There are many things that can make someone with Selective Mutism appear rude, even though they don’t mean to be. One of which is the lack of eye contact they tend to give to people. For many people with SM, even just thinking about eye contact can send their anxiety levels through the roof.
I have always struggled with eye contact. For me personally, it is one of the most anxiety provoking things besides talking. Eye contact is something that seems impossible for me, even with a lot of people that I am 100% comfortable talking to.
For me, when it comes to eye contact, there are often no thoughts behind it. It isn’t like my anxiety tells me not to look someone in the eye or something bad will happen, nothing like that. It is an automatic anxiety response. Whenever I try to give anyone eye contact, it will set off an automatic anxiety response that will give me such severe levels of anxiety that my eyes will either instantly dart to the ground or start looking anywhere other than the person that I want to be giving eye contact. I don’t notice this myself, but I have been told by others that my eyes will often move all over the place very rapidly during these moments.
There will be times when if I have to for example walk past someone or if someone is nearby, my brain will automatically ignore the fact that they are there. It’s almost like I temporarily have tunnel vision; I will either be unable to see what is either side of me or it will become very blurry, despite having nothing wrong with my eyesight. I believe that maybe this could be a similar response to for example, depersonalisation/derealisation in that it is my brain’s way of protecting me. Sometimes, if someone comes into a room I will be able to look up to see who it is, others I won’t. Upon hearing someone enter a room, there will often be times that my eyes will suddenly freeze and will not move. This can make a lot of people believe that I am ignoring them or avoiding them, but really it is just because I am experiencing extremely high levels of anxiety.
Other times, the opposite will happen. I will sometimes accidently make eye contact with someone; this can include even random strangers that I walk past. As eye contact causes me extreme anxiety, this will make me freeze and be unable to break off the eye contact. For some people, when they experience extreme anxiety, it will make them remove themselves from the situation straight away, but for me I tend to freeze and through all the extreme anxiety be unable to do anything to remove myself from the situation. I imagine this could freak a lot of people out, or maybe it is something that happens to everyone every now and again; though since it does cause me extreme anxiety, I thought that it would be worth putting in here.
For most people who don’t have Selective Mutism or any kind of Social Anxiety, I would imagine that eye contact would be something that they don’t really think much about; it’s just something that happens naturally. For me, actually giving eye contact can often feel very unnatural. It could have a lot to do with the fact that over the years my communication has been very limited with others and for that reason it’s perhaps something that I’ve just simply never learned alongside the fact that it makes me extremely anxious; it is one of the things that I can be particularly hyper-vigilant about. Those two things together then could be the reason why I often find eye contact so impossible.
Another problem is that often people will advise me to either look at the other person’s nose or forehead because no one will notice if you’re doing that. However, often even this can either be too anxiety provoking in itself because eye contact is not something that you give throughout the entire conversation; it is an occasional glance at the other person, it can be difficult to determine exactly when to be looking at them. I don’t want to seem like I’m staring at the other person as that can be quite intimidating for a lot of people. I can be so hyper-vigilant about the whole eye contact thing that my mind can be going at a thousand miles per hour and I can be worrying about things such as, looking silly for looking at them at the “wrong” time and seeming really fake or unnatural to the other person.
A coping mechanism that I do tend to use is sitting/standing beside them rather than facing the other person. This way eye contact does not seem as necessary since I won’t actually be looking at the other person. Looking around the place rather than giving the other person any eye contact can seem a lot more natural to the other person if you’re beside them.
One thing I have noticed is that I do tend to find it a lot more difficult to give someone eye contact if I’m actually talking to them than if I’m not talking to them. A reason for this could possibly be because talking is highly anxiety provoking for me in certain situations and when you add two things that give me high anxiety; talking and eye contact, the anxiety will become even higher. This could then mean that if I am able to talk to the person, eye contact would be more difficult, and if I’m unable to talk to the person, eye contact won’t seem as difficult.
Something that is frustrating about finding it difficult to give eye contact is that eye contact conveys interest in conversation; finding eye contact difficult can often mean that people can presume that I’m not interested in what they are saying, when in actual fact I am listening to every single word they are saying and I am often very interested in what they are saying, even if it may not seem like it. Eye contact is a form of communication and since Selective Mutism can make communication of any form extremely anxiety provoking, eye contact is one of the many things that it affects. I am hoping that with all these blogs that I am posting that it will help others who don’t have Selective Mutism to understand that it is not just talking that is difficult for someone with SM, but it can be all aspects of communication that can be difficult; eye contact included.
Eye contact is something that is very hard to explain. These are just some random thoughts I have about how it affects me so I hope it helps those of you who don’t have SM to understand and that it helps those who do have SM to relate.