Back in 2020 when I first transferred into the college I am still studying at now, I was in desperate need of mental health support and turned to my school’s personal counseling office. I enrolled in weekly scheduled group therapy sessions where there were two therapists-in-training and a select number of students who were also there to receive help.
I would say back then I was more mentally unbalanced than I am now. Part of it was a prolonged lack of adequate exposure to a range of social situations, so the more I avoided particular situations over and over again for years and/or didn’t work through the challenge of overcoming certain anxieties, the more drastic of a reaction I would have when I was faced with said situation and that in turn would reinforce my avoidance of the situation.
One such anxiety is eye contact. There was a point in my youth I literally became conditioned to making little to no eye contact, all because I found people’s eyes to be quite intimidating.
During one of those group therapy sessions, I shared how painfully self-conscious I was about even walking in late to class since I could not tolerate people noticing me as I slipped in. And I shared all this while pointedly avoiding eye contact and reading from my paper. A person in the group bluntly told me, with a hint of impatience, that no one cares that much about me. His remark crushed me, as it already took so much effort at the time to even say what I had said. I took offense especially since he started off by saying, “Well, I don’t mean to be rude, but…”
So, yes, I do care that much about what people think of me even though I don’t have to put that much weight on something so minuscule.
My biggest avoidance to date that relates to eye contact is public speaking. And guess what, I have two short oral presentations I have to do for a class this semester. It isn’t much comfort to me that everyone will have to get up and stand in front of the whole class at some point. Some people are better at delivering presentations than others. I happened to find a project partner before the semester started so I’ll be doing the presentation on a topic that both myself and the other student are interested in. That doesn’t make the prospect of having all eyes on me any less daunting.
I feel like because I have the upcoming pressure of figuring out how to get through the presentation, now I’ve been a more active participant in working harder to correct my own avoidant behavior. All throughout the job I’ve had since December 2021, my perception is I’ve been going through a half-a**ed effort to not be so avoidant. Part of my job is to greet people and engage with them and I’ve done those tasks mainly out of obligation for my job role and to be a friendly face. Sometimes I go a step further and manage to make casual conversation with some people. The hardest adjustment I’ve had for the job is to pace myself when I’m answering a question I was asked and to also speak louder instead of reverting to the low tone I habitually use when I feel self-conscious.
The situations at work are, in a way, good practice for me. I still occasionally feel as if I am doing something wrong when I look intently at someone when they’re speaking to me. Holding eye contact like that is supposed to be normal but my conditioned instinct keeps screaming that I shouldn’t be doing it. That’s what has been so difficult. It isn’t just my body is used to reacting in certain ways but it literally wants me to avoid fighting against the behavior I habitually do, as if to do anything otherwise is taboo.
Today I tried that and I think I succeeded. Typically I say something and then mid-sentence I am unable to hold eye contact for more than two seconds before I look away as the person has their gaze on me. This time I forced myself to hold my eyes on the person who was also looking at me the entire time I spoke. It felt like I was going up and down on a rollercoaster. I thought I would fall off at any point. I didn’t. I practiced this behavior several more times during the duration of my work shift as me and my coworkers were casually chatting.
I still cannot get it out of my head how scary it is to not know what other people are thinking of me when I am talking. I’m not a mind reader. But it also strikes me as surprising when another person says things I wasn’t expecting that shows me a new facet of their character.
For example, one of the coworkers I saw today also works at the same site as me on Saturdays but he has been away for the last two Saturdays. He admitted that having to resume his Saturday shift this week was throwing him into a loop where he felt not ready for it after having two Saturdays off from work. For him to have said that, it was so relatable. I appreciated him sharing that, too, since I tend to think other people have it easier than me.
It’s not so much that I believe my problems are worse than other people’s, it’s that I put other people on a pedestal where I feel personally detached with no emotional investment in their problems if I don’t know about whatever they are going through. The personal detachment affects how I perceive the person as being more emotionally and mentally stable than me to the extent of superhero level with little to no conflict or challenges in their life. And it’s only when the person shares whatever they are going through that the unrealistic perception I had of the person dissolves and I realize, Oh, they’re human and flawed like I am.