Feeling like people are looking at me.
That feeling that people on the bus are looking at us, or staring in the gym, or that even at work that they will notice our redness.
A sense of the spotlight coming over us, all the eyes in the room turned only on us. Feeling the red rise up our face as our head says “run away”, “get out of here” or “cover up”!
Many of us can feel that others are looking at us and as such avoid going certain places because of it.
This article covers how no-one identifying with this is alone; it happens to a lot of people. It is something that if left to develop can cause more than embarrassment. Long term it prevents people from living a normal life and doing things that they enjoy.
We can do this in three ways: Thinking back that everyone was looking at us/ we screwed up; thinking that they are looking at us right now and that that is awful; or thinking about how people will look and think about us in the future.
The nature of memory is that the most extreme memories stand out. The first kiss, the proposal the baby being born gets priority over everyday stuff.
Likewise, memories of embarrassing moments, a faux pas, the time we insulted someone by accident, that time we slipped, panicked or spilled something are going to stay longer in the mind.
If we feel that we have really embarrassed ourselves we store these memories as traumatic memories and they can be evoked easily by similar situations in the now or pending in the future.
This plays an important role in how we see and think about ourselves, others and the world around us.
I think we all have memories of times we let ourselves or others down and of times we wish we acted differently, but sometimes these incidents click with something that we already thought was wrong with us.
Or perhaps the event was so public we feel ashamed even thinking about it. These stored memories can come back to us at any time. Too many of them can lead to us developing beliefs, awkwardness’s and hang ups about ourselves that we then play out.
Feeling the eyes of others on us in the moment.
When this happens to people, it strikes when they are typically out and about trying to do something or when something is happening to them.
A lot of clients report that they feel this when they are on public transport. Sitting on the Bus, Dart or Luas can be an awful time for feeling people are looking at us.
The gym is another place from where I get a lot of reports of this or when out exercising. Going out for a run or walk with the dog.
Even shopping or being out buying clothes or foods. Walking towards traffic and thinking the drivers are looking. Buying sanitary products or contraception, or birth control. Waiting for a doctor’s appointment or just going into college/work or school.
Many clients that I work with report feeling that when they are having panic attacks this is a time when they feel all the eyes in the room turning on them.
The way that stress works is that it is our bodies reaction to scary things happening around us. But the thing with anxiety is that it is more like our bodies reaction to scary thoughts we have in our heads.
When we think that people are looking at us it instantly makes us worse, go redder, feel self-conscious and act awkwardly to the point where people might actually start looking at us. Thinking they are thinking negative thoughts about us likewise fuels this anxiety fire.
Incidents where we thinking people are looking at us funny may get added to incidents in the past and ultimately lead to further change in how we see ourselves, others and the future.
Thinking people will look:
Those who feel in the moment that they are being stared at generally begin to fear going places because people might be look at them or think bad things about them.
This fear comes in the form or “what if” thinking. We think what if I say something stupid. What if I fall off the exercise bike? What if I freak out or get panicky or what if I go red and everybody notices?
The in the moment experiences are bad enough but these predictions lead to a high amount of anxiety in the body. When our brains show us scary pictures of getting embarrassed it creates a reaction in the body akin to the actual experience.
We squirm and wriggle in our chairs at the thought of having to face being looked at or laughed at. This creates a feedback loop between our bodily symptoms (anxiety) and more thoughts.
Anxious people then tend to exit the process by avoiding or not putting themselves in situations where this might happen.
The name of this is safety behaviour and safety behaviours do three things: one good, two bad.
Firstly, as a good thing they bring down our anxiety. We don’t go for coffee with our friend, or we make an excuse and don’t go to the party. This immediately brings down our anxiety as we go, phew… close one!
However, what we have also just done is (1) reinforced the belief that something bad is likely to happen and (2) we miss out on pleasant experiences and even put distance between ourselves and others.
Changing this pattern:
Generally speaking we might actually be right that someone had looked or has or will look at us funny. But do we know that everyone is looking at us or indeed what they are thinking.
But by avoiding things we enjoy avoiding the “what if” always makes anxiety worse. If we notice, we are doing this then we need to come up with rational comeback to bring down the anxiety and make it easier for us to go out. It’s also good to know the following:
At the centre of this distortion is a thing called projection. When we project, we are looking at all the things that we don’t like about ourselves but imaging it in the minds of others.
Typically, this stems from a lack of confidence in what we are doing. The girl in the gym who thinks everyone is looking at her generally has no proof or evidence that they are. But she knows that she’s embarrassed and doesn’t feel like she knows what she’s supposed to be doing.
Maybe she thinks that in life she must be perfect and so imagines that others will think she’s stupid for not knowing how to use the machine.
The man who had a “shameful” panic attack in work and had to go home early, now feels that (1) it might happen again and (2) everyone will look at him. He feels he can’t face work.
But he doesn’t think about how this has happened once in all his years in work and has no evidence that anyone but his manager who he spoke with about going home had any knowledge about it.
Instead he projected his own shame onto the minds of others and by doing this makes himself much more panicked in work as a result.
Ask: who’s hang ups and fears are these? Others don’t think the same as us about things, but we imagine they see the worst in us, the things we fear the most.
Nobody is that special:
I’m sorry to say this but it is true: nobody is that special that everyone around them starts staring at them when they go red, work out, walk on the street or even have a panic attack.
If we think about ourselves: how many of the people we see every day on the bus, in public or at college do we remember? Very few I would wager!
The fact is that to other people, unless they know us, we are not that important. They are thinking about their own lives, days and activities.
A lot of people don’t even notice when something is up with intimate family and friends. They are more likely looking in their phones or thinking about dinner.
Another thing is that even if they were thinking about us, we don’t know that for a fact unless they tell us.
Acting on anything other than what we have been told to our face means we are hugely open to projecting our insecurities into the blanks.
I tell clients that this is also called mind reading. It’s also a little grandiose as unless we are a celebrity, not everyone is going to be looking at us. When did the last fan ask for our autograph? Unless we can answer that one, we might have to look at our own thinking.
And if someone is so what, let them look!0 Maybe they are looking behind us, maybe they think we are cute, maybe we have a snot hanging from our nose but ultimately, we can only guess unless they tell us.
Their thoughts and what they see can’t hurt us, but we can hurt ourselves with our own thoughts of what might they be thinking!
Get back to ourselves because it is us that define and create our own realities through thoughts. This realm is where our joys and sufferings are created.
“S/he who looks outside dreams, s/he who looks inside awakens”
If someone reading this identifies with anxiety over Social Media, then therapy is a great place to come for personal change and improving relationships.
I am a psychotherapist working in private practice in Dublin 11 near Glasnevin Cemetery, 10-15 minutes from the city centre, 5 minutes from Phibsboro and close to Finglas, Santry, Cabra, Drumcondra.
Anxiety Ireland has a network of counselors across Ireland. Feel free to message me or the Facebook page for more information.
Again, I am always happy to answer messages to our page or I am happy to take calls/text to see how I can help:
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Team Anxiety Ireland
Anxiety is a merry-go-round, going nowhere fast, it’s ok to step off.
Our other articles on thought distortions include: Filtering, Catastrophizing, Polarized thinking, All or nothing thinking, Mindreading, Shoulds, Emotional Reasoning, Global labeling and of course the Fallacys: Being Right, Control Fallacies, Fallacy of Fairness, Heaven’s Reward Fallacy and Fallacy of Change. (Find blogs about these in our photos on facebook/website).