Many of my clients identify as highly sensitive, many have social anxiety, and some identify as being autistic and/or ADHDers. In all of these cases, eye contact, also commonly referred to as two-way gaze in scientific research, can be a bit much at times, whether in therapy or elsewhere. Here are a few fun facts and insidious myths about eye contact.
Fact: The same part of our brain that processes language, processes eye contact.
Actually, eye contact activates many, many structures in the “social brain.” So as long as you’re looking at someone, some of your attention/processing power is devoted to that and less available to process language, i.e. listen and talk coherently. Perhaps this is partly why Freud had his patients stare at the ceiling, prone on a couch, rather than upright, face-to-face. (That being said, for most therapy clients today, sustained absence of eye contact with a provider feels lacking). Researchers have also shown that performance on visual-spatial tasks is decreased when you're simultaneously tracking eye contact. So give yourself permission to look away now and again, in therapy or elsewhere -- it may allow you to think straighter.
Fact: Most mammals generally interpret direct direct gaze as threatening.
This is why your cat relaxes when you slow-blink rather than stare at him and why your dog avoids your eyes after she shit the rug. Even in other human cultures eye contact may be interpreted as impolite (as it frequently is in many East Asian societies). However in the U.S. today, the stereotype is that only a "look 'em straight in the eye"-style gaze commands respect. Be on the lookout for other types who enjoy less direct gaze — they exist! But also recognize that some contexts require more eye contact to make your point. And even when looking away there are options. The excellent Assertiveness Workbook (Paterson, 2000) suggests sometimes looking up rather than down when you do avert your eyes because it reads as more “confident.”
Fact: For people with social anxiety, time slows down during eye contact — it feels longer to them than it really is (sure did for me, up to my 30s). This is fun when you’re getting lost in your lover’s eyes and less fun when you’re blanking out staring at your boss during a presentation. Also, participants with social anxiety show a wider gaze cone, i.e., they are more likely to perceive averted gazes as being directed at them. For highly sensitive people with greater-than-average threat sensitivity, this is quite the recipe for awkwardness (insert meme/gif here). Social anxiety treatment often involves education about these biases in an effort to correct them, for example, dimming the “spotlight effect,” or proposing that perhaps your friend’s blank expression isn’t about you but rather he is trying to hold in a fart.
Myth: People who avoid eye contact are antisocial.
When you’re sensitive, a little goes a long way. Just the opening strains of the national anthem at a spring-evening high school baseball game will choke me up a little. Same for eye contact. It’s not that I don’t like it, it’s that… a little goes a long way, in part because I love people so much. The effect is especially pronounced in new situations -- when I'm meeting a new person, the influx of novel stimuli to process mean my brain wants to look away at times in order to limit the tide of information. Later in the relationship with the same person, eye contact is no biggie.
Although currently there isn’t any actual HSP-specific eye contact research, there is some about people with social anxiety or autism (while even those authors acknowledge it’s impossible to completely disentangle SAD and ASD). With social anxiety disorder, the hypothesis is vigilance-avoidance: that is, SAD folks pay more attention to and avoid eye contact more than neurotypical folks, because they are on the lookout for signs of negative evaluation. With autism, there is little consensus on the intention of gaze avoidance — whether it is in fact aversion or indifference. I recall watching footage from a study long ago that showed an autistic person looking at architectural details during the climactic scene of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf rather than Elizabeth Taylor’s face. That behavior could signify a lack of interest in the film's social-emotional content OR interest along with a desire to titrate its masterful intensity.
Myth: People who avoid eye contact have a disorder.
Firstly, we all occasionally avoid eye contact (as with the Save The Kids/Animals/World person outside Whole Foods). Secondly, mental diagnoses are codified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, in line with a medical model. The DSM is an important part of securing funding for research and insurance coverage for treatment. Beyond that, the medical model has serious limitations and flaws. The DSM itself a living document currently in its sixth revision, so who knows what the future holds. The neurodiversity movement is a reaction to the medical model that aims to destigmatize differences such as eye contact preference that aren't inherent functional limitations. To paraphrase HSP researcher Elaine Aron, it's not inherently difficult to be highly sensitive; it's that the world was built to suit the non-HSP majority.
Myth: We know a lot about how the brain processes eye contact/gaze/eye position.
Hahaha. We know as much about the brain as about outer space. We don’t even fully know why EMDR and Brainspotting, two research-backed trauma treatment modalities that hinge on gaze, work. Surely new and even better treatments will emerge as we further explore the mysterious interplay between client and therapist eye contact: the safe, holding gaze that the social brain requires as well as the relief we all occasionally crave in order to access other states of mind.
Rebecca Robinson, LMFT provides expert online, evidence-based therapy to deep-thinking/deep-feeling adults in California and Pennsylvania.