The Power of the Gaze

Yesterday I went on another date. While she was lost in my eyes, I was lost in my head. My date, we will call her Sarah (not her real name), asked me a few moments before the aforementioned moment, “what happens in your head from the time we have deep meaningful conversations to the time when the walls go back up, as if the conversations never even happened?” I was floored. I know in those moments of vulnerability I generally check out in order to stay with the topic but it never occurred to me that I so obviously bounced back to a closed off space. Or, that my dissociation was so perceptible. I genuinely never thought about these things because, to me,  they’re just a natural part of this push-pull dynamic that I’ve become used to. And quite frankly, it has served me well in keeping people out, staying protected. But not always.

On rare occasions, a woman will come along and get lost in the storm hidden in my eyes; rather, she is simply intrigued by the mystery this dynamic presents, though it almost always starts with the eyes. Despite feeling like her needs aren’t being met, she sticks around because she has these lofty hopes that once she gets past the walls, there will be someone, something beautiful waiting there for her. She can see that in the depths of my irises apparently. And, in fairness, maybe there is some hope for that… I think I used to be good at relationships. Or, at least, I was good at keeping the walls down and letting people close.

Now, as evidenced by Sarah’s question, I spend most of my time vascilating between open, raw, and “vulnerable” (but mostly dissociated) or shut down but present. It’s rough for relationship building. As my therapist, I’m sure, would also attest (since she feels I am both trying to be her friend and shut her out. No wonder she is confused).

The thing is, my experience of this dynamic seems drastically different from what others experience. It’s something else from the other side. Knowing that, and knowing that in all of these dyads there is some comment made about my eyes, I started to wonder how much of the perception from the other side has to do with the power of the Gaze. Or, the power of eyes, more generally.

At this point you’re probably wondering well, what the heck do your eyes look like?! They’re nothing special, just your everyday hazel.

Always some form of green or brown or green and brown. On rare occasions they look like honey, but that’s so rare I couldn’t even find the one photo I know of that actually shows them that color. My point is, they’re just eyes. But people, almost all people I spend a solid amount of time with, have something to say about them. This makes me wonder,  What do our eyes really reveal?

What is in the power of one’s gaze?

A while back in therapy my therapist said something to the effect of, “with eyes that deep you can’t just be thinking or feeling nothing.” This made me think about all the other ways people have referred to my eyes (and no doubt this is something you’ve experienced as well, meaning being read into your gaze). I’ve been told that my eyes are stormy, intense, deep, passionate, wise. And, often, that they are very expressive. The thing about the latter is that I control that. What is expressed is chosen. I don’t have any choice over the depth people apparently perceive though. In fact, when I look into my own eyes (in the mirror or in photos, because I don’t posses super powers) I don’t see that depth. I really see nothing. I see me, vacantly staring back. So where does this perceived “depth” and “intensity” come from? Is it a genuine perception? Or, is it just that these people know enough about me to know that there is always a storm raging within? They imagine my eyes as a window into the soul they think they know. But can anyone really see that deeply into another person? Are the eyes really the window to the soul?

As is usually the case, I don’t have any answers. Just a lot of questions. And a lot of musings. But, I do know the gaze is powerful; it must be. It is crucial to our healthy development as babies. All the books on development and attachment say so. For instance, in The Neurosciene of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain Louis Cozolino states, “[Right hemispheric networks of attachment] are shaped during childhood in an experience dependent manner through the attunement and connections of the right hemispheres of parent and child. The linking up of right hemispheres is accomplished through eye contact, facial expressions, soothing vocalizations, caresses, and exciting exchanges.” I don’t think it is coincidence that eye contact is listed first. The way that a mother or father lovingly gazes at their baby is important for the baby to feel safe and taken care of; it is crucial to attunement. The right portion of our brain is vital to our social and emotional development, without the proper development of this part of our brain we tend to have a messed up fight or flight response in relationships as we mature. So, I wonder, when taking into account that we also have mirror neurons that allow us to mirror behaviors, facial expressions, etc. from others… how might I have been gazed at in my young life? What am I reflecting back at people?

I do know, having been raised mostly by my father, who is an alcoholic and who has Asperger’s, I must have been denied a good amount of eye contact. He admits this now, he didn’t really know what to do with me or my siblings when we were little. We made him uncomfortable. Certainly this is something we picked up on. Perhaps it is why my brother didn’t like to be touched. Maybe it is why I was perpetually sad. Maybe it is why my other brother prefers to stay in his cave away from people. My sister, who was raised by my mother, who was born from a different father, is remarkably well-adjusted. Maybe it is genetics. Maybe it is nurture, or lack thereof. I promise, I do not mean to place any blame. I know that my issues are way more complex than my lack of proper gaze and attunement in infancy and childhood. But, I don’t want to discount the significance of this either.

Gaze and attunement

When I think about the power of gaze and attunement in terms of development, I think of my niece. When she was born, she was a little mini-me.

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But all babies look similar, right? Maybe not this similar. There was no denying that she belonged to brother. Even though we look similar, our experiences in infancy and childhood were very different. My niece was left with me and my mother when she was a baby. Her parents moved away to Houston. Despite this, however, she was not deprived of loving gazes, of attunement (at least, I hope).

I may have been all kinds of messed up but I did my best to make sure she was looked at with love, to make sure her joy and excitement were mirrored back to her, to make sure she felt accepted and wanted. I did my best because I didn’t have that and instinctually I knew it made a difference.

This difference is apparent from pretty early on in life. For instance, this was me when I was in first grade:

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Sad, right? It actually makes me laugh a little bit now. But, simultaneously, I feel loving tenderness for that little me. I don’t know why she was so sad, so adamantly opposed to looking at and smiling for the camera. I don’t even remember being that child. I wonder if my niece will grow up and remember being 6.

This was my niece in first grade:

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She is so happy, even if she didn’t want to take the picture. But, there is something in her eyes. Something not quite happy, maybe a tiny storm? Or, am I imagining the storm in her eyes, projecting my storm? Is that how it is for others? Do we see in others what we should be seeing in the mirror when we look at ourselves?

Back to the beginning

All of that brings me full circle. What do people really see when they look into my eyes? Are they seeing me? When did my storm start forming, if indeed I do have a storm? Is it from infancy? Childhood? What happened to me to make my eyes carry these stories that others see so easily? Is there any way to project some other meaning from one’s eyes? I’m just filled with questions. Always in my own head while others are, apparently, lost in my eyes.

What about you? What do your eyes say? How were you gazed at as a child? What’s your story?

8 Thoughts

    1. Ah, my perspective is so limited. I hadn’t actually considered what it might be like to be blind during such a crucial period of development. I can see how it would be necessary for the other elements to be extra attuned and loving to make up for those other pieces. It breaks my heart that you didn’t get those loving experiences. It breaks my heart that any baby or child gets deprived of those things.

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  1. My therapist talks all the time about the loving gaze. Its a way we can know we are being seen and loved and I do think that your dissociation is about the fact your father was dissociated as most alcoholics are. My older sister used to look at me like this so often but sometimes it felt a bit too intense for me. I can still at times find it hard to look deeply into someone’s eyes, but I know deep down attunement and how we are looked at leaves powerful imprints deep within us.

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    1. Yeah, I think I got a triple dose with an absent mother and an alcoholic father who is on the spectrum. He doesn’t do so well with social cues or eye contact which he couldn’t help. I learned to compensate as a child but I’m sure it had a huge impact before I was old enough to realize my experience was different from other kids.

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  2. Your eyes are beautiful and haunting. I’m often struck by the fact that extremely intelligent people, and those that have been through some form of trauma (especially long-term), speak through their eyes. Friends of mine who are deeply content and had “good enough” parents have lovely eyes but they lack a certain depth. It has been a consistent observation of mine.

    I wasn’t allowed to make eye contact with my father. It was seen as defiant and disrespectful, and coming from a military background, it was something he himself was taught during training. As a consequence, I almost never look at my therapist in the eyes during our sessions. When I do it’s always shocking, intense, and moving. I see bits of his life story there, grief at my words, the delight he takes in me, and sometimes pure, unfiltered love.

    That photo of 1st grade you is so heartbreaking. You’ve been through so much.

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    1. That’s a really interesting observation, I hadn’t actually noticed that with those few people I know who have had “good enough” parenting. But, you’re right.

      Eye contact is so hard. And especially with therapists. Their eyes say a lot, probably intentionally and unintentionally.

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