Eye Contact In Therapy

img_2851

Making and then maintaining eye contact with my therapist is something I find really difficult. In some sessions eye contact feels more possible than in others; usually when the session is light and I am rooted firmly in my adult. These are the days where I can look at her for a few seconds before looking away and our interactions feel more ‘normal’ – i.e real life, outside world, not massively emotionally charged. But of course there are those ‘other’ days, those painful sessions, where I will avoid eye contact for the whole 50 minutes, scanning the book shelves for the millionth time, or staring at the corner of the room. Should our eyes meet I look away almost as though I have been burnt. The meeting of our gaze can feel so exposing.

I’ve mentioned this kind of thing in passing a few times in this blog. It’s an issue that has been on my mind a lot lately and then this morning I got an email from a friend, who is also in therapy, asking me about my experiences with eye contact because it’s an issue she’s struggling with; and so I thought it might make for a good blog post – it can’t just be the two of us that have this problem!…in fact I know it isn’t!

I feel a bit woolly headed at the moment and I have noticed that my ability to formulate my thoughts in writing (and verbally, actually) is really proving tricky so bear with me here. I don’t know why, but I feel like I keep having to preface my posts with an apology at the moment. I can’t seem to get my mind clear enough to express things in the way I would like but I still feel like I need to write. I’ve been having a bit of a crisis of confidence and that was initially the topic I planned to blog about today but this is more interesting.

img_2849

So, yeah, eye contact.

Bearing in mind I have known my therapist for six years and been working with her for three of those years you’d think, by now, eye contact wouldn’t be an issue for me. Wrong! It’s funny (not funny haha more funny ironic), I’ve found the longer we’ve worked together and the more I’ve let her see of ‘me’ (whoever the fuck that is), the harder eye contact has become. It might seem counterintuitive that the closer you get to someone the harder it gets to look at them but it is how it has been for me and I think I am beginning to really understand why.

If you met me in person for the first time you’d be faced with a friendly, confident, articulate, caring person (that feels a bit ‘big headed’!) who does their best to make you feel comfortable in our interaction. I am a good listener, ask thoughtful questions, I make all the right noises and maintain just the right amount of eye contact. I am not nervous in new social situations (well, not outwardly, you’d never know what’s going on inside – quaking child ‘please don’t hate me’) and people say I am easy to talk to. But see that stuff doesn’t work in therapy does it? Because it’s not about looking after the other person (therapist) and so I can’t employ my listening skills in that way. I can’t deflect the attention away from myself.

Having said that eye contact shouldn’t be a bother, should it? …. and it wasn’t in the very beginning…

When I first met my therapist, I was far more able to look at her (I noticed this was the case when I went to see the other therapist in January following the rupture too). What’s the deal with that? Well in the beginning of the relationship I was operating from the adult persona and I wasn’t attached to her. I attended therapy as the person I have just described above. Sure, there was a reason I was coming to therapy but for all intents and purposes I was functioning and coping and together (on the surface at least!).

It took me about 9 months to properly settle into therapy with my therapist; part of that was because I knew it was a time-limited activity on the NHS (12 months) and I didn’t want to be left hanging at the end of it all if I did open up. I knew some of what was lurking in the depths and part of me knew that 12 months of therapy wasn’t going to be adequate. So for those first few months I talked and talked and talked and looked and looked and looked but I did not connect with what I was saying. It was almost as though I was recounting someone else’s story. It was easy to look at her because I wasn’t feeling anything about my story.

There’s been a lot of trauma in my past and yet for the longest time it has felt like it belongs to someone else. I would recount very matter-of-factly what had gone on but I felt like there was a concrete block between my head and my heart – a huge wall between my left and right brain. I still struggle with this. The level of disconnection from myself is massive.

Then it happened, the attachment stuff awakened in a HUGE way and I was done for. I would go to session and sit there, unable to look at my therapist knowing that soon I would lose her and I just couldn’t cope. I know she noticed the change in me because the therapy also changed. There was a different level of connection. I didn’t know how to handle my feelings and resorted to the usual well-used coping strategies. I started to lose weight and self-harm again, desperately trying to cope/run away from the impending sense of loss and abandonment.

I couldn’t name the different parts of myself at that point, that only really started to make sense to me about a year ago. Back then all I knew was that I was sinking. I desperately wanted to connect with my therapist but I was frightened to. I didn’t know that the fear was the fear of my child part. I didn’t understand that part of the reason I couldn’t talk was that she doesn’t have much vocabulary because she is so little. I didn’t know I was dissociating. I wish I knew then what I know now!

Even though my therapist succeeded in getting my therapy extended by an additional four months (because things had got so bad) I still couldn’t open up fully and eye contact was almost impossible by that point. It was tricky, I felt like I had secrets I wasn’t telling her (the anorexia/self-harm) and so couldn’t look at her. At the same time I wanted to be known by her, I wanted to share the burden of what I was carrying, but felt there wasn’t time so couldn’t look at her!

Fast forward to now and the issue hasn’t changed much…or rather it has but the eye contact is still a bit of a problem.

The issue with eye contact (in the therapeutic relationship) is that it’s all about being seen. Eye contact means vulnerability, honesty, intimacy and that generates …fear. There’s lots of other things but I think they’re the main elements for me. It’s a double edged sword. I long for that level of intimacy and connection with my therapist that making eye contact affords; I often find the times when I can look at her for more than a split second that I feel much better, more grounded, and less alone.

It seems like a simple solution really – look at her and feel closer to her, right?! Win. Unfortunately, it’s not just a case of looking at her and feeling better…my goodness I wish it was as easy as that!

As I said, if I am surface level talking I make a reasonable level of eye contact in session. If I feel secure in myself and with her, I am can make some eye contact. If, however, I feel unsettled, dissociated, activated, in a child state, teen state, or the critic is present it becomes really very difficult for me. I look at her, meet her gaze, and retreat immediately. It’s too overwhelming. It’s frightening. It’s too much.

img_2850

Sometimes I really don’t want to be seen, either. I feel shy. I feel ashamed. I feel embarrassed. Usually this is comes up when I am experiencing strong loving feelings towards my therapist or have really missed her during the week. I feel like if I look at her she’ll see right down into my soul. She’ll see the longing of the child that desperately wants to be held. She’ll see the intensity of the feelings I have….and then if she sees that, then she’ll run away. She’ll terminate. That’s the fear.

The adult part of me knows that she can totally handle all my feelings. Hell, we both know these parts exist and we know what their issues are. We’ve talked about it all enough! I know she can cope with my love as well as my rage…but in the moment when I am struggling to look at her, that rational part is just not online. The trauma parts are live and active and all they can see is that if I let her see how I feel, if I let her see the real me in that moment, I will lose her. It’s not great. It’s not rational. It does, however come from somewhere.

I’ve been trying to pinpoint where it originates from; I know some (ok a lot) of it is from being little but I also think perhaps it’s a huge throwback to what happened when I came out. It’s almost like because I am letting my therapist see more of me in session and am being more vulnerable the fear of rejection and something bad happening escalates. I have experienced what it is like to have my world fall apart when I have been honest about myself and my feelings and because I really care about what she thinks, the idea of her telling me I am too much feels utterly devastating.

I am really aware that eye contact is something I really need to work on in my sessions. It’s just daunting. The part that keeps running away from being seen is so scared of rejection and abandonment but at the same time I know deep down that part absolutely longs to be seen and known by my therapist too. It’s so hard to navigate this but I guess it’s something to work on ‘bit by bit’ as they so like to say! I have a lot I want to talk about in session on Monday but I think tabling some time for eye contact would be worthwhile.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

img_2848

Author: rubberbandsandchewinggum

Mid-thirties. Mum of two. Procrastinator. Therapy and mental health blogger.

24 thoughts on “Eye Contact In Therapy”

  1. Um… did you just crawl inside my head and write about me?!?

    No, wait, you can’t have, because I’m in the U.S., and we don’t have such a thing as NHS, with either its good or bad sides.

    So that must mean that you have just done a beautiful, rich description of something that resonates deeply for me as well. I recognize so much… the easy eye contact for a long time, when it stayed adult… the talking about it as if it belonged to someone else… the scanning her bookshelves for the umpteenth time… and the difficulty looking at directly at her when we are talking about my deep vulnerabilities.

    I have to add that I have tried it a few times in recent months, allowing myself to meet her eyes after we discuss something that touches my aching inner child. It is hard to stay with her steady gaze. But when I go home, I am comforted that she didn’t look away, that she met my vulnerability seriously and kindly, without a shred of judgment. I can conjure up those brief moments even now, and they make me feel better.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m so glad this post resonated with you. I do think it’s a big issue for a lot of us; it’s something we are aware of but not really sure how to solve or manage. Like you, I have consciously been trying to look up more and hold my therapist’s gaze – might be like a second and a half rather than a split second!!! Sometimes it’s ok and sometimes it is just sooooo hard. I battle so much with this because, as I said, in the moment it feels excruciating and exposing to risk being seen when the little part inside is screaming out to be loved and held. I know that part that needs to be seen, needs to connect, needs to move on from what is holding me back but there is a huge protector that is saying ‘no way, you’re not doing that again, look what happened last time’. Ah relational trauma is hard eh? Not to mention when you throw all the other stuff in the mix! Take care and thanks so much for your comment.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I totally get what you’re saying. Eye contact in therapy, or any MH appointment is so hard. I do the same, quick glances then look away. I think it has something to do with shame or self blame, even if you are not responsible for whatever difficulty you are talking about, its hard to believe the professional is not going to make judgements about you as a person.
    It’s tough.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s certainly not easy making eye contact. Strangely I have no problem at all with it when I am talking about events/trauma – in fact I am so disconnected from my story that it doesn’t really touch me….which is a problem. I started to struggle with eye contact the moment the attachment stuff got triggered. Basically, the moment my heart got involved it became a problem. I totally agree with you about the shame and self-blame thing. My therapy enemies are shame and embarrassment. Ugh! Thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. When I’m talking about something difficult that’s going on inside me, I look up at the ceiling. It’s not even a conscious thing most of the time. Part of it is that it’s easier to pull my thoughts together if I’m not stuck in eye contact, and part of it is that I don’t want the doctor or whoever looking at me and somehow by looking at the ceiling I can pretend they’re not.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I used to count the individual bits of woodchip in the wallpaper when I was in the NHS therapy room! It’s not funny but it is how it was. I can understand looking up at the ceiling. And yes, I think not looking at someone directly when you’re sharing something tough or thinking is easier. Being seen when you’re vulnerable is really difficult. Sometimes I’d really benefit from a Harry Potter invisibility cloak!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. With my T, once he asked me to look at him because it was really important what he had to say and maybe one or two other times I took a quick look at him, but in general it doesn’t happen. And it’s been that for three years–since day one.

    His socks on the other hand? He has a fabulous collection!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m delighted your therapist has great socks. I wonder if it’s a deliberate thing? ie they are used to having people looking down at the floor? 😉 I’m very familiar with my therapist’s shoes! Do you think eye contact is something you want to work on or does it just feel too much still? I’m so aware of wanting to feel more connected to my therapist and I think eye contact is the easiest (ha – not easy at all) way to achieve that.

      Like

      1. I’m not good with eye contact in general. I’d like to be better at it, but it’s high on the anxiety-inducing scale. T actually mentioned it on Friday (how much I avoid looking at him or moving overall), so I think it’s something he would like us to work on (my theory is that if he mentions something I better pay attention). Just thinking about it makes me ill!

        I hope it gets easier for you.

        I agree with the connection. I think it would make it so much easier to connect if I could look him in the eye.

        One day when I’m feeling brave, I’ll ask him about his socks and see what he says. 🙂

        Like

  5. I’ve always felt like when you truly look into someone’s eyes, you can see their soul. Every part of them makes sense in those seconds. You can see their thoughts and aspirations. Then when you look away, it’s all gone. I never make eye contact because it scares me. What will I see in their eyes? What will they see in mine? I’d like to make a post about my theory, but is that okay with you? I don’t want to steal your idea.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hey Skye. I don’t have the monopoly on writing about eye contact in therapy 😉 I think lots of us have feelings about eye contact in the therapeutic relationship which is why I wrote this. I’m sure your take on things would be interesting too. I think we (therapy bloggers) have a lot of similar concerns but also very personal ones too.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow. Just wow. So happy you are able to articulate what so many of us are feeling. I never realized it until I read this post. I love what you have to say about your child, teen, and adult selves. It’s so simple yet so complex. It makes total sense. Dealing with some issues right now and my teen self is reacting. Going to have a discussion with my adult self – and my therapist – and try to figure out how to how to handle this. Again, GREAT job!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah thanks so much for your comment. Pleased it made sense to you. Sometimes I wonder if I am in my own bubble of crazy (affectionately meant) but I realise more and more that there’s so many of us in this boat. I feel a lot more able to express and identify my feelings since becoming familiar with, and naming, the different parts of myself. The issues I experience in therapy make more sense now that I realise I get triggered at some many different levels. I hope your teen part isn’t too angry and or pissed off. Mine is a great protector but she really does want to tell my therapist to fuck off sometimes and then run away…. nice! Take care.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This is a brilliant post and as the other commenters have said, you’ve articulated this so well. I was exactly the same with my therapist. I’ve quit therapy recently though and I’m now having the horrible broken attachment missing her thing 😔 My husband asks me why I miss therapy when it’s so uncomfortable and upsetting, but I miss that deep connection, no matter how uncomfortable it felt. Good luck chatting this over with your therapist 😚

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It wasn’t a plan no…it was impulsive, after a horrible care plan review meeting where it turns out after 6 years I’m still not deemed ready for trauma work 😩 I give up! I’m going it alone. I feel like I have no other option. Anyway sorry to moan on your post 💛

        Like

  8. I hear you so very much, ESPECIALLY on eye contact being so vulnerable!. I freak out at the thought of time limited therapy in my country’s public health care system too…I need assurance from.my therapist that there’s no max number of sessions because it depends on the various hospital outpatient clinic policies.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I came out to my therapist too and because of internalised LGBTQphobia, I periodically need to ask if she accepts me. Especially as she’s Christian and I was abused by fundamentalist Christian parents who are vehemently LGBTQphobic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It sounds really hard having to grow up in that environment and I’m not surprised you need reassurance from your therapist sometimes. I was out with my therapist from the very beginning and it’s a non issue … but occasionally I worry even despite this! It’s hard breaking patterns isn’t it?!

      Like

      1. It’s definitely hard! Pretty much most of us, no matter how liberal our home area, grow up internalising some LGBTQphobia I feel.

        Like

  10. First of all…wow. This. All this. Yes.
    Eye contact in therapy (or lack of ) is something I too struggle with. For me it’s all about being “seen” , to be so vulnerable… if I don’t look at my therapist, I can’t see the reaction. I can’t see the compassion or empathy-seeing this would be too overwhelming (personally)

    Secondly-how In earth did you manage to get 12months of therapy on the nhs?! I’ve been under mental health services for 5years and the most I’ve been able to get is 8-12 weeks once a year after a 6 month waiting list! (Even when I was under care coordinator I couldn’t get it!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah it’s certainly a tricky area. Being seen is not easy for me: sometimes I want to hide under a Harry Potter-style invisibility cloak and other times I want to be seen and understood!

      As for the NHS therapy- it took a long time to get it! I had a mega breakdown. Went from functioning to total incapacity. I had the crisis team in my house, psychiatrists visiting me, ED referrals, you name it I saw them all EXCEPT a therapist (they offered CBT early on, I went, the therapist said CBT don’t be right for you). I saw a counsellor privately as was falling apart. After 7 months of horrid intrusion and useless interventions on the NHS (pills that sent me even more nuts) they realised I might not actually be insane and had PTSD amongst other things. I got put on a waiting list for therapy and (I shit you not) two and half year later I got an appointment! So I was three years from the start of my breakdown! It’s so sad it’s almost funny. Tbh I’m just incredibly lucky to have come across my therapist as it’s totally luck of the draw. The woman that did my intake assessments a few months previously was hideous and if I’d have got her I wouldn’t have been able to work with her. Not her fault I just didn’t like her.

      So yeah, that’s me! I’m sorry things have been equally as unhelpful for you regarding the therapy options on nhs.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s