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.
Additional tips for dating in a sustainable, semi-nondehumanizing way on and off the apps. Number one: keep your thinking flexible -- be willing to extend trust or revoke it at any time, hold out hope or let it fade, as things change. And as always, actual results may vary. But take what works for you and have fun:
-Pay to subscribe on dating apps occasionally and filter hard by your preferences so that you spend less time swiping through people you find depressing.
-Limit time swiping - once a day, perhaps. Consider only going out with people you’re genuinely excited about/attracted to (unless you’re very avoidant and rarely excited). Or, take a break altogether from dating when burnout is high or you realize you are using it to distract from higher priorities.
-Limit time chatting before meeting. Meet in a (safe) public place asap because a connection over text simply may not translate to IRL chemistry. Waiting can prolong projection and fantasy, or be a sign of anxiety or avoidance that therapy can and should help with.
-If your attachment style is more avoidant, challenge yourself to respond to messages within 24 hours. If you lean more toward anxious/preoccupied attachment, journal first before double-texting to learn where the urgency's coming from.
-If you’re avoidant, try a second date with someone who doesn’t present any red flags, even if you’re not quite feeling it at first. If you’re more anxious/preoccupied, end things and move on if, within two dates, you uncover red flags.
-Do fun things on dates so that even if it’s not a match, it was still time well spent. If you’re a foodie with some money in your pocket try a new, cool restaurant, but otherwise, why not take a (short, non-remote) hike as a first date, or try bubble tea because you still haven’t.
-Do easy things on dates when you’re fried. For example, don’t drive across town at rush hour to meet someone you’re meh about; suggest that you both make a cocktail from scratch at home and share a virtual happy hour.
-Consider making a “dealbreakers” list à la Love Factually by Duana Welch, PhD. These are items without which a relationship would be doomed for you, even if the person had every other thing on the list. For example, if you definitely want children, and s/he doesn’t, it doesn’t matter that s/he’s also smart, kind, funny, and great at oral sex (I know, bummer).
-Meet people in meaningful places, not just via apps. What settings stir the strongest feelings in you — a cultural group, an animal rescue, a meditation center, a Jack Harlow show, a hiking club, your friendly neighborhood sports bar, comics shop, salsa class, or Ta-Nehisi Coates lecture: whatever it is you’re into, look for people there. Even business networking events — if work/career is very important to you, yes, it can and should still be done there, sensitively.
-Not sexy but (sometimes) true: dating can be like job hunting, particularly if you’re in your 30s and wanting children. Just like feeling the burn of bills due and severance running out when you’re funemployed, dating can feel like reproductive musical chairs — hurry up and find someone to join gametes and finances with so you can both sit comfortably down before the music stops. That’s on a bad day. On a good day, love, like work, is deeply meaningful and fulfilling (I know mine is).
-And just like you may randomly be presented with your dream job by your fantasy football friend’s ex-college-roommate’s cousin, you may walk into a coffee shop one day and effortlessly meet The One. But you’re not gonna sit around waiting. Like job hunting, plan on it being a numbers game and a mental strength test, a question of volume, pacing, and coping skills. Approach finding a partner with the meticulousness and drive of an Oscar-winning indie auteur casting the lead of her passion project. Others (especially HSPs) will too, so you’re not gonna get cast in most love stories. This is normal; let this be.
-Develop a growth rather than fixed mindset about dating. It’s not a binary, dating “success” or “failure” thing. You’re building mastery as a dater and honing in on what you want and how to be in a relationship. Learn something and grow from every single encounter (“She reminded me how much I love a sense of humor,” “Wow, he introduced me to reading literary erotica together as foreplay!”, or "Ok so now I know that scheduling dates a month apart is probably a sign of emotional unavailability"). Also try to leave people you date with something positive (for example, even when ending things, let them know clearly and sincerely what you appreciated about your time together).
-Don’t overidentify with the concept of “single.” You are many things beyond it, just as life is about much more than the sum of our paid work. You will enjoy this expansive identity sometimes for weeks at a stretch, and other times, just minutes in a day. Again, focus on growth.
-Accept yourself as whole, perfect, and complete even when single. Self-acceptance doesn’t mean you are trying to stay single (unless that's what you want!), it’s not passive resignation or inaction. It just means that you can hold both sides of the dialectic simultaneously — you accept that you’re not in a relationship at the moment even as you work effectively to change that. Easier blogged than done, but even flashes here and there that you feel at peace with reality — take it! And build from there.
-It can take time for sex to fall into place, to shake off jitters and to learn each other’s bodies and preferences, but there should be a spark and some compatibility from the beginning. Find a reasonable libido match. If sex matters to you, don’t diminish that; you will regret it. And if it doesn’t much, don’t pretend that it does; your partner will be left regretting.
-Find ways to soothe your loneliness. Especially now, with so many folks living alone and working from home… remember that even in your loneliness you are not alone… it’s a friggin epidemic. Try offering a loving kindness meditation to yourself, to all those who swiped right on you when you swiped left, to all beings everywhere because we all want to be loved. Avail yourself of hugs from friends and animals. A warm bath or a weighted blanket and a favorite book or show can feel like a hug when you don’t have one handy. Or seek a body-based trauma treatment like brainspotting, somatic experiencing, or EMDR from a skilled clinician.
-Treat others how you want to be treated. Do no harm. Do not abandon the part of yourself that is patient, wise, and independent. And enjoy the mystery of life unfolding. You’re doing great. :-)
1. The headline is that dating, particularly on the apps, which is currently where most relationships begin, can be a numbers game, and HSPs may simply not pursue enough connections to hit the jackpot. We can be overstimulated by the novelty of matching, chatting with, and meeting new people, and can take it harder when things don’t work out (see rejection sensitive dysphoria). It is wise to be selective and to take breaks from dating to manage vulnerability hangovers and burnout. Also, do not stay in a hopeless relationship simply to avoid having to go back out there and date again. Overall, my zen’s teacher’s advice on pursuing a spiritual path applies here, too: date with “great faith, great doubt, and great determination.”
2. People in first marriages/20s & early 30s will often look for a yin/yang relationship of HSP/non-HSP or introvert/extrovert. We see more HSP pairings in second marriages and/or later-in-life relationships. It can work either way. HSP guru Elaine Aron is married to a non-HSP. But often HSPs seek out other HSPs once they have gained greater self-acceptance and worked to become whole on their own rather than finding a partner to “complete” them.
3. (Healthy) HSPs are typically hardworking, smart, caring, and good at incorporating feedback. I have no doubt that those who commit themselves to dating will eventually find someone. It’s a question of persistence, social and coping skills, and the aforementioned volume.
4. HSPs are often less comfortable dating multiple people at once. Do it anyway, particularly if a clock is ticking, either to start a family or simply to individuate from one’s family of origin. What I mean by “dating” is going out a time or two with a few different people and continuing to chat with others while you see how you feel. If you are not looking to procreate soon and/or are securely attached, then by all means, date as leisurely and exclusively as you please. With more anxious/preoccupied attachment, dating more widely can also help counter the urge to idealize the one person you have something going with.
5. Most HSPs are into sex, they just have to feel comfortable with the person, whether that’s on the first date, the third (most commonly!), or the tenth. This is particular true for high sensation-seeking HSPs and, duh, for higher-libido HSP women and men. If sex is important to you, hold out for a good sexual connection, not just a nice, loving person.
6. On that note, heed Elaine Aron’s advice and don’t pity-date anyone. “Should HSPs be better at detecting and avoiding the deeply troubled?” she writes in The HSP in Love. "We will be better, yes, with experience. But without experience, we may pick up on their powerful needs and want to help without being able to foresee all the consequences of being in a close relationship with them.” Loyalty is a common virtue among HSPs, but as Aristotle said thousands of years ago, “every virtue is a vice in absence and excess.” People need to earn, and may abuse, your loyalty.
7. More on HSPs and boundaries: some use sex to feel comfortable and connected quickly, a kind of sexual bypassing that can be enjoyable but not intimate. Vulnerability is hard but sex is easy, the shock and awe, especially since HSPs are often skilled at sensing what others like. But if things don’t deepen, either emotionally or even sexually (ahem, reciprocal pleasure), move on.
8. HSPs may be either slow texter-backers or fast texter-backers — seems to me to relate more to schedule and attachment style than sensitivity, so interpret carefully and don’t assume, although generally 24 hours is the standard to respond once you’ve been on a date or two.
9. HSPs can be overly detail-focused and susceptible to the joy of getting to know someone new. Yes, it’s nice that he hooks you up with all his olives and pickles, and so cool that he also had a pug growing up and likes the name Jasper for a boy, but this is not a strong foundation for a relationship; you’re fucking high on honeymoon hormones and neurotransmitters. Been there, and I’m happy for you, but… take some deep breaths and try to see things more clearly. What are your core values and dealbreakers?
10. Can be overly focused on details about themselves as well, i.e. hypercritical. Nope, doesn’t matter if you wear black eyeliner or brown on this date, not gonna make or break it. You are trying to put your best foot forward, not a “perfect” foot forward. You want to be appreciated, but for yourself. As Steven Hayes, founder of ACT, says, “when you play false to be accepted, you feel false, even when you are accepted.” If you are struggling to believe anyone could love you as you are, please seek therapy to help re/build healthy self-esteem.
11. Like anyone, HSPs can lose touch with the independent part of ourselves. We are all wired for connection, but we’re not babies anymore, so life no longer literally depends on securing attachment to any one specific person. You have it in you to be whole and complete on your own. Draw on your relationship to yourself, and to all the other love and nurturing available in this world, whether a friend, a therapist, a book, a pet, or preferably all of the above.
12. Remember that most happy couples are made up of people who failed in previous relationships. I know many clients and friends who have gone five or ten years between successful relationships, and not for lack of trying, before eventually finding a great love. Do not succumb to the faulty core belief that you are unloveable. Fuck. That.
13. Did I mention that healthy HSPs tend to be smart, caring, funny, loyal, generous, and hardworking? What’s not to love? Now get out there and meet some people!
As with many of my posts on HSPs, they may apply more or less well to ADHDers and autistic folks too. And as always, actual results may vary! Even people who identify as highly sensitive will be shaped by many other genetic and environmental factors.
Rebecca Robinson, LMFT provides expert online, evidence-based therapy to deep-thinking/deep-feeling adults in California and Pennsylvania.