People bite their lower lips for different reasons. To be clear, this article isn’t about the physical or medical reasons for chronic lip biting. It strictly focuses on the psychological reasons behind lip biting.
Specifically, we’ll look at ‘biting your bottom lip’ from the body language perspective. Before you attempt to interpret any body language gesture or facial expression, you need to keep in mind two essential things:
When interpreting nonverbal cues, context is of prime importance. Context is everything surrounding the observed gesture. To figure out the meaning of a gesture, you have to ask yourself questions like:
- What was the gesture a response to?
- Where did I observe the gesture?
- What was the social setting?
- Is the gesture habitual to the person I’m observing?
Answering these questions puts you in a better position to figure out the meaning of a gesture.
2. Accompanying gestures
Some body language signals are strong and sufficient as single signals. For instance, you know a person feels bad when they make a facial expression of sadness. To figure out that they’re sad, observing their lips is enough.
But other gestures are hard to interpret unless you observe them in clusters. You need to see more gestures to verify the meaning you attributed to the single gesture.
For instance, looking at their smile (lips) isn’t enough to deduce that a person is genuinely feeling happy. You also need to look at whether they’re smiling with their eyes (wrinkles around eyes).
How people bite their lips
We’ll focus here on the common facial expression where a person bites their lower lip and keeps it bitten for a while. Other variations of this gesture include biting the lower lip on the inside and biting the upper lip. The latter is less common because it takes more effort.
Biting lower lip: Possible meanings
The possible meanings behind biting one’s lower lip can be grouped under two headings:
People use self-soothing or self-pacifying gestures to comfort themselves when they’re feeling uncomfortable.
a. Anxiety and nervousness
You’ll often observe ‘biting lower lip’ in people who’re feeling anxious. Anxiety and nervousness are uncomfortable emotions. So, it makes sense that anxious people try to comfort themselves with self-soothing gestures.
Anxiety is accompanied by a sense of loss of control. Self-soothing gestures are attempts to restore safety and a sense of control. Like nail-biting, biting their lower lips helps a person to feel in control momentarily.
Their mind’s like:
“I can’t control the situation, but at least I can control how I bite my lower lip.”
That sounds ridiculous, but the mind will do anything to feel in control when it doesn’t feel in control.
Any indecision, insecurity, and inner conflict can induce anxiety and loss of control. So, you can expect people to bite their lower lip when they’re going through internal turmoil.
Accompanying gestures: Fidgeting, finger-tapping, foot-tapping, shaking, restlessness, and defensive body language gestures.
We experience frustration when our goals and expectations are thwarted. Frustration is a very uncomfortable emotion and induces a need for self-soothing.
Accompanying gestures: Slamming objects, screaming, yelling, and other aggressive behaviors.
Confusion is a form of inner conflict but doesn’t necessarily lead to anxiety. Confusion is more a mental than emotional discomfort, meaning that confusion isn’t felt in the body like many other emotions are.
But it is discomfort nonetheless. So, there’s a need for self-soothing. Think of a student trying to solve a complex mathematical problem. As soon as they’re stuck, they stop what they’re doing and bite their lower lip.
Focusing on something for a long time isn’t easy and takes mental resources. When you tax your mental resources, you feel uncomfortable.
Think of that student from the previous example again. Except he’s not solving a math problem now but reflecting on a history chapter. There’s no confusion, no anxiety. Still, he’s taxing his mental resources by thinking about the events of World War 2.
You may see him biting his bottom lip at this point.
People use self-restraining gestures when holding back an emotional display or action. We’re a social species; sometimes, we must be careful about our emotional displays and reactions.
a. Restraining yourself from talking
Say, in a group setting, you think of something clever and sarcastic to say. You want to say it but don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. So you ‘bite your lip’ in an attempt to prevent yourself from saying it.
In this context, biting your lower lip is a way to put brakes on your lips to prevent them from doing what they do, i.e., talk.
The English idiom ‘to bite one’s lip’ aptly means ‘to prevent yourself from showing a reaction’.
b. Containing excitement
Think of alternate scenarios where you want to show a reaction but also don’t want to show it.
One example is being excited but not wanting to show it. There can be many reasons why someone would prefer not to show their excitement. In professional settings, for example, you’re expected to behave professionally, part of which is not showing your excitement.
Of course, some workplaces are easier with this unspoken rule, but you get the idea.
Perhaps the most common example of containing your excitement by biting your lower lip comes from women. It’s common for women to bite their lower lip when they’re crushing on someone.
Why do they do it?
There are many theories, but here’s my take on it:
Crushing over someone is an overwhelming emotion. If you overtly show you’re attracted to someone, you may look like an idiot. Think of men turning their heads in an obvious way and staring at women who catch their eye.
So, hiding your excitement that stems from being attracted to someone is a necessary social behavior. By doing it, you avoid making others uncomfortable.
Men bite their lips this way too. But they look like creeps when they do it. So, they rarely do it publicly. I’ve seen a few guys do it while confessing their desire for a potential partner. Privately, of course.
c. Restraining anger/disapproval
Again, showing your anger or disapproval can get you into a lot of trouble socially. So, often, people feel the need to restrain these reactions and responses by biting their lips.
In the clip below, you see a girl biting her lower lip when she hears a bad, yet funny, pun. She wants to laugh but doesn’t want to laugh because the pun is somewhat amusing but not hilarious.
She’s impressed, but there’s also disapproval thrown in there:
d. Restraining smile and laughter
The clip above is also an example of biting your lips to restrain smiling and laughter.
Can you think of other scenarios where a person might want to restrain their smile or laugh?
It’s a bad idea to smile or laugh at a funeral. So, if someone is brave and antisocial enough to be funny at a funeral, and you want to laugh but don’t want to laugh, you might find yourself biting your lower lip.