I was reading about how people with borderline personality disorder interpret emotion in facial expressions. I came across a study that had found that people with BPD are quite similar to people without any personality disorder in how we perceive emotions in facial expressions, however, those of us with BPD are likely to perceive neutral facial expressions as communicating “negative” emotions*. If someone is not displaying a positive feeling in their expression, we are likely to interpret a negative feeling. Of course, facial expressions are a somewhat personal and subjective thing. Additionally, I am not sure whether the finding was that we tend to interpret the perceived negative emotion as directed at us (eg the person is fed up with us) or as a non-personally-directed emotion (eg the person is sad, the person is frustrated after a bad day). Perhaps the study didn’t differentiate. I must try to revisit the study online and I’ll post a link in the comments if I find it.
Two things rang true to me. First I agree that I’m likely to infer from an expression that isn’t warm / positive that the person feels negatively. I’m not sure whether I actually see the expression as negative, or know it’s neutral (maybe “not letting anything on”) but a neutral expression for me means the person’s feeling is negative. Second, once I interpret a negative emotion (from whatever expression) I will usually be absolutely sure it’s directed at or because of me. Even if there are abundant clues that it’s because of something else, even if logically it can’t be because of me, this is my default assumption. Cue massive guilt and a desperate urgency to put things right. My first thoughts, my deepest emotions, my bodily reactions, are all based on that. Even flashbacks or memories involving deep guilt (where I know I hurt someone in the past) can follow.
This can all happen before any words are spoken.
However, I do the equivalent with speech and writing too. If anything is left open, ambiguous or ignored, I often feel I’ve done something wrong, or caused irritation or anger or displeasure, or that the person doesn’t believe me.
To be continued in Part 2.
* Note: by “negative” I mean feelings like sad, angry and so on. I don’t like using the word “negative” as it suggests something wrong with the feeling. This isn’t what I mean. All feelings are valid. I couldn’t think of another word. Perhaps “unhappy”?