To Stare or Not to Stare

Either Way I Am Offended 

Sometimes spotlight syndrome makes us feel like everyone knows our thoughts and emotions- Photo courtesy of Pexels.

For quite some time now, I have known that my social skills are pretty subpar, almost non-existent in all honesty. It is almost painful to look at someone in the eye during a conversation. Worse still, I make it pitifully obvious that I am feeling awkward with my darted glances at feet, hands, noses, anything to avoid eye contact. 

I have a very hard time focusing on what to say next or how to respond due to the fact that I am busy contemplating, “What are they thinking about me?” I am not alone with my awkward social presence in my family. My father is notorious for walking with his head down to avoid eye contact. This fear of social interaction leads him to sit with his back against the wall and avoid crowds at all cost. We call ourselves the lone wolves, and for good reason. I have made peace with this as a part of who I am, a hodgepodge of social anxiety and introverted character traits.

Regardless of my self-awareness, I still struggle. I worry constantly and dread simple excursions to go get gas or go through the grocery check out line. I can’t express to you in words the gut wrenching feeling experienced when I am forced to talk to a stranger. It feels as if people are peering into my soul as they are trying to make small talk (about God knows what), meanwhile, I’m glancing at the nearest exit, waiting for the opportunity to bolt.

Sometimes it feels like everyone is staring at you when they are not. 

Feeling as If the Whole World Is Staring Is a Symptom of Spotlight Syndrome

This lack of social skills and ability to make small talk naturally includes a hatred of being stared at. One place that used to be unbearable for me was the gym. In the gym there are many triggers that flare up my social anxiety. One such trigger was catching people staring at me. You know that awkward feeling when you glance in the mirror or across the weight room and lock eyes with a stranger? That was me on the daily. 

This awkaward feeling was very frustrating for me because I was beginning to really enjoy going to the gym. I liked the progress and self-love I was starting to develop. I decided to look into why I was experiencing these feelings of anxiety when being stared at and I stumbled upon something called the spotlight effect. It dawned on me that my awkwardness in public settings such as restaurants, grocery stores, and the gym could be a combination of social anxiety heightened by the spotlight effect.

The spotlight effect is a term used by social psychologists to refer to the tendency we have to overestimate how much other people notice about us. In other words, we tend to think there is a spotlight on us at all times, highlighting all of our mistakes or flaws, for all the world to see. For people with social anxiety, the spotlight effect can be much worse, to the point that it has an effect on your ability to work or feel comfortable around other people. – Very Well Mind

Man is looking up at lights that shine down on him in darkness.
Have the feeling that everyone is looking at you in the spotlight? – Photo courtesy of Pexels

With this new understanding, I continued my gym routine determined to conquer my spotlight issues. I have found some ways to cope such as listening to music, wearing a hat, working out with a gym partner and focusing on small goals during my workout to keep me motivated, focused and calm.

Just when I thought I had found success , a new irritation flared up. I had started to convince myself that no one really cared what I was doing in the gym. No one noticed if I dropped a weight on my toe or hit my head on the bar coming off the bench press. No one cared if my hair was greasy under my hat or if my underwear line was showing through my leggings. I was there for me, to build upon my physique and my character and nothing else mattered. However, one day a man whom my brother nicknamed bastardis (we shall call him B for short) walked through the gym door.

To describe B is comical to say the least. No matter what time I went to he gym, B was always there. Every time I saw his beat up Nissan with the spare tire on the back my heart sank. I had his parking spot memorized; it was almost as if everyone did. B owned that parking spot like a piece of property on a monopoly board. He was a short, older man with a buzz cut. He wore the same stretched out salmon colored stringer top that could barely be called a piece of clothing, EVERY day. His grey shorts which appeared to once be sweatpants were cut to about mid-thigh length. This combo of clothing barely covered any part of his body. One part of his wardrobe that could never be forgotten was a worn leather lifting belt. It seemed as though the belt may have taken him back to his body building glory days. He wore the belt during every exercise. The thing that baffled me though was that he didn’t wear it to support his back. He loosely buckled it so that it sagged down below his ass and just kind of hung there. I guess to paint you a mental picture, he looked like a pink gumdrop with two toothpick legs in a big ass belt.

B made quick work of scoping out the regulars in the gym. He went up to every bodybuilder or aspiring weight lifter and offered TONS of advice. My brother, who was my gym partner at the time, did not escape his gaze. From across the gym, B marched to where we were benching. Completely ignoring me, he started a conversation while my brother was spotting (that is a no no). He proceeded to show my brother tricep stretches which he believed was the cure to shoulder pain while benching. My brother, being an extreme introvert also, sat silently and listened awkwardly not knowing how to handle the situation. Whenever B was in the room, we held our breath and tried not to catch his attention.

Here is the thing about B, he never worked out. Sure he stretched, and stretching is important. But that is all he did. The rest of his 2 hour gym stint was conducted scouring out the room for unsuspecting victims. He always claimed the same hunting ground, the EZ bar rack. He would stand leaning against the weights taking up a whole wrack. This spot not only gave him a good vantage point near a mirror but it was also the most heavily trafficked area. Anyone who wanted to use an EZ bar would have to come to him first. He stood there staring at anyone who caught his attention. Blatantly staring. I tell you this was not in my head and this was not spotlight syndrome. It drove my brother and I crazy.

I am not against taking advice from those wiser than me. I don’t consider myself ageist or too proud to learn. Yet, I did take offense to the condescending tone B used when “teaching” the craft of bodybuilding. With the amount of time B spent in the gym, I expected him to be shredded and the most muscular old man I have ever witnessed. That was not the case.

Wooden hammer about to hit fragile egg.
It doesn’t take much to smash someone’s mental progress. – Photo courtesy of Pexels

B smashed my mental progress in the gym. I couldn’t focus. I could feel his eyes burning into me, judging me, every set, every rep. I felt his gaze  follow me every time I went to fill up my water bottle at the drinking fountain. 

One day, I came to the realization that this was not the case. I waltzed into the gym determined that i would be the victor, this man would not ruin my two years of progress. I was going to stare back, no matter how painful. My strategy was to conduct non-stop staring until he left us alone (a stare off if you will).

When I proceeded with my plan, I noticed something mind boggling. He never looked at me. Not even once. Sure he stared my brother down at least a dozen times, but never me. WHY? Was I not worthy of his stares? You would think I would feel relief. Me, the person who would rather stare at a beige wall all day then endure 10 seconds of human eye contact. I felt pissed off that B was not gracing me with his gaze.

Oh the layers of emotions, yes I still was struggling with social skills and spotlight syndrome but I also was developing an incredible sense of pride in who I was becoming. I did my research, I put the effort into form and technique, I built what I considered a strong, solid base of muscle. Why did I not warrant his stares and unwanted criticisms? “Are you not entertained?”

I was offended. Then I noticed the trend. He only approached males. Maybe he was sexist, maybe he had a hard time communicating with women, I don’t know. I like to think that I intimidated him instead. His wife, whom I have not yet mentioned, came to work out with him every day in a floral dress. She would always go straight to a treadmill. She was stuck in the never ending routine of tortois paced cardio. Her workout routine was followed by the ritual of wiping EVERY cardio machine down as if she was getting paid or was expected to clean them. She then sat patiently while her husband finished conversing with whomever he deemed worthy. Why didn’t B share his knowledge with his wife or encourage her to lift weights with him? Maybe Mrs B was too self concious or afraid to join him. Maybe this is the only idea B had of what women in the gym were to be doing and his wife would only be a hindrance.

To this day I don’t know if my guess about B’s disapproval of women lifting is correct. Regardless, even though B offended me, I learned a valuable lesson about myself. Although most of the time I overreact and only think negatively when people stare at me, sometimes, attention and gazes are a type of acknowledgment of hard work. In the gym and outside, when we work hard, people are going to notice and most likely stare, some might even try to approach us. It’s how we perceive the attention that matters.

I used to strategically dodge conversations at work when colleagues simply wanted to discuss strategies that I used or a project outcome. It is okay to talk about oneself and your findings and be proud of your success. I now allow this pride in small doses while maintaining a sense of humility.

Now when I catch the occasional person staring at me in the gym mirror, instead of instantly questioning my form or worrying about my appearance, I tend to think, “Yeah, there is something to look at here. The result of hard work and a drive for success. Stare away if you please (just not for too long).”

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