If I Don’t Look You in the Eyes, I’m Not Trying to be Rude

I’m genuinely intimidated by you.

This surprises some people. I’m fairly extroverted, which means I get my energy from being around others. That’s also usually my excuse for being such a loud-mouth, but that’s a separate issue.

Lately I’ve been struggling more with body image and self-worth, and so I have a difficult time looking people in the eyes when I talk to them…simply because I don’t feel like I’m worthy.

It’s particularly difficult for me to speak comfortably with people I perceive to be good-looking. Now, before anyone starts to wonder if me looking them in the eyes means I find them ugly- THAT’S NOT THE CASE! I promise. It just means that for some other reason, I’ve become comfortable around you (maybe we’ve known each other a long time, or your sense of humor lets me feel more relaxed in conversation) and, for that, I am grateful.

As someone who doesn’t get nervous in interviews and who loves public speaking, I hate this need for brevity and avoidance. I think I’ve always felt some level of discomfort around people who others would consider objectively good-looking, according to the criteria society has trained us on. In these encounters, I feel like an imposter. Like what I deserve in life and how happy I feel is solely dependent on the number on the scale and the clearness of my skin.

I was certainly more carefree in high school, college, and even graduate school (at times.) Maybe that’s part of growing up, becoming increasingly self-aware and analytical of your surroundings. Or, maybe I’m not doing it right. Is there a right way to get older? I’m starting to realize that as a woman, every way of aging seems to be the wrong way to age. What a stupid concept.

If you approach me now, I may need to force my face up to look at you, and then garner additional focus to smile and keep my face relaxed. This becomes increasingly difficult in bigger spaces, where I feel more exposed and like the whole world is watching. But, I do my best to laugh and joke along. I can’t let you see the anxiety on my face and the desire to look away as soon as possible. Let’s be honest, that would just make us both uncomfortable.

I know that I’ve gone through some triggering events in the past week, and that those contribute to this whole “look people in the face” thing. I always wonder if the other person would rather be talking to someone else, if I’m boring them or if I’m just too weird. Maybe they’re too nice to tell me they have to go. Maybe they respond to follow-up texts out of pity.

Interestingly, I’m not always this way and I don’t always react to the same person in the same way. One day, I could be chatting up a storm with a friend for hours where we’re both engaged and seem to be having fun. 24 hours later I might be a nervous, sweaty, mess in front of the same friend; I’m completely unable to look at them, let alone talk to them and be my true, playful and sarcastic, self.

When this happens, I try to reframe the situation in my mind and think about why it is that I enjoy talking to others. I picture the people I speak with most often and try to list the things that I like most about them. Their outer appearance never even makes it onto the list. And that’s the problem with self-doubt- it doesn’t make a bit of sense.

Adopting a “yeah, but my case is different” mentality is harmful and yet so easy because our assumptions about other people can arise from our own insecurities and fears. It’s easy to say assume that if there were something about us that people didn’t like, they wouldn’t tell us. That’s probably true, but who cares? No one is perfect. We will all eventually say something that will annoy or upset someone else. And vice versa. That shouldn’t mean a total upheaval of who I am around my friends.

Easier said than done, right?

As I write this, I realize that poor eye contact is a symptom, not the problem. Over-analyzing every encounter is the real enemy. I’m no stranger to that, and I know I’m not the only one.

Bare with me. Even though I may be a little uncomfortable around you now, I’m almost certain to be excited to see you, happy to be around you, and hope that you feel the same way. I’ll see you soon.

Maybe really see you this time.

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