Dear Dr. Archer,
I have a problem with generalized anxiety. I work as a bartender at a brewery and lately I have trouble making eye contact. I try hard to maintain eye contact but I get weird, crazy eyes from people when I do.
Their response to my eye contact makes me feel like I'm "eyeball f...ing" them. I instantly become self-conscious and find it difficult to avert my eyes nonchalantly without deliberately showing my weakness by being skittish.
Now I obsess about it every minute of the day. I loaned out your new book from the library and wish I could get specific examples of people who have had this problem and overcome it. Do you have any psychological advice or reference for this condition? Thank you!
Those who cannot look others in the eye appear nervous, shifty and lacking in self-confidence, so it becomes a viscous cycle. You don’t look them in the eye and they perceive you as shifty. You read that in their demeanor and get even more nervous and appear even more shifty. So the key is breaking the cycle.
First, stop trying to look them in the eye. Look at their nose, mouth, forehead or between their eyebrows. You will appear to be making eye contact and interested.
They will relate, open up and relax and you will feel more comfortable. Since a bartender is typically working fast, you don’t have to stay and chat, just briefly take their order and then move on.
Next, make it a point to actively listen. Talking and listening to someone naturally makes the eyes look into the other person's eyes. So actively listen to what they say. It will make you look interested and you don’t have to stress about what to say.
If you cannot get over this on your own, and since it has become an obsession, then make an appointment with a psychiatrist who will, most likely, treat you with Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to focus on reducing your anxiety.
Most often, the underlying social anxiety or social phobia issue is the fear of being judged, embarrassed or scrutinized in public. One final thought is, as I discuss in my book, perhaps a career change is worth considering.
If you are actually shy, then dealing with the public may not be the way to go. Perhaps something where you work on your own or in a small group setting would be better. Good luck!