I’ve found that one of the most reliable ways to measure the progress of my personal growth is to notice how I feel when I look someone in the eye. Whenever I start doubting that all the inner work I’ve done on myself has had any effect, all I need to do is go outside and hold someone’s gaze for a bit to convince myself otherwise. There’s a world of difference between my experience of looking someone in the eye several years ago and how I feel when I do it today.
A few years back, I had trouble even making eye contact with people in the first place. When someone would look me in the eye, the discomfort in my body would be so pronounced that I’d feel as if I had no choice but to look away. I couldn’t lock eyes with someone long enough to get any understanding of how I felt and thought while experiencing eye contact.
When I first took up meditation, yoga and a few other practices I adopted to further my personal growth, my experience of making eye contact noticeably shifted. I became able to look people in the eye for several seconds, and no longer felt seized by an irresistible impulse to avert my gaze. However, my body did tense up in those moments—particularly in my jaw, where a feeling of pressure quickly mounted. This reaction is probably best described as shame, as if I were doing something wrong by looking into someone’s eyes, or as if the other person were learning something embarrassing about me.
As I continued my journey of personal change, eye contact felt less and less threatening. Eventually, I noticed that, when I held someone’s gaze, I no longer felt tension creeping into my body. However, for a while, other concerns arose when my eyes met someone else’s. Sometimes, when a person broke eye contact with me, I would feel a twinge of anger or despair. On some level, I’d be convinced they were looking away because I’d upset them or they didn’t respect me.
Finally, after I’d spent a few years using various practices to feel more whole and accepting of myself, I noticed one day that the suffering I once experienced when someone looked away had disappeared. When someone wouldn’t meet my gaze, I wasn’t even slightly rattled. Even if I pondered the possibility that the other person looked away because they disliked me or thought I was unimportant, my sense of peace was undisturbed. If that was how they felt, it was fully okay with me.
With my newfound composure around eye contact came an insight. I saw how closely my progress in my ability to hold someone’s gaze mirrored my overall journey toward feeling more whole. When I first resolved to do some changing and growing from within, my main concern was with my shame about aspects of who I was. This shame had me unable to make eye contact with others, for fear that when they locked eyes with me they’d see uncomfortable parts of me that I didn’t want to show the world.
Later, having dissolved much of the shame I used to feel, I shifted my focus to some of my deepest-seated fears. One of these, which I suspect many people can identify with, was the fear of abandonment—the fear that people in my life would leave me, and I’d be alone and defenseless against the world. When I was in the grip of this fear, I’d become anxious even when a stranger refused to meet my gaze—“abandoning” me with his or her eyes. As I came to terms with the fear, the ugly sensations that used to arise when someone looked away began to subside.
More generally, my ability to hold eye contact with people without experiencing discomfort and negative thoughts reflects how I’ve come to perceive the world. Before I began working on improving the way I experienced life, I saw people as basically malicious and dangerous, and my reluctance to look them in the eye signified my desire to escape and protect myself from them. As psychologists Mark R. Leary and Robin M. Kowalski write in Social Anxiety, “averting one’s gaze reduces the saliency of the threatening stimuli that are causing anxiety, thereby allowing a degree of psychological withdrawal while one remains physically in the encounter.”
Today, I have a new perspective. I see people as, at their core, benevolent and compassionate—even though, out of fear and a desire to protect themselves, people often act as if this isn’t their nature. My willingness to hold others’ gazes reflects my new, more open and trusting view of the world.
If you want more understanding of the places in your life where you have room to grow, notice the way you respond to eye contact with others. What feelings and thoughts arise in you? Do you feel exposed, as if the other person might discover compromising things about you? Do you feel the need to stare others down to prove something about yourself? Do you feel upset when people won’t meet your eyes? Simply noticing your reactions when looking into another person’s eyes, I’ve found, can teach you a lot about who you are.