Join 3,496 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Eye contact :(
May 30, 2014 12:56 PM   Subscribe

I have this weird eye contact problem that has plagued me since I can remember. I find all eye contact in general to be really unpleasantly intimate and intense, but several times a day when I'm talking to someone (both familiar people and strangers), I have a moment of frisson where it feels like I'm boring into their eyes with my own. The freaky part is that every single time I have this experience, it throws the person off--they stammer, look away, close their eyes for longer than just a blink, lose their train of thought, etc. As far as I know, I'm not changing anything about my facial expression--this is all happening somehow within the eye contact realm.

I guess it should be noted that I'm female, middle aged, in the US, possibly somewhere on the spectrum, and have social anxiety and a whole slew of anxiety/trauma/depression issues besides.

But I do also know how eye contact is supposed to work. I definitely don't stare people down. I blink, and glance away from time to time. I do try to maintain a general gaze at them when they're speaking, then look away when I'm speaking. My general observation has been that when someone else is talking you should be looking into their eyes. (The whole trick of not looking directly into their eyes but at their nose or forehead doesn't work for me--I find it distracting in a whole different way.)

When I'm feeling super-comfortable with someone, none of this is an issue. I am listening to the person and thinking about what they're saying rather than paying attention to the ongoing patter in my head that is freaking out about "AAAAH! Eye contact!!!" But I am only this comfortable with a couple of people. For everyone else, including all relatives, acquaintances and coworkers, it's a constant struggle to not do the weird thing with my eyes.

Needless to say, this is severely isolating. I'm convinced people find me to be a stare-y weirdo. I have many other problems connecting with people, but I would say this is currently the biggest of them all.

I've tried to pay attention to others--like, if this is a thing then surely I would notice if other people were doing it as well? I do encounter a wide variety of people every day and some of them do have an intense, unpleasant demeanor about them that does seem tied in to their eye contact/how stare-y they are. So I try really hard to look away frequently when talking with others.

I've also seen therapists about this. I've been too embarrassed to mention this specific problem, but have talked about how eye contact is hard. For some reason, I find it really difficult to discuss when I'm also actually in the process of making eye contact with someone. I don't recall specifically what they told me about this problem, but with none of the therapists I saw did it end up being an ongoing topic of discussion.

After all that explanation, my question would be: does anyone else have this problem? Is there a "cure" for it?

Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
Have you ever tried looking "at" someone's eyes, as opposed to looking "in" to them? It might take some pressure and intensity out of the situation to consider eyes as simply facial features you are allowed to notice - so you spend a quick second noticing they have lovely brown eyes with short lashes, versus a fraught moment of gazing into their soul.
posted by prewar lemonade at 1:14 PM on May 30


I worked with a young autistic woman once and she said her trick was to look at the space in between people's eyes. From their pov you are looking at them and they can't tell the difference. This may be less affronting for you and for them.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:14 PM on May 30 [12 favorites]


I have a moment of frisson where it feels like I'm boring into their eyes with my own. The freaky part is that every single time I have this experience, it throws the person off--they stammer, look away, close their eyes for longer than just a blink, lose their train of thought, etc.

When I'm feeling super-comfortable with someone, none of this is an issue. I am listening to the person and thinking about what they're saying rather than paying attention to the ongoing patter in my head that is freaking out about "AAAAH! Eye contact!!!" But I am only this comfortable with a couple of people.


My best guess: when this happens, the person can tell that part of your brain is elsewhere while your eyes are fully on them. And that mismatch of appearing to be paying full attention when you're actually halfway paying attention sends a mixed message that it takes them a second to try to interpret. They don't know that you're freaking out about eye contact; they don't know what you're thinking. That causes part of their brain to wonder what you're thinking, maybe wonder if you have zoned out and they need to repeat themselves, maybe worry if you're judging them, maybe replay what they just said in their mind to see if they said something "off," and that thought process (which is way more about them, and not really about you) is probably what throws them off-track conversationally.

I don't think paying more attention to getting your gaze exactly right is the answer. Paying more attention to the conversation and less attention to your anxious brainpatter is probably the way go. Keep working on your anxiety in therapy, so that hopefully over time it will take up less brainspace. Maybe try some mindfulness techniques so that when you are conversing with someone, you fully immerse yourself in the sight and sound and feeling and content of the conversation.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 1:15 PM on May 30 [3 favorites]


I'm like this. Talking about it in therapy has helped me worry about it less and focus on conversations more. Also, sunglasses whenever appropriate (:
posted by justjess at 1:17 PM on May 30


One thing I've heard is to look at people's 'third eye', between and above their eyes. Movie stars were instructed to do this to give them an other worldly appearance.

Mouths are good too.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:24 PM on May 30 [3 favorites]


I might know what you're talking about. It seems to me like most people could relate to how eye contact is sometimes awkward. Isn't that like a textbook standup comedy thing that's slightly creepy or funny depending on how you look at it? Everyone's slightly creepy. People who aren't are called saints, and most of them turn out to be even creepier.

The only way I've ever found any peace about it is to accept that my whole behavior is a little erratic—not in any egregrious or cruel way, just a little off—and that calms me down and helps me be less frightening. It also means sort of letting my body do what it wants to do, to some extent, even if it doesn't conform to some imaginary social norm. Often it's not even clear that I behave any less oddly than average.
posted by mbrock at 1:25 PM on May 30 [4 favorites]


I think people are missing this detail from the post: The whole trick of not looking directly into their eyes but at their nose or forehead doesn't work for me--I find it distracting in a whole different way.

I'm also autistic and have had people tell me that my gaze is unsettling (despite doing the same things you do, blinking, looking away frequently, etc). My solution is actually to actively be thinking about something else anytime I have to make eye contact -- the thing that creeps people out seems to be the sense that they have my full attention, which is apparently disturbingly intense, so I mute that a bit by thinking about what I need at the grocery and so forth.
posted by dorque at 1:28 PM on May 30 [5 favorites]


I'm convinced people find me to be a stare-y weirdo.

I think a lot of people don't do the multi-track "Think about the thing you're doing right when you're doing it" which can get into a bit of a feedback loop that can get intense. I hear where you are coming from and I worry about it when I'm talking to men who are not my partner (or family) because I get suddenly "Oh god does this guy think I am hitting on him when I am just trying to be attentive?" and then I fall apart and lose composure.

A thing that helped me was doing some open-eyed meditation and learning to sort of focus and not-focus on some vague middle-place in space (there's a name for this but I'm having a hard time tracking it down) like a relaxed gaze-at-nothing. Since I've practiced that a little bit, I am better at looking at people but not actually staring into their eyes but more "taking in the space where they are in a general sense" which is a bit less intimidating. So like I'm looking at them but not like eyeball-to-eyeball, maybe a little fuzzed or out of focus (to me) but also still being attentive (to them) and then I can sort of space out briefly and then come back to it.
posted by jessamyn at 1:33 PM on May 30 [2 favorites]


I have a moment of frisson where it feels like I'm boring into their eyes with my own. The freaky part is that every single time I have this experience, it throws the person off--they stammer, look away, close their eyes for longer than just a blink, lose their train of thought, etc. As far as I know, I'm not changing anything about my facial expression--this is all happening somehow within the eye contact realm.

I think that you are probably staring too hard - if you feel like your eyes are boring into theirs, you are maintaining direct eye contact for too long. This is confusing, and sometimes threatening, and sometimes too intimate, which is why the person needs to break that eye contact with a stammer, etc. Even a little bit too long is too much.

I don't ever actually notice if someone is staring at my eyes, or the space between - it's not the eye locking that's important, it's your face turned towards theirs and not appearing distracted. What I do notice is direct eye contact and no facial movement for longer than it should be - a second is fine, two seconds maybe, longer than that, and I start to feel uncomfortable.
posted by umwhat at 1:36 PM on May 30 [2 favorites]


I too find eye contact to be a difficult process. Without meds for my ADHD, I tend to stare too hard at the other person while they talk, and can't look at them when I talk. When medicated, I seem far more natural and have figured out how to look people in the face, to read body language, instead of locking eye contact. And learning that process has helped for when the meds have worn off, though I still have to look away while composing speech.

And sometimes I think that other people just aren't used to being actively listened to during normal interaction and it throws them off when they notice that it is happening.

When you notice this happening again, and if you feel the need to comment, you could always say that you're working on inter-personal communication skills and that this stuff is way harder than it says in the book. Making my own personal quirks into jokes at my own expense seems to help a lot in other people being more comfortable with me. I practice with checkout people at the grocery store, too, so there is less investment for me.
posted by monopas at 2:11 PM on May 30 [3 favorites]


I'm like this, but what makes it so much worse is *thinking* about eye contact while making (or not making!) eye contact. It's like thinking about walking while trying to walk, you're going to throw yourself off. I actually recommend against looking somewhere not-quite-the-person's-eyes. You're right, that leads to a different kind of weird self-consciousness.

Somewhere, I read that people actually only look at each others' eyes about 1/3 of the time in conversation. So don't feel like you need to be peering into the person's soul 100% of the time. Maybe instead of looking at people's eyes specifically, try to look at their faces, to read how they're taking what you're saying? You get the most information about how a person is feeling from their mouth, anyway, not their eyes. Then there's the other body language that they're using, that also might or might not have anything to do with their eyes. So if you zero in on the person's eyes, you're actually more likely to misread what they're communicating to you than if you keep your perception open to the sum of what they're doing and saying. You have to pay attention to the whole package, not just the one part of it, while you're trying to understand what someone is communicating.

So I would just aim to read their face (and presence/body) as a whole. Pay attention to what their expression (and body language) is telling you instead of what you're trying to communicate to them with your expression and body language. Also, generally let your body and face do what it wants to do without worrying to much about it, and try not to think about eye contact while in conversation with someone, because you feeling awkward and self-conscious is likely to make the other person feel awkward and self-conscious.

One reason people might get thrown off when you lock eyes with them in conversation is because they aren't necessarily feeling like making eye contact with *you* right when you're choosing to make that eye contact -- they might think you're trying to communicate something specifically to them by making a lot of eye contact when they weren't necessarily trying to communicate anything that it would make sense to respond to through prolonged eye contact, and so they're wondering where the misfire was. They're probably wondering why you're doing it, what you're trying to tell them, and feeling confused or misreading you or wondering if you misread them or they put a foot wrong. So don't force it, because if you do, you're just going to be communicating something you don't mean to by using body language that doesn't actually reflect what you're feeling or trying to say but rather just what you think think is "what people do" in general or in an abstract sense.

Stay in the moment, practice mindfulness, focus on what the other person is communicating to you rather than what you're trying to communicate to them, and let yourself respond naturally to the sum of what they're saying and the sum of how they're communicating it rather than zeroing in on one specific part of that whole.

Also, this isn't something embarrassing to bring up with a therapist if you have one. It's actually a completely normal and ordinary communication thing that lots and lots of people stumble over.
posted by rue72 at 2:12 PM on May 30 [4 favorites]


Look at their forehead just above their nose, people can't tell the difference from a distance. People make a lot less actual eye contact than you think, it's more just glancing than staring. Look at their face and you'll be fine. I hate direct eye contact, have avoided it for as long as I can remember, my mother told me the look at the forehead trick which I have done for at least the past 40 years no one seems to have caught on yet.
posted by wwax at 2:16 PM on May 30 [1 favorite]


This might not apply to you because you might have already passed the time/station in life where you receive a lot of direction and orders, but one time when you *do* want to look directly into someone's eyes is when they're giving you instructions. That's a time when they *want* you to be looking directly and even intently at them, so that they can see that it's registering. So even though it might feel a bit unnatural or awkward, do force yourself to make direct eye contact when someone is trying hard to get something specific across to you, and the whole time he's trying to get that specific thing across to you. I've (finally) learned this the hard way!

Basically, people just want to know that you're understanding what they're saying and that they're understanding what you're saying, and part of the way people communicate that to each other is through body language (including eye contact). So just try to show that you *do* understand what they're saying and try to be clear and direct about what you're saying through your body language. My general rule of thumb is just to try to be a good listener.
posted by rue72 at 2:37 PM on May 30 [1 favorite]


You can also do a sort of offset eye contact, basically looking at their left eye with your left eye or their right with your right. It's less intense than direct two-eyes-to-two-eyes.
posted by needs more cowbell at 9:51 PM on May 30


I can say from just reading what you've written, if someone were generally gazing at me and then we locked eyes, it'd be surprising. But this is not out of the realm of normal in conversation. I've experienced that and more and I don't have problems with eye contact.

I think you're right that intense demeanor can be associated with the eyes. I don't think the problem is so much giving someone your undivided attention as it is undivided attention + discomfort/mania/coldness/whatever that also comes through the gaze. I suppose the best advice is just try to relax. Is there any way you can refuse to indulge in the freaking out eye contact script? If I'm obsessing about something, I will say "NO" to myself in my mind or "STOP." It actually helps me. Maybe try relaxing your face. Are your eyes wide open? Is your jaw tight? Try easing those muscles.
posted by amodelcitizen at 12:23 AM on May 31


I have to say that I feel that you're shooting yourself a foot a bit with this: "My general observation has been that when someone else is talking you should be looking into their eyes". There isn't a concrete rule, and you have decided that something is "correct" and trying to follow that rule you have created, which is making you overthink things, become uncomfortable and make things weird. I would try and just do what's natural for you, and other people will be more at ease when talking to you.

For me, a person who also has social anxieties and can tie myself thoroughly in knots trying to arrange my face when passing a stranger in the street, conversation does not necessitate eye contact, other than the odd glance to "check in". I don't know how people perceive my affect or how it comes across, but I look at my hands, focus on something on the table, or look around the room when I'm talking, with the odd glance at the person if I'm asking them something or otherwise want their input in some way. When someone is talking directly to me I look in their general direction, and their face, but again only occasionally make eye contact. That works for me and keeps me comfortable, and I'm pretty sure I don't come across as rude (maybe a little nervy!)
posted by mymbleth at 5:49 AM on May 31


jessamyn talks a bit in her reply about changing the focal length of your eye--shifting your focus to a different distance. This is how I deal with uncomfortable eye contact. I wonder sometimes if this is too apparent, but it's a lot more comfortable than that boring feeling when you're focused on someone's iris.
posted by Violet Femme at 5:54 AM on May 31


You can't make eye contact with someone who isn't making eye contact back. When the too far bit happens- it happens to both of you at the same time. Let yourself off the hook on this one.

You can't gaze too long into someone's eyes unless they are gazing too long in yours as well.
posted by myselfasme at 7:22 AM on May 31


I get that uncomfortable feeling sometimes too. It seems to come in streaks, where I'll have a day when I just keep having awkward moments of weird eye contact. I think once it happens one time, it puts it on my mind and then I start worrying about it, so then it happens more. So step one might be to worry about it less.

Regarding the idea of looking at someone while they're talking: I find that a lot of times (when I'm feeling natural, not awkward), my gaze will frequently shift slightly off the person, to more of a thousand-mile-stare past their shoulder, as I'm processing something they just said. I'm visualizing something they're describing, or trying to remember something similar, or just saying it again in my head for comprehension, or whatever. They're still talking, but by sort of turning my mental eye inward for a brief second or two, it shows that I'm processing what they're saying and not just examining the specific color of their eyes or whatever. I know it sounds backward, that noticeably taking your attention off someone would convey that you're paying attention to them, but it's really a matter of paying attention to the ideas they're conveying rather than their physical appearance.
posted by vytae at 4:36 PM on May 31


Just now, I was speaking to someone who was having trouble with eye contact and something that he was doing that made conversation very difficult is that he would ask a question, and then as I was answering him, he wouldn't make eye contact. During the answer he would maybe make eye contact through some random part of it, but not at the beginning or end. So I had no idea how any of my answer landed or get a chance to ask him a question. Maybe think of eye contact as a way of passing the baton conversationally, if that helps in terms of timing? When I'm passing you the conversational baton by answering your question, I need to know you're receiving it -- just a check in "baton received" look is fine. Similarly, I'm going to need to check in with you when you're answering my questions to make sure that you just passed me the conversational baton and I'm not interrupting you or your train of thought or anything.

It also occurred to me during that conversation that, because we weren't "passing the baton" through eye contact, it was really confusing for me when I was supposed to be speaking and when he was supposed to be speaking and so the conversation was much more halting and stammering than it normally would be. I'm not someone who usually a problem making chit-chat with just anyone, but I hadn't realized how much I rely on eye-contact check-ins to get a sense of the conversational back-and-forth, until I was consciously trying to make conversation without it just now.

Anyway, it was fine and I didn't think badly about him or have a problem but I'm sure that I had a sort of "adrift" look on my face and I did stammer a bit from time to time in that (not very long) convo , and it reminded me of how you (OP) say people sometimes react to you. But the "adrift-ness" was because I was feeling a sort of "oh wait, am I the one continuing the conversation now?" off-kilter sense, because he was making eye contact at kind of random times instead of in sync with how the conversation was getting handed off back and forth, and not because he was coming off as intense or weird or anything. Hopefully that's helpful?!
posted by rue72 at 10:38 AM on June 5


« Older Today, the property manager an...   |  Found a weird, cool dress I'd ... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments