A lot has changed for us in the current era, as the pandemic upends many things we once took for granted. One of the most significant changes has been with communication of all kinds; text, phone, video, and even in-person wearing masks all impede communication as many of us once knew it. And with our mouths covered, expressing concepts with our eyes becomes more important- just ask Deadpool and Spider-Man. A lot can be communicated through eye contact, or lack thereof- not always what’s intended though. People with social anxiety, autism, and other traits and illnesses struggle to make eye contact because they find it overwhelming. Alternatively, some people just have a lot on their minds. Usually it’s out of some kind of withdrawal, and that withdrawal may be due to a temporary affliction, a trait the person has, or the situation they’re in. Some who don’t understand the myriad of reasons for a lack of eye contact may misread it as a lack of trust, as a sign that someone is hiding something, that they’re disinterested or don’t want to be there, and so on. It’s for the best that we all know the many reasons why someone may avoid eye contact or have trouble establishing it in the first place. Although there are indeed plenty of reasons someone would avoid eye contact that have nothing to do with their own struggles, this article focuses just on those internal situations- specifically, things to consider before assuming someone is being untrustworthy or rude.
Something is troubling them
Miscommunication from a lack of consistent eye contact is often because someone views another as hiding something, and actually that can be the case. However, what someone is hiding isn’t always something judgmental or negative. People who are dealing with suffering in some form will often avoid eye contact as they attempt to hide what’s getting them down. Depending on the situation they may be in the right- for instance, if someone is at work and has something making their life difficult at home, they may have decided to focus on work in order to keep it from affecting their job. Other times it may be because they don’t feel comfortable discussing it- maybe they don’t know the people around them well enough, or maybe they don’t want to bring the mood down. In those cases it may be good to consider whether or not to lend an ear or a shoulder to cry on, or at the very least, ask how they’re doing, but you should also understand when someone needs space.
Eye contact is too overpowering
This one I personally experienced for much of my youth. Eye contact is incredibly powerful and can make someone feel vulnerable, exposed, judged, and nervous. As the Functional Neurology Center summarizes, this is particularly true for people on the autism spectrum, or who have PTSD or C-PTSD (but we can’t diagnose you and you shouldn’t diagnose yourself, if you suspect you have any of these, talk to a licensed professional.) With that mentality, making eye contact with everyday people can be overpowering. Many only feel comfortable making eye contact with people they’re very familiar with. If you’ve heard of the “battery analogy” involving introverts- that introverted people need time to “recharge” after social interactions- you’ve got a head start in understanding this one. If the introvert is a smartphone, and regular social interaction is a series of texts, making consistent eye contact is like a high-def video call. It’s much more socially invigorating, sure, but it also drains the battery incredibly fast. If you go to a gathering of some sort and people are standing around and talking, if you look around at people that have been there for a couple hours you’ll notice some who may seem withdrawn and tired. They may be introverts who have worn out their capacity for eye contact for the night. Others may have avoided eye contact the whole time or limited it to people they know well already because they’re pacing themselves.
They have a different intimacy threshold, or have intimacy difficulties
As mentioned, eye contact can feel very intimate and vulnerable. While this commonly makes things difficult for people with social anxiety, it can also impact people with issues involving intimacy. It can even be difficult to tell the difference. Eye contact can be unexpectedly divisive without even being discussed; the right amount of eye contact to one person will seem intense and creepy to someone else, and the right amount to someone else may seem avoidant. Keep in mind that everyone has their own threshold. Intimacy issues are deeply personal and strong, and because eye contact is such a powerful form of interaction, people with intimacy issues may simply see it as too much to bear.
Sometimes eye contact can worsen social anxiety
I mentioned how overwhelming eye contact can be for people with social anxiety, but it’s worth pointing out how it can actively make social anxiety more difficult. Consider it from a vulnerability perspective; say you’re nervous and in a new area with people you barely know. You’re already anxious but you want to make a good impression, so you force yourself to squeeze in some moments of eye contact before your eyes dart away. For some this may actually make them less afraid, but for people with more clinical forms of anxiety it can make them feel even more exposed, overwhelmed and nervous. They’re working so hard against their social anxiety and it’s wearing them out. If someone’s done this a lot, they’ll either improve their eye contact habits or they’ll just have a better understanding of their limits and limit eye contact to when it’s easier or most important. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, be sure to check with a doctor or therapist before drawing any conclusions.
It’s hard to think when making eye contact
As illustrated above, eye contact can change depending on the situation. Take an introspective person, for instance. All you know about them is that they’re very introverted. Their reasons for not making eye contact can be because they’re deep in thought or because they aren’t comfortable making a lot of eye contact. That goes both ways- people who are more avoidant will also be more open to looking someone in the face when their eyes are averted. This one’s probably the easiest to deal with in a social setting because we’ve all seen it in movies and TV; two people are talking, the conversation goes in a heavy direction, and one person stares off into the middle distance as they recount an experience they had. It’s often very dramatic, but in reality it can be totally mundane. Anything requiring some amount of thought could result in the speaker averting eye contact in order to keep their thoughts in line. Unfortunately, this can be misinterpreted as someone looking off to think up a lie. Cases like this are where issues about lie detection techniques can come up for debate, but it’s safe to say that you shouldn’t assume someone’s lying until you have a substantial, evidence-based reason to believe so.
They have low self-esteem
An important factor in eye contact is just how vulnerable someone can feel. The reasons people may view this behavior as untrustworthy are essentially the same reasons someone with low self-esteem may avoid eye contact. They perceive a lot of flaws, possibly even wrongdoing, within themselves and are afraid you’ll see them for the “fraud” or “screw-up” they think they are. If you have a reason to believe they’re avoidant out of low self-esteem, reassuring and validating them can aid the conversation as well as their whole day if you do it right. This is one of those things much easier to pick up on if you actually know them, but if you don’t, defaulting to compassion is always a good plan.
How do you feel about eye contact? Do you find it overwhelming, or do you feel like you need it to properly engage in conversation? And if you feel like there’s anything missing, definitely let us know in the comments!
If you relate to this article and you suspect that your lack of eye-contact may be due to a condition that requires proper diagnosing like anxiety or PTSD, seek advice from a licensed mental health professional before drawing any conclusions.
Four reasons why eye contact can cause brain overstimulation. (2020, June 25). Retrieved February 23, 2021, from https://thefnc.com/research/four-reasons-why-eye-contact-can-cause-brain-overstimulation/
Cuncic, A. (2020, November 9). How to Overcome Eye Contact Anxiety. Retrieved February 22, 2021, from https://www.verywellmind.com/how-do-i-maintain-good-eye-contact-3024392