I’ve done a few degrees, but I think I am now doing a post-doc in eyebrows. I never really thought much about eyebrows, really. They are just kinda there, aren’t they? The first time I paid attention to eyebrows was with my dad, whose eyebrows are, I admit, quite impressive. While he has precious little hair on his head, he makes up for that in the eyebrow department and they tend to look like flirtatious window dressing for his eye glasses. I recall talking to one of his neighbours who confided to me: “Your dad has the sexiest eyebrows.” Really? Eyebrows can be sexy?
The second time I really paid attention to eyebrows was when my partner and I were on a ‘dog free’ vacation in the interior of British Columbia (Canada). My RO DBT colleagues and clients know that I am very fond of dogs and spend a considerable amount of time dedicated to volunteer pet therapy and often have a canine co-therapist in my practice. However, for this vacation we were blissfully dog free – not a dog bowl, leash or poop bag to be found in our mini-van bought for said dogs. Agh, but what was found? The conversation kinda went like this:
Nicole: “Honey slow down! Is that a coyote running across the highway up there?”
Deanne: “Oh dear. That is not a coyote; that is a dog.”
It was a dog alright. Scared, starved and stinky. While it is outside the scope of this blog to get into the details of the actual rescue, suffice to say we suddenly had a feral dog on our hands. And the first thing we did when we got back to Victoria was to call our dog trainer:
Sherry: “Ok, so this might be some work. Prior to me getting there, just make sure to look at her eyebrows.”
Nicole: “Dogs have eyebrows??”
Sherry: “Well not technically, but look for movement in her face, especially above the eyes; this will the clue that she is feeling safe.”
So, we spent a couple of days really investigating facial movements. Frozen? Deer in the headlights? Relaxed? To out myself, however, I was probably staring intently at her to ascertain this which I would soon learn is counterproductive.
A month after we found Willow, or Feral Fawcett as she is sometimes called, I was off to my first RO DBT intensive as a delegate. I debated cancelling as we had a lot on our plate with 5 resident animals and the new addition. But thankfully I did not, as my third introduction to the importance of eyebrows came in this first intensive. Thomas Lynch and Erica Smith–Lynch, who were facilitating, spoke of eyebrow wags (e.g. raised eyebrows) and the universal social signal of cooperation this sends. Specifically, they also spoke to how this was critical in activating social safety in both ‘eyebrow wagger’ and ‘wagger receiver.’
In RO DBT we teach eyebrow wags early on in our curriculum to get our clients practicing inside AND outside skills class. We teach the fun fact that we have 10000 facial movements available in our repertoire but we normally only use 100. In my experience, some clients are reluctant to believe that the raised eyebrows will actually work as a powerful social signal or believe that it will be reciprocated. That’s also why as skills instructors we are modelling it – to activate the social safety of those in the class and ourselves – and to give the message, “hey, I like you and you are in my tribe.” Of course, there are many other social signals we model and teach, but the eye brow wag and the exercises we practice associated with it allow clients to viscerally experience the difference between a threat state (frozen or flat face) and a safety state (open expression). It has been my experience it is one of the pro-social signals that is a great ‘take away’ for my OC clients. In the words of one reluctant client, “this eyebrow shit really works.”
So my challenge to you is to practice your eyebrow wags. Side effects may include smiling, a sense of calm, and feeling friendly. You may also experience people in your vicinity being kinder to you, offering to help you and generally being more engaged. Of course, if you are a member of the Little family, side effects may also include bushy eyebrows. While I can’t discern whether bushy eyebrows are sexy per say, they are a powerful social signal of cooperation when they are raised.
About the author: J. Nicole Little, Ph.D., R.C.C.
Nicole is a therapist specializing in eating disorders and other conditions of overcontrol in Victoria, B.C., Canada. She has also taught for 13 years at Universities and colleges. Her passions are RO DBT and animal assisted therapy.