I looked at people today, in all kinds of locations. This is not something I normally do. It goes beyond no eye contact which I also find difficult and low-grade loathe. I push making and maintaining eye contact with friends because I recognize that avoiding it causes unconscious messages to be sent. But even with people I know well, I struggle. Strangers? Often, I don’t bother at all.
Eye contact is something I work on and it’s challenging. Some days go better than others. But avoiding eye contact isn’t the only way I disconnect from people in public. Sometimes I don’t even see other people. That is, I see them, their overall shape and the position they hold relative to mine, but I give them nothing more than passing glances. What they really look like, what they’re wearing, their hair colour – it’s often unknown.
People make me uncomfortable. It wasn’t always this bad – I’ve made it a worse by catering to my agoraphobia – but I’ve always found them to be a difficult commodity. They scare me, a little. They are an unknown and therefore a risk. They are unpredictable. I don’t know what other people are going to do or say, I don’t know if they’re going to try to interact with me, I don’t know if they’ll be pleasant or aggressive. This uncertainty sends my anxiety skyrocketing.
It’s not that I expect the worst, exactly, it’s just that I don’t know and if the worst comes, I want to be ready for it. Add to that my negative inside voice that presumes to assume it knows what other people are thinking about me – although it’s likely they aren’t thinking about me at all – and assumes the thoughts are negative, my aversion to all things other and avoidance of eye contact starts to make sense.
I had conversation circle the other day. I volunteer with English as a Second Language immigrants to help them improve their conversational skills. I enjoy it – once I’m there – and it gets me out of the house; keeps me from becoming totally housebound.
The parking lot was surprisingly busy. Usually the place is a ghost town. The meeting site is upstairs in an office in a sporting complex and I’ve often wondered how the place stays in business. I almost never see anyone in the halls or at the gym or on the ice. Until today. I pulled in and for a minute, I thought I’d have to park on the street. Nearly every stall was taken.
It was worse inside. The place was thronged with people. I could see them as I approached the entryway. It was a nightmare. I was absolutely not prepped for crowds. Even worse, there was a youngish man planting flowers in the planters in front of the door. Men are especially problematic for me. They’re big and potentially violent. It takes a long time for me to be comfortable with them. The thought of having to walk by him was terrifying. Should I pretend I don’t see him? Do I walk past fast like I’m five minutes late and can’t stop for anything? Do I greet him? If I greet him, should I have a response ready in case he responds?
People burn up a lot of my mental energy.
Today though, I stopped. I took a deep breath and looked. Really looked. I tried to see him as a person, not as a scary other. I looked at the cap he was wearing and the shape of his nose. I noticed the kind of shirt he was wearing – short sleeves with a corporate logo. I saw that his shoe laces were untied. The longer I looked, the more real he became and the less threatening. He was just a person. Like me. With thoughts and feelings and emotions and concerns and anxieties. Like me. And, statistically speaking, he was probably a good person. I can remember things like that when I’m not panicking.
I went past and smiled. It felt a little frozen but it was there. I tried to keep doing the same thing as I navigated the crowds in the foyer (it was a hockey tournament). That was harder, but I compromised by not worrying about eye contact. Just looking. Just seeing. Seeing that they were all merely people and likely not dangerous.
I thought some more about my little experiment on the drive home. I’m going to continue with it, to the best of my abilities. It was interesting. But what I thought was, I’m probably not unique. I am an extreme but really, how much do any of us really look around and see anymore? There are reasons, of course. People aren’t out as much. We’re all becoming homebodies. Neighbourhood meeting places, be they pubs or church halls or clubs, aren’t as prevalent. People put up barriers against the world with headphones and smart phones. We live more and more of our lives on line. We even shop there. We’ve gotten out of the habit of seeing each other.
This is not a good thing.
If we really saw each other, the world would be a different place.
Outliers notwithstanding, we are social creatures and pack animals. We need to connect with other people. We need to see them and we need them to see us. We need the mental and emotional and psychological and physical connections with others to thrive and unfortunately, the amount we get is decreasing. It is probably no coincidence that as these changes to how we live our lives is occurring, the rates of anxiety and depression are rising.
I do not always live in a way that serves me well. I’m afraid the species is doing the same thing. I am unsure what needs to be done to address the problem, only that there is one. Still, be the change you want to see in the world. I will keep trying to see people when I encounter them, no matter that it scares me.
Do you see people?