Why is eye contact so scary to me?
July 15, 2013 3:39 PM   Subscribe

I've recently realized that I rarely make eye contact with people, so I've been trying to get better by consciously remembering to do it in conversation. But, why is it when I do make eye contact with people, it's terrifying?

When I do make eye contact, I can feel my heart jump and it feels like the person's gaze is piercing into my soul or something. This happens more when I try making eye contact with people I know, rather than with strangers. As an aside, my constant internal monitoring about when/how to make eye contact with people as they're talking makes it really difficult to listen to what they're saying. How do I get past this?
posted by averageamateur to Human Relations (22 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Social anxiety treatments can include therapy and medication. It is definitely treatable.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:45 PM on July 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You could try and stare at the bridge of their nose or some other part of their body. I wouldn't jump on the whole "I need a counselor!" or "I need pharmomedication!" bridge. You don't need counselor Troy to tell you this is a pretty normal thing actually. A whole lot of animals see direct eye contact as provocation to a fight, and truth be told, I find direct eye contact or people who do the whole "play eye games to catch my eye" thing, to be pretty rude. I don't LIKE looking into someone's eyes. It's distracting and I feel provoked (especially when I had shitty MBA bosses).

Overall, you can get over it if you want, but it's pretty normal. Don't freak out. Go outside and play for a while and don't worry.
posted by ishrinkmajeans at 3:51 PM on July 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

Your mission is to identify the color of one friend's or colleague's eyes today.
posted by jander03 at 3:52 PM on July 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

When you make eye contact, you're not trying to stare into someone's eyes. That is almost always unsettling, because your mind makes up all sorts of ideas about why they're looking at you. What you're really trying to do with eye contact is just make face contact. You're trying to see- hey, did they laugh at my joke? Did the corners of their eyes wrinkle when they said that? Just read their faces and you'll make natural eye contact from time to time without having to think about it consciously.
posted by thewumpusisdead at 4:00 PM on July 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

I LOATHE making eye contact with people. LOATHE it. I will go out of my way to position myself in relation to others so eye contact isn't necessary. For me this stems from the fact that I am extremely self conscious about the state of my face and about myself in general. Maybe it would help you to mentally affirm over an over that you are okay whenever you need to make eye contact with people (and you do; don't be like me) as a way of coaxing yourself into feeling okay when ever it happens?
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 4:02 PM on July 15, 2013

Time and practice will help. When you make eye contact, you're getting a LOT more social information than you're used to. You're also sending signals more directly and you're probably not comfortable with doing that yet, at least in that way. You're putting things more on record, so to speak. You're saying, "Hey, hi! I'm available and super present and very much listening." You may have been doing all that before, but it's very different to unabashedly send those messages with direct eye contact. You're opening yourself up to a lot more intimacy. And extending an offer for more. It's good. But it takes some time to do that with natural ease.

(I'm a lip reader, myself. But lately I've been trying to make more eye contact as well. I know what you're feeling, and it's really intense!)
posted by iamkimiam at 4:23 PM on July 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

Start with looking at their mouths while they speak or in the middle of their forehead, with the middle of the forehead it will look to them like you are making eye contact and you won't feel so uncomfortable. Also you'll find most people don't look at peoples eyes all the time while they are talking they glance and look away.

To be honest I hate making eye contact and settle for somewhere on their face if I like them, and in their general direction if it's just an acquaintance, I get told I am friendly and outgoing all the time so you can overcome this body language handicap if you concentrate on making sure the rest of you body language is nice and open and friendly.
posted by wwax at 4:32 PM on July 15, 2013

Best answer: Eye contact is connected to intimacy. How are you with people in general? Perhaps it feels like someone getting too close to you when you make eye contact with them, hence the "seeing into your soul" feeling. The flipside of that is the way lovers stare into each others eyes. So it's not uncommon to shy away from eye contact, particularly if you are self conscious, anxious, have low self esteem or trust issues. I'm always a proponent of thetdpy, tbh (who doesn't have something they'd like to work on?) but I'm not necessarily saying that. Just that maybe it might be worth considering why you find it difficult on a deeper level.

On a practical level, if you find it difficult then don't force yourself. You're not in competition, there is no normal, you have a right to find it difficult. If you want to, just try glancing at someone in the eye now and then as you're talking, every couple of sentences or so, to give some sensation of eye contact without having to hold a steady gaze. It also might be helpful to look "at" their eyes rather than "into" them. So while you're making eye contact instead of thinking "EYE CONTACT!", notice the colour, shape, eyebrows, lashes etc to remove yourself a little and make it feel a bit less intense.
posted by billiebee at 4:35 PM on July 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

All you can do is keep on doing it until it gets less scary. Eventually, you'll get used to the sensations you feel when making eye contact. Doing more eye contact with strangers will help you get used to it, but don't save doing it with people you know until you feel more used to it.

If it helps you keep on doing it to tell yourself this or that, or look at the bridge of the nose, or note their eyecolor, or something, do that.
posted by yohko at 4:49 PM on July 15, 2013

I think I mostly watch people's lips, actually. And I don't think it's a problem vis a vis social interaction. It's not clear you need (or should!) be actually staring into people's eyes all the time.

But you could try watching their face, and occasionally briefly check in at their eyes.
posted by leahwrenn at 4:52 PM on July 15, 2013

Sometimes it's easier to do sort of offset eye contact, so that you're not staring at them directly in the face but one of your eyes is about lined up with one of their eyes (if that makes sense.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 4:58 PM on July 15, 2013

maybe think of eye contact like talking since it really is another form of communication. i'm guessing you've had some bad experience with it in the past, but be patient with yourself as you practice this. i think it will really aid in your communication skills as it is a bit unsettling for the other person if you aren't looking at them a good bit of the time. you could try focusing on a person's cheekbone rather than directly look into their eye if it's too unsettling.
posted by wildflower at 5:04 PM on July 15, 2013

I was raised in a culture where people don't make eye contact as much as Americans. So I sometimes remind myself to do that. But I just say to myself Oh it's uncomfortable for me because I have a different culture. Would that help you to frame it that way? It's not uncomfortable because of some human defect but because of what you learned as a child.
posted by SyraCarol at 5:20 PM on July 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

When I do make eye contact, I can feel my heart jump and it feels like the person's gaze is piercing into my soul or something.

Sure, that's exactly why it's terrifying! Like they know exactly what you're thinking. When I was a little kid, and even well through college, I felt the same way. I'd also have intrusive thoughts and that would make things worse. For example, I'd look into my teacher's eyes and all of a sudden picture myself slapping her, and then feel shame that she knew I was picturing that! (Not to minimize your fears here, just to illustrate the extent of the fear of other people seeing into your head.)

The other tips here are great. I read in Cosmo or somesuch the trick of treating people's eyes and nose as a triangle and letting your eyes switch between the three points, which helped me a lot. Nowadays, I usually focus on their brows when actual eye contact feels too overwhelming. I also picked up blinking slowly from interacting with my cat (I know... :) ) and found it very calming.
posted by Recliner of Rage at 5:29 PM on July 15, 2013

I have the same problem. A nice healthy dose of Zoloft made it disappear. While on the zoloft, I made it a point to get in the habit of looking people in the eye and sort of "learning" the skill that I never learned because I was so anxious. Now I'm off the Zoloft and some of the anxiety did come back, I know what it is and can account for it.

Like one crutch I do is to look away when I'm trying to think of a word or remember some detail. And then reengage once I remember it. This signals that my eye contact, or lack thereof, isn't a social disrespect onto them, but just that I need to turn my eyes off to think sometimes.

Eye contact isn't *that* important. What's important is being engaged in the conversation. Eye contact is just one of the ways we do that. So start with a minimum, like a warm hello with nice brief eye contact.

(Also, it is amazing how people respond to just the most limited eye contact. It's almost a magnetism thing. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a cashier or someone like that just light up and completely change their attitude (from bored robot to friendly and engaged) by simply looking them in their eyes and saying hello. It is sometimes frightening, but so are roller coasters. Enjoy the adrenalin!)
posted by gjc at 5:58 PM on July 15, 2013

Best answer: I also find eye-contact scary. For me the reason is that it makes the conversation/relationship too REAL. Too immediate. It's like as if someone suddenly "broke the fourth wall" of our interaction and just started blurting out: "We are in a relationship. We are different people trying to get along together. I am me and you are you. We are physically and emotionally close to eachother." AWKWARD! I don't know if that makes any sense to anyone else -- but that's the best way I can describe how eye-contact makes me feel. It's just calling attention to the pink elephant in the room: the sometimes painful fact that were are two different animals trying desperately to relate to each other.

As for how to live life amid eye-contact squeamishness? I don't generally worry too much about it. I used to worry about it in romantic relationships before I got married -- my solution then was that I employed the "triangulation" technique: looking only briefly at one eye, then the other, then the mouth, and around and around. However, my understanding of this was that it signaled to the person you're looking at that you were actively "checking them out" and especially the looking at their mouth part was supposed to be suggestive and seductive. So I never used this on just friends or like, my dad or anything. Creepy.

Nope, for everyone other than romantic interests I just made due with my standby which is looking up and away into the distance while I'm talking (I can't think straight enough to form words if I'm looking at a face) and then making *quick* glances at the person's face while they were talking, punctuated with glances behind them, down at my hands, etc. But really I don't try to force anything. If I did, I'd have bad conversations fraught with panic/lack of focus as you describe when trying to deliberately look people the eye.

I know a lot of this makes me sound like a lunatic, so you'll just have to take it on faith that I am a perfectly normal person with lots of great friends and loved ones who enjoy talking to me and probably find my hesitant gaze to be a familiar and endearing part of my personality. I'm sure, despite your worries, that your loved ones feel the same way about you. I'd work on it if it seems fun to do, but otherwise don't sweat it. Use your energy on making good jokes or something instead.
posted by RingerChopChop at 6:43 PM on July 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I loathe eye contact too, particularly in casual conversation with somebody. If they keep looking in my eyes I get more and more evasive until I end the conversation. It's a particularly Western ideal of openness from what I can gather.

I look people in the face, just not the eyes. I've been practicing on friends and family recently but it still feels weird.
posted by geek anachronism at 6:52 PM on July 15, 2013

Are you on the spectrum? I read a memoir by someone who is who was helped by tinted lenses.
posted by brujita at 7:01 PM on July 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

For me, eye contact feels very invasive. I'm only comfortable with eye contact if I know the person really well. Otherwise, I look at their forehead or nose -- they can't tell the difference. If you really want to get better at it (and I have, so it's possible), gradually increase the amount of "true" eye contact (looking at eyes, not forehead/nose) during the course of a conversation. When this becomes difficult, go back to looking at forehead/nose. Do this during as many conversations as possible until you can spend most of the time making true eye contact. It may never feel natural to you, but it will gradually become less scary.
posted by phoenix_rising at 7:21 PM on July 15, 2013

I don't like it either. I'm fine when listening, but I can't concentrate on what I'm saying while making eye contact very well.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 3:27 AM on July 16, 2013

Just another voice adding that you're far from alone in this. Eye contact feels very invasive and uncomfortable to me, and to this day I don't like it. Even with someone I'm intimate with, it feels difficult, and I can't keep it up for long. There may be a cultural aspect to this - I'm British, and if you look directly at people here for just a bit too long you may well get a "what the hell are you staring at?" reaction. However, it also feels like it's something to do with social awkwardness and lack of confidence on my part.

I definitely had to work on it a bit when I lived in the US, where it seemed to be seen as rather rude not to make eye contact during conversation. I never really mastered it but I found that by making brief eye contact just every now and then, it seemed to achieve an acceptable compromise between the expectations of the people I talked to and my own discomfort.
posted by Decani at 6:02 AM on July 16, 2013

I am also completely uncomfortable with human eye contact. I'm fine with animals and babies but not much more.

In yoga, twice now, I have been asked to gaze into another persons eyes for about a minute. Oh good god, it was horrible the first time. It wasn't as bad the second time. Since then I have been wanting to become more comfortable with it.

I have a new game I've been playing. It seems to help. I started with animals. I look them in the eye and mentally say, "I see you". Almost like an acknowledgement that I see their aliveness and respect it. And they seem to acknowledge it back. It's kind of cool, really. I could go into something spiritual here, but that is probably way too overboard for this discussion. Ha!

So I played the game today with, gasp, an adult human! It was a little awkward, but he was kind and obviously very practiced. I'm looking forward to playing this game again. Isn't life weird?
posted by icanbreathe at 9:26 PM on July 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

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