In this first post of my behavioural series, I want to talk about one of my behaviours I never realised I struggle with. Eye contact. I think it’s one of my key behaviours that shows I was abused, but only other survivors and people who understand the effects and affects of abuse will see this as a sign. That is exactly why I want to start off with eye contact. It has nothing to do with self esteem issues (though that is another issue) or autism (in my case), it has everything to do with fear. My Instagram poll showed 88% of my following abuse survivors have difficulty with eye contact.
It might be hard to imagine, but I struggle with visual and emotional flashbacks almost 24/7. 98% of these are about my mother. I recently came to the acceptance that she was nothing short of a tyrant who instilled a lot of fear and terror inside me. It’s not a lack of loyalty that is the reason I haven’t seen or spoken to her in over 10 years, but pure fear. We live in the same city, in opposite neighbourhoods. For years I would run and hide whenever I saw her (flight response), I still flinch (freeze response) whenever there is a woman who looks like her from a distance.
Eye contact is used to inflict fear within victims. They don’t call eyes the windows to our souls for nothing, a lot can be seen not only from our eyes but also within our eyes. A lot can be said using the eyes too. My mother used her eyes to gain control over me, much like most predators do. Whenever a narcissist like my mother feels a “narcissistic injury” or a threat, their eyes change. It’s like a glaze moves over their eyes and it can quickly disappear too. It’s almost like something possesses them for a moment. My mother used to lean forward (almost leaning over me) and look deep in to my eyes whenever she was furious with me. She cornered me once in my bedroom after I had run away from her. I was 10 years old, terrified and cornered in my own bedroom unable to get away from my abuser. Those same eyes stared in to mine and I felt nothing but terror, my body still cramps up almost 24/7 because of the freeze response that situation from 20 years ago gave me. She’d beat me up after that. Her eyes turned back to normal and she was calm, like nothing had happened. All this just because I said no and wanted to walk away from her screaming at me.
This situation is also one of the many flashbacks I deal with, even during social settings. People who see me on a regular basis might have noticed I am not very good at making eye contact or at keeping eye contact. Depending on whether I have a good, okay or bad day (or moment), eye contact will be easier or harder for me to make. I often concentrate on something in front, next or behind the person I talk with. I often find it easier to communicate during activities because eye contact is not exactly necessary or very limited. I also will suddenly break eye contact because of a flashback or dissociation. This might be very brief and only for moments at the time. It might also be during the rest of the conversation because anxiety rises and I start to dissociate. Body language and tone of voice also tells you I’m dissociating because I’m starting to tense up, look and sound like a little girl. This is a very personal behaviour because of trauma and has little to do with other people. It’s neither one’s fault that abusers use eye contact to abuse.
Apart from difficulty making eye contact because of flashbacks and dissociation. When dissociated in contrary to avoid eye contact, I will also often try to make eye contact to look for either approval or disapproval. Familiar with that famous look of disapproval? Abusers use that with everything you do and don’t do. You learn to walk on eggshells and to “read” the abuser as to not upset them and protect yourself. Because of this I am hyper vigilant for body language and facial expressions. You could be a saint and I’d still tense up when you make a microscopic change in your body language or facial expression. Dissociating and preparing myself for abuse. With strangers or people I am just getting to know, dissociation and lack of eye contact will be significantly worse, I think because my brain and body don’t know what to expect yet. It’s unknown whether a new person will be abusive or not. Often I still feel like a puppet on a string, waiting for permission. Especially on bad days people might see me as quiet and submissive. Unable to to speak or ask questions, waiting for orders and only move or do something when it’s asked of me or when I notice that it’s okay (through eye contact).
This brings me to next weeks behaviour, dependency. I will talk more and explain what this type of dependency means and how this shows in my behaviour. I will put up a poll in my Instagram stories every Monday about that weeks behaviour.
Love & Light, Sandra