When I was a young child, my mother always remarked upon how easily I picked up on the slightest emotional signals she, and others, displayed (such as a tiny change in expression, a very slight change in tone of voice, subtle variations of body language etc). What both she (I presume) and I were unaware of at the time was that she herself was responsible (but, alas, not in a good way) for this ‘sixth sense’ (as she also sometimes referred to it).
I make this assertion because it has become clear to me now that I developed this ‘talent’ (I put that word in inverted commas because it is rather a mixed blessing) as a survival mechanism. As I have written elsewhere on this site, my mother was extremely emotionally volatile, prone to intense rages and expressions of unadulterated, poisonous hatred which threatened to (or, indeed, succeeded in) the psychological destruction of the child. Furthermore, such hysterical outbursts were highly unpredictable.
You can see, then, where this is going: it was necessary for me to be on constant ‘red alert’ for any sign that my mother was about to succumb to one of these tyrannical fits in order to give myself a chance of taking some sort of evasive action (which, sadly, was all too often not possible). This state of ‘red alert’ was not entered into as a result of a conscious decision, of course, but was unconsciously activated as a psychological defence mechanism; such a state is sometimes referred to as hypervigilance (which is also a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and of Complex PTSD) or as ‘interpersonal sensitivity‘.
To talk in more general terms, many people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) who have been subject to such psychological abuse as children may have learned to, and, consequently, become neurologically hard-wired to, pick up on the cues of others so as to emotionally protect themselves.
However, there is experimental evidence to suggest that this ability to ‘read’ others can err too much on the side of caution and generate ‘false positives’ as has been demonstrated in an experiment that showed that those suffering from borderline personality disorder were more likely to interpret neutral facial expressions as hostile and angry facial expressions (click here to read my previously published article about this particular study).
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE),