As I continue to read Tomkins and Nathanson, focusing on the human face as the seat of our affects, I’m reminded of clients from long ago whom I didn’t fully understand at the time. In particular, I think of Noah and the completely deaded facial expression he presented throughout every session. If I were still working with Noah, I would say to him, “You’re terrified that I might read your shame in your face, so to stop me, you keep your expession flat and fixed, immobile so it won’t give anything away.”
Vanessa, one of my current clients, begins her sessions with a flat facial expression that conveys indifference. I don’t think it’s about hiding shame, not in the way Noah used to do, but it’s related. Allowing her face to reveal that she’s glad to see me, that she might have been looking forward to our session, feels unbearably vulnerable. She’s afraid to smile. What if I didn’t smile back? In a microcosm, it’s the problem of unrequited love, once again. Core shame results when mother repeatedly fails to reciprocate the baby’s joy in her. Could anything be more excruciatingly painful?