Eye Contact

Overcoming the fear of being seen as an artist.

Photo: Tomohiko Nogi

My week now revolves around Monday nights. At 7:30pm, everything in my life is paused. For a few hours, I get to be surrounded by fellow artists in a space of reflection and inspiration. Needless to say, I’m very privileged to have the opportunity to experience The Collective.

But now that we’re entering week four, I grudgingly admit to myself that I still feel somewhat disconnected. Not for lack of welcoming faces and an open attitude, mind you. The fact is: I’m shy. Whenever I relay this trait to anyone, I’m immediately asked “why?” And of course my first response is an exaggerated eye roll, and I say “obviously if I knew the answer, I wouldn’t be shy, right?” But in thinking about it, it’s not really that bad of a question.

Why am I shy? Why do I find myself withdrawing when The Collective is giving me permission to open up?

Before we get started every session, the group engages in some ice-breaker-like activities: moving in a circle to a beat, and then stopping and connecting with someone you haven’t conversed with yet. We then get a couple minutes to discuss our question of the week or the assignment we had to complete beforehand. And in these one-on-ones, without fail, I find myself averting my eyes. I look at the ceiling, at the bookshelf to the side, at my partner’s chin even…but if I make it to raising my gaze directly into the other person’s eyes, I can only hold it for a few seconds.

Looking into that person’s eyes, something in me becomes unnerved. It’s like my flight or fight response is triggered and I give into flight each time…why is that? This isn’t a confrontation. There is no danger. This is an exercise meant to create connection between the group. This is necessary. But I feel myself fighting it.

I’ve come to realize that my aversion to making direct eye contact is because I’m afraid to be seen.

Eye contact might seem like a mundane social interaction for the general person. But for me, eye contact is a form of vulnerability. Eye contact is complete acknowledgement of someone else’s existence in a single moment. It is not only “I see you,” but also “You can see me.” And when that door is opened, you are giving someone the opportunity to see all of you. All of your pride and beauty as well as flaws and insecurities. You’re revealing the things you want them to see as well as everything you are trying to hide.

Outside of familiar surroundings and loved ones, I find that most of us traverse the world in our own respective bubbles. We don’t peer into someone’s car when they pull up beside us at a stop light. We don’t stop and greet every person we pass as we walk up and down the aisles in the grocery store. In public, we interact when forced. When someone is blocking our path and we have to excuse yourself. When we greet our waiter to assure good service. When we’re waiting for the bus with a stranger and it would just be downright awkward if we didn’t smile and nod our head.

We do just enough to get by and not seem rude. But it’s rare that we actually stop, look someone in the eye, and have a full conversation if we haven’t been around that person consistently. It’s usually considered a disturbance, a knocking on the glass of their fish bowl.

As someone who’s spent the majority of her time giving slight glances and obligatory polite smiles, this intimate setting is very new for me. Challenging even.

After rehearsal, I find myself letting out a deep sigh of emotional exhaustion when I reach my car. Tired from the past two hours of sharing and openness. But along with the fatigue, I also feel inspiration and strength. Happy to be feeling the energy of so many creatives at once. Proud of myself for contributing to and taking from our circle. Realizing that with every meeting, I’m taking a step out of my comfort zone.

As artists, everything that we make is a representation of ourselves. Every song, word, photograph, and painting that we release into the world is an act of looking others in the eyes. It is me…letting you…see me.

Although I’ve denied it for a long time, I am an artist. And to realize my full potential in that role, I have to step out of my comfort zone.

I have to make eye contact.


Raven Best is a member of The Collective at The Sanctuaries, a diverse arts community with soul in Washington, DC. She blogs at raventhings.com