Simple Situations that Keep You from Going Out
I have a vivid memory from elementary school, waiting in the car while my father talked to my teacher. I remember watching my dad walking towards the car in his distinct purposeful gait. My dad has a signature walk. Fast paced, direct steps and head down at an angle staring at the ground.
I always wondered why my father never looked up when he was walking. We loved walking as a family. We completed miles and miles of adventures and family treks. It was our thing. Why did my father let so much of the experience pass him by while his eyes were glued to the ground?
Now, as an adult I think I know. At least, I can speak for myself. I suffer from sidewalk anxiety. It started in college, navigating the hallways and sidewalks from class to class. I rarely looked up. Meeting awkward stares literally raised my blood pressure.
It got worse when I went for a 2-year study abroad stint in South Korea. I stood out like a sore thumb in all my classes, on every street, in every restaurant, bathroom, and especially the SIDEWALK! I got used to being stared at, it doesn’t bother me. What I have not mastered is the ability to look back.
Back in the States, I now have carried this awkward walking issue into our local grocery stores, apartment parking lot and trails we frequent. It bothers me. I decided to get to the bottom of it and analyze why I look down at certain time and not at other and drew the following conclusions:
-I look down regardless of the age of the oncoming person (old, young, child, baby, it doesn’t matter)
-I look down regardless of the sex of the oncoming person
-I look down regardless of the race of the oncoming person
-I look down regardless of my familiarity with the oncoming person (colleague, apartment worker, neighbor, it doesn’t matter)
-I don’t look down because of fear
-I don’t look down because I am not friendly
There are consequences to my sidewalk anxiety. I avoid going out for a dog walk around 2-4 when school is lets out. While also tending to avoid going to the gym early in the morning or late at night because of the potential gym regulars. I avoid shopping on Fridays and Sundays (though I think others do that as well).
There are other mental consequences too. I feel bad. I start to ponder if the other person thinks I am rude, or racist or stuck up. That I am avoiding them for a reason or making it awkward on purpose. Or perhaps, they don’t notice anything at all and it’s all in my head (which is scary too).
So, naturally I started researching to find like-minded people or any information on my side walk predicament.
I stumbled upon a lot of articles that address anxiety as a source of fear.
Very Well Fit lists common reasons people stay at home or avoid walking:
- Fear of mugging or rape
- Fear of darkness
- crowds and people
- Being alone
- Self- conscious about body image
The list goes on, but it mostly focuses on fear. I am not afraid of on comers. Going back to my memory of my father walking, I definitely don’t think he was afraid of on comers either.It is more of an unbearable, painful awkwardness that I explored before in my post on staring at the gym:
So what is the root of this sidewalk anxiety? Being able to look people in the eye is a social skill that is required in the workplace and to have healthy relationships.
Eye contact is one of those Goldilocks things: Too much, and people find you intense; too little, and people think you’re shifty. -The CUT
Mathu Storoni wrote a helpful article titled, “If You Don’t Know Why Eye Contact Makes You Uncomfortable, This Is It.” Her article focuses less on fear and more on direct eye contact opening a door into your thoughts without permission. I had previously studied the spotlight syndrome and I think my anxiety about direct eye contact on the side walk is another rendition of this condition.
I have always been hyper sensitive to how people feel. My worst fear is insulting someone or making them uncomfortable. Storoni wrote, “by looking at something, you’re telling the world what’s on your mind. When someone looks directly at you, you’re on their mind.” She goes on to write that when you have direct eye contact, “you place your attention on whatever it is they are looking at. But what happens when they look at you? Do you look at you too? Do you place your own attention on yourself?”
Direct eye contact increases self-awareness – in a similar way to when you look at your own reflection in a mirror. -Storoni
This nailed it on the head. When I go for a walk and accidentally make direct eye contact with someone and awkwardly look away, I wonder how they see me. As a rude person? Did I hurt them? That is what I saw in myself.
Maybe they don’t want to be looked at, did I upset them? It is a state of mind completely focused and exaggerated on myself, and how I affect people, when in reality, they probably didn’t even notice. If they did, it’s normal to break eye contact.
Self-referential processing is a mental state where you interpret everything going on around you with an exaggerated focus on yourself. -Storoni
How to Tackle Sidewalk Anxiety and Direct Eye Contact
There are a lot of self-help articles out there focused on nailing a job interview or establishing credibility as a public speaker. But what about the regular Joe Schmo who just wants to look forward to an afternoon walk without avoiding oncoming pedestrians?
I don’t want to get to know the people I pass by, I don’t want to start a conversation. I simply want to respectfully pass them without anxiety and both go on our merry way. Sean Cooper addresses this in his article, “How to Walk Past People Without Freaking Out.”
Simple walking techniques for sidewalk anxiety:
- Try to acknowledge that you are overthinking the situation
- Try NOT TO LOOK DOWN at the ground (dad and I are going to struggle with this one)
- Pretend you are the other person– you don’t want to walk towards a nervous you!
- Relax and think about something else– I usually shift my attention to my dog to make sure he is behaving
If you suffer from sidewalk anxiety, what are your tried and true tricks for success?