“Discover the Power of Eye Contact” that was the title heading on a flyer I recently saw at Portland State University. The flyer advertised the ‘amazing skill’ one could learn if they attended the one day workshop. Initially, I thought it was a joke, then realized that, this skill is . . . no joke.
As a part-time college instructor, I walk through a hallway, full of students waiting to enter class, and it is very quiet. No one is making eye-contact. As I scan the scene, I see blank faces looking at screens. This blank stare is referred to in the field of Psychology as ‘flat affect’.
It’s no wonder someone is marketing these students to attend an eye-contact workshop.
The ability to make eye-contact is an essential developmental skill which is learned from our parents or caretakers when we are infants. Eye contact is a nonverbal behavior which is subsequently reinforced through our subculture as well as the larger cultural environment.
In addition, eye contact has a salient power, and is an immediate way in which we can make a connection to others.
This interactional skill, is in our evolutionary heritage, as evidenced by a specific area in the brain, which is totally devoted to facial recognition. Specifically, the right hemisphere of our brain holds the ability to recognize faces, as well as the skill to read emotional expressions of others. To illustrate, when you make eye contact and look at someone’s face, your brain perceives these nonverbal signals and then responds. In a flash of a second or two, you can identify if someone is communicating interest, surprise, fear, disgust or joy.
Moreover, when we encounter anything new in our environment, say someone’s face, we hold a variety of internal, mixed emotions. We may find the experience of meeting someone’s gaze, or fleeting eye contact as exciting or titillating.
Conversely, we can be overwhelmed with new experiences and people. For example, when we see a person who we perceive as different from us by age, ethnicity, or cultural background, we may experience other feelings. We may feel unsettled or uncomfortable to initiate eye contact, or conversely, agitated at receiving a look. The unpredictable nature of the situation, can be stressful or confusing, because we don’t know how to respond. These feelings can overwhelm us, and may lead one to avoid new experiences and interactions with others, namely though eye contact.
As a psychotherapist, I have worked with some clients who had difficulty with social anxiety. They reported feelings of nervousness and unease, especially when interacting with others. I have seen how social anxiety manifested in their bodies, such as an experience of a pounding heart, dry mouth, dizziness, feeling restless and fidgety. Some have reported racing, negative thoughts, and panicky feelings.
It is very important to acknowledge that everyone is wonderfully unique. We all have varied and rich personal backgrounds, and genetic factors which influence our perceptions and behaviors. In terms of social skills and interactions, there are a variety of psychotherapeutic techniques to help manage symptoms of anxiety and nervousness associated with meeting others and encountering new situations. Also, it has been my privilege in assisting clients with therapeutic tools that feel right and works with their lifestyle, and personal goals. In a safe therapeutic environment, I have assisted clients to understand their anxiety and assisted them in moving forward.
Understandably, these negative experiences may cause someone to feel inferior and self-conscious. The individual may try to feel better by self-medicating with alcohol or some other substance. They may begin withdrawing from others too. Both behaviors and responses are not healthy, long-term strategies for good physical and mental health.
The following is a desensitization technique which may assist one to manage nervousness associated to a specific situation. This psychotherapeutic technique entails exposing the person to the situation which is causing the anxiety. This exercise may feel counter intuitive, meaning that when we feel pain (internally, or externally) we want to escape (flight) or confront the one causing the pain (fight). So, it is important to do this exercise gradually.
For example, say you have a fear of interacting with your boss. Your goal is to be able to communicate in a professional and relaxed manner, by making sustained, appropriate, eye contact.
First, imagine a good and appropriate situation in which you can have this social interaction with your boss.
Then, create a script, similar to a director setting up a film scene.
Afterwards, practice acting-out the scene, seriously. Imagine your boss standing there staring at you, eyeball to eyeball. I recommend practicing by using a digital image of your boss.
Next, tune-in and gauge your feelings, utilize a scale of 1-10. For instance, when your practice reaches a point when you feel okay (‘okay’ is a 6 - throwing up, or passing out is a 10). Then, white-knuckle it and do it.
Afterwards, the excitement of your accomplishment (e.g. “I didn’t pass out!), likely, will reinforce that you will do this skill again. There is a biological factor at force here - when we do something stressful it activates your autonomic nervous system with good feeling hormones, (e.g. adrenaline), coursing through your body.
This technique may not work with everyone in this situation. If you wish to learn more about desensitization techniques, or wish to speak with me about therapeutic methods to manage social interaction or anxiety please contact me by phone or email.
Ekman, P. (2010). Darwin's Compassionate View of Human Nature. JAMA, 303(6), 557-558.
Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion: A Conversation between the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman, Ph.D. (2008). Publishers Weekly, 255(21), 46.
Kircanski, K., Lieberman, M., & Craske, M. (2012). Feelings Into Words. Psychological Science, 23(10), 1086-1091.
René Magritte, Belgian; 1898-1967, "The Eye" repository, The Art Institute of Chicago, USA & "Double Secret" (Le double secret) repository, the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France
Psychological Science, 23(10), 1086-1091.