Seeing Eye to Eye
One of the symptoms of shame is an inability to meet the gaze of others. I found it very difficult to look people in the eye when I was suffering from shame. I would force myself to do it in settings like job interviews or negotiations but generally I avoided the direct or prolonged gaze of others. I would always look away because it felt unbearable to be seen.
At the crux of this discomfort is the concept that ‘The eyes are the window of the soul15’. I had difficulty looking others in the eye because I didn’t want them to see inside me. I felt that my life was too messy and that my essence was not likeable.I knew that I was prone to anger, selfishness and impatience. I was desperate to hide this from those close to me. I wanted everyone to see me as a nice, helpful, good natured, patient girl. I feared if they looked me in the eye they would see that that this wasn’t true.
Around this time, I started working with a meditation instructor who taught me how to hold the gaze of another person. We would be sitting quietly or talking and he would look me directly in the eye and hold my gaze. Initially, I found it unbearable and I would look away in a few
15 Matthew 6:22-23
seconds. My heart would beat faster and I would feel like running away. He persisted and over time I found that I was able to look back at him. I tried looking others in the eye for short periods of time and I found, to my surprise, that most people are friendly. Allowing them to look at me, in the eye, was actually pleasant. I don’t do this perfectly but now I know that when I’m afraid to look someone in the eye that I am experiencing shame. If I’m unable to look someone in the perhaps I have said or done something harmful. In other cases, it’s that old habit of comparison, I might believe that someone is prettier, smarter, thinner or more accomplished. I still suffer from the fear of being seen for who I really I am. The process is less than perfect but I always try to recognize the progress.