent, the viewer instinctively smiles back. This smile sends the message to the brain, “I am smiling, so everything must be okay.” This indicates that the positive visceral response of the Social Engagement System is activated.

 When a person experiences chronic stress, anxiety, depression or trauma, he loses muscle tone in the middle ear and throat (leading to poor voice intonation and recognition), and face. This leads to poor voice intonation and recognition as well as a flat, unresponsive, RBF appearance that is perceived as hostile. This RBF diminishes our ability to connect with others and experience positive emotions. In other words, mental illness makes you not feel like smiling, so you lose muscle strength. That lack of muscle strength makes it harder to smile. Since people no longer find you easy to be around, you don’t have the social stimulus to smile, so the cycle just perpetuates itself.
What can you do? Well, social engagement calms the sympathetic nervous system. However, if you have RBF, you may not find social interaction all that pleasurable or accessible. Fortunately, there are other things you can do. Here are some suggestions:
  • take acting classes. This provides social engagement that is focused on a task of practicing putting your body through different emotional experiences.
  • playing a wind instrument. This engages the breath. This is essential to a healthy nervous system.
  • playing a percussive instrument. This is aerobic, regulates the heart, and helps to release emotions.
  • chanting, deep breathing or singing. This engages the breath as well.
  • practice relaxing the eyes and mouth. This will strengthen the muscles.
  • move your jaw forward and back. This is another exercise for the jaw.
  • play. Playing relaxes the vagus nerves.
 These suggestions are probably not enough to get you to a place of recovery, but they may help to “thaw” your nervous system out enough to give you some emotional flexibility and better social connection. This can give you the energy and motivation to look into therapies to deepen your healing.
To fix it, you need therapy that unfreezes the fight or flight response. Once this happens, digestion. breathing, and circulation improves. Thinking becomes more flexible. Emotions also have more variability and mood improves. Healing becomes a lot easier. Some symptoms improve spontaneously. If you have pain, this is often a lot better regardless of the cause.
People joke about RBF, but it isn’t funny. Don’t be fooled into thinking that resting bitch face is just the way your face looks. Even if you’ve “always” had a flat appearance, it can change and become more animates. Your emotions and expressions can become more varied, more reflective of your inner state, and give people a way to connect with you.
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