If you were to ask me which part of the body most vividly telegraphs information about our state of emotions, I would have to say it’s the lips. That is not to say the eyes and even the feet don’t reveal emotions—of course they do—but the lips are unique in the way they can reveal sentiments.
In a way, the lips are the human seismograph: Our emotional self is reflected vividly in the quivering lips of nervous excitement, the compressed lips of apprehension or concern, or the dramatic pulling of the pursed lips to the side when we strongly disagree with something. Our lips convey a lot of information at the very moment we are experiencing them, and most of the time we are not even aware of what we are doing, such as when we pinch the corner of one side of our mouth (commissures) as a subconscious sign of contempt or they swell when we are romantically engaged with someone.
When some people are nervous or stressed, their lips will twitch or move about erratically, like a nervous tic or a form of dyskinesia (involuntary muscle movement). Or the lips may visibly distort or contort uncontrollably under emotional turmoil. For those not familiar with this behavior, it can be distracting, but once you realize that this is often induced by stress, it can help you assist others undergoing an emotional situation so you can be more understanding and, hopefully, empathetic.
In some cases, when people are holding back from crying, their lips may quiver, blush red, pout, or vibrate just enough to communicate that they are about to cry or they are emotionally distraught. So, too, when on a first date, the lips may quiver slightly as close proximity and intense eye-to-eye contact can also increase the emotional barometer.
The lips are highly sensitive to touch and temperature—all you have to do is look at a sensory homunculus to see how out of proportion our lips are compared to the rest of the body—but they are also reflective of, and highly reactive to, our emotional states. Rich with nerves and highly vascular, the lips react in real-time to vacillating emotions. So, when people receive bad news or witness a horrific event, the lips quickly stiffen—muscular tension increases and blood constriction takes place to the point the lips may actually look ashen. Under extreme stress, they are compressed tightly together or are pulled into the mouth, and they literally disappear.
Our lips may be silent but they are communicating. Notice how often people may not say anything, but reluctantly or otherwise accept, acknowledge, or agree with something that is said or suggested by compressing their lips together, with the corners of the mouth (commissures) pointed downward like an upside-down U. Robert DeNiro is famous for posing that way and is often imitated that way.
Lip biting, like lip compression, is one of the ways that we pacify ourselves when we are stressed. It helps to relieve tension that may be minor and transitory as is repetitive lip licking with the tongue. And, yes, sometimes a dry mouth will cause us to do these things, but, more often than not, it is a way of attenuating stress. And, speaking of stress, note how often people will pinch their lips, pluck at their lips, or pull on their lips to relieve that stress.
Nervous tension can also cause the lips to move awkwardly or not align properly, or the smile looks tense, forced, or asymmetrical. Again, stress does funny things to the lips. Incidentally, certain drugs (including antidepressants) can also cause buccofacial apraxia in which the lips don’t seem to move, align, or smile with stereotypical symmetry. Unfortunately, these behaviors may be misperceived, and a person may be assumed to be less trustworthy or confident because of these irregularities.
As I noted in What Every BODY Is Saying, the human body reveals in real-time when there is psychological comfort and discomfort, and the lips, the body’s seismograph, can help us to understand that others may be struggling physically or emotionally and may need our attention or empathy. And, while many of us tend to focus on the eyes for information about emotional states, don’t neglect the lips, as they are even more likely to reveal what the heart conceals.
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