Making eye contact has not always been easy for me. I have had a really hard time with this over the years, especially when I was feeling vulnerable to social anxiety.
I remember wishing knew how to make eye contact to appear more ‘normal’ to other people, say at school, work, or with casual acquaintances. But I was afraid. Eye contact freaked me out.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized what a bad habit it had become. I was sitting around the Thanksgiving table with my relatives, and I could not sustain eye contact with my sister-in-law during a back and forth conversation. (I have never been all that comfortable with her and so I’m sure that was the reason why.)
It felt so uncomfortable for me, I remember sort of abruptly ending the conversation. I also remember avoiding engaging in conversation with her for the rest of the evening so it wouldn’t happen again. I don’t know if she noticed or not, but I felt horrible.
After the dinner, I remember going home and mentally beating myself up about it.
I remembered back to high school and college, where people would label me as stuck up or bitchy. I wasn’t. I was scared to death of social interaction- and making eye contact. I suppose as I withdrew into myself, I appeared standoffish to others.
I decided I had to re-learn how to make eye contact. After all, I was functional, I held a job, had a family, and my anxiety was under control for the most part. I was determined to beat this bad habit.
How to Make Eye Contact
If social anxiety makes it hard for you to make eye contact with other people, here are some tips for you that helped me:
Practice where you feel ‘safe’. Make it a habit to meet the gaze of the cashier at the grocery store, or at Dunkin’ Donuts where you get your coffee in the morning. When the store clerk or cashier hands you your coffee, receipt, change or whatever and says thank you, look them straight in the eye and thank them back. Even better, say Thanks, have a great day!”
Notice how other people converse. I wanted my eye contact to appear natural, so I observed other people interacting. Guess what- no one makes 100% eye contact during a conversation. When someone is making a point or telling a story, they will often gaze ‘into space’ while they’re speaking. This taught me that I was off the hook so to speak for at least some of the time when I was speaking.
Practice, practice, practice. Notice when you avoid eye contact. Whenever I noticed I was falling back into my habit of looking away from someone, I had to gently remind myself to keep practicing.
Look Near the Eyes Instead. If making eye contact freaks you out for some reason, try looking at the other person’s bridge- the space between the eyes- instead. They can’t tell, and you’ll feel safer as you practice.
Try Unfocusing Your Eyes. if you’re not standing too close, look at the face as a whole, with your eyes unfocused. Look at the face as one big block rather than made up of eyes, nose, mouth, etc.
Don’t Obsess About it. Interestingly enough, once I stopped focusing how *awful* this habit was, once I stopped obsessing about the problem, I was able to relax. This made a big difference. Once I wasn’t being such a perfectionist about this, it started to take care of itself.
Start Small. If you have been avoiding eye contact for any amount of time, it’s unreasonable to think the habit will go away overnight. Try my little tips and see if they work for you.
Making Eye Contact– Taking it One Step Further
Just for today: I will be agreeable. I will look as well as I can, dress becomingly, keep my voice low, be courteous, criticize not one bit. I won’t find fault with anything, nor try to improve or regulate anybody else but myself. Souce: Al-Anon.org
I had to start with my expression. After being told for years I was stuck up, etc, I checked my expression in the mirror. Guess what? My normal face really did look unhappy and closed off. Probably from years of social anxiety and low self esteem.
It might sound weird, but I practiced trying to look pleasant. I learned how to have a really, really subtle grin on my face.
You would not believe how the people in my life responded, . “Jill, you seem so much happier!”
I even learned that if you have a slight smile on your face, those smile muscles trigger the release of endorphins in your body (the feel good hormones). So if you think you don’t look as friendly as you like or walk around with a blank expression on your face you can try this too.
Do you know having a pleasant face now comes naturally to me? It just goes to show that we really can turn bad habits into good ones if we keep at it!
Do you have any tips to share for how to make eye contact? I’d love to hear what’s helped you!
I wish you peace,
Social Anxiety Secrets is an really effective program I have used and recommend for learning how to make eye contact and getting a good handle on social anxiety. It is written by a doctor who specializes in the treatment of social anxiety and excessive shyness in his full-time private clinic. Read my review here.