Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states
This article is a re-issue of the one published a year ago, on September 22, 2008. Some revisions have been made and some items have been added.
While I was reading some postings in our support community this morning it occurred to me that the issue of “eye contact” is actually quite important. Several people were commenting about their struggles with making eye contact in their communications with medical doctors and other types of “authority figures.” Therefore, I thought it important to write this posting about “eyes” in order to discuss the various meanings of making and avoiding eye contact.
It is not known who wrote the words, “The eyes are the windows to the soul.” It may have been written by an Arab of ancient times or from the Old Testament version of the bible. But, no one really know.
Of course, the meaning of the words is that by looking into the eyes of a person one can see their hidden emotions and attitudes and thoughts.
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Studies in psychology show that the human infant responds directly to parental eye contact. In fact, even the youngest infants prefer staring at any shapes that resemble the human face. More than that, they prefer adult faces that stare directly at them rather than with eyes averted. Anyone who has bottle fed or nursed an infant cannot help but notice how the baby”s eyes stare directly into their own. Through this eye contact, the infant learns a lot about human communication and interaction. Considering the fact that much of human interaction is non verbal in nature, eye contact is a major medium through which we communicate our needs and wants.
Language is filled with metaphors referring to eye contact. During the Cuban Missile Crisis during the early 1960’s it was said that the Soviet Union “blinked first.” The meaning was clear in that the Soviet Union submitted to American pressure. Other metaphors are those such as: He or she had a “cold stare,” the eyes were “steely and hard,” she had a “penetrating look,” shame faced, the child “stared at his shoes,” Through the “fog of war,” it is difficult to see the outcome of battle, “He and I came to see eye to eye,” and their are thousands other such metaphors referring to the eyes.
Having grown up in New York City and frequently travelled the subway system, I soon learned, along with millions of other New Yorkers, the importance of avoiding eye contact with other passengers. The reason was simple: Direct eye contact can easily be mis perceived by a stranger as a challenge to fight. Many paranoid patients report that the feeling of being stared at feels like an aggressive attack. In fact, some paranoid patients have been known to make drawings of the human head and figure with unusually large eyes. The grossly distorted drawings often represent looking out suspiciously into what is perceived as a dangerous and aggressive world.
In fact, it is often said that, much like in the animal world, when two men who are strangers stare at each other, they are sending the challenging and dangerous message about being willing to fight. This is sometimes verbally expressed as “get out of my face, man!!” Another verbal challenge to the stare is, “What are you staring at, man???” This is said in a loud and aggressive way. People even speak of power struggles with another by “staring them down.” On the other hand, when a man and woman stare at one another, they are communicating sexual interest. The eyes can be used in ways that are coy, seductive and inviting of sexual interest between man and woman.
Many decades ago, before I entered the field of mental health, I was a High School teacher in New York City. It goes without saying that the youngsters in my classes came from culturally diverse backgrounds. Early on I was mystified as to why my students from Puerto Rican backgrounds averted their eyes when speaking to me. Initially, and as a very young man, I feared they were showing me “disrespect.” I was very young and inexperienced teacher and human being. Where I was raised, parents and teachers demanded eye contact when I was being spoken to. That was a sign of respect. It seemed natural to me that the students were challenging my authority when they refused to make eye contact. I soon learned that I could not be farther from the truth. The fact was that these students, coming from their particular culture, were showing me the greatest respect by averting eye contact. That piece of knowledge turned out to be enormously important to me in helping these, and other young people, learn and advance.
Early in my mental health training there was a young adolescent who, upon seeing me, closed her eyes. This psychotic patient thought that by not seeing me, I would not see her.
Children love to play the staring games with each other. The idea of the game is to see who can stare the longest without laughing or blinking. The child who laughs, blinks or averts the eyes first is the “loser.” In this way, children are engaging in a kind of “arm wrestling contest.” The winner is the “strongest.”
It is commonly known that a child could have serious developmental disabilities, such as autism, if they constantly avoid eye contact. This is a good indicator of a child who has problems with social interaction.
Those who are shy may have difficulty with eye contact out of a sense of embarrassment. This is why blushing can be so very painful for those with a tendency to easily blush when speaking to people. Their discomfort is about the notion that the blush will reveal their shyness. My strategy for people who have struggled with this is to embrace their shyness and openly and proudly admit it.
The eyes are frought with all types of symbolic meanings for human beings.
What are your experiences with eye contact?
what metaphors and meanings do you associate with the eyes?
Your comments are welcome and encouraged.
Allan Schwartz, PhD
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