As social creatures, being able to look at others when we interact with them is one of the most important communication tools we have. Making eye contact and seeing the people around us gives us visual clues that contribute to our conversations and help us understand our interactions on a different level.
However, excessive staring can be uncomfortable, or even threatening for the person on the receiving end of the gaze. This is especially true if you’re staring at strangers, or if you find yourself compulsively staring at inappropriate areas. Unfortunately, some people have a hard time managing their staring habits, even if they feel self-conscious about making people uncomfortable.
If you find it hard to stop staring at others (or feel like you are), you might be wondering whether something else is going on. In this article, we’ll talk about some of the reasons behind compulsive staring, and how to get help if your staring is affecting your life.
Why do you stare at people so much?
Vision is an important sense for a reason, and this is especially true when it comes to our interactions with others. Looking at the people we’re interacting with lets us read their facial expressions, decipher their body language, and even bond with them by being more engaged during a conversation.
Everyone has their own threshold of comfort for this important social skill. For example, some people enjoy intense eye contact with the people they’re talking to as a way to connect on a deeper level and immerse themselves in a conversation, while others might find prolonged eye contact highly uncomfortable.
All parts of this range are normal, which means that some moderate levels of looking and staring might simply be a part of your repertoire of social skills. However, if you’re plagued with thoughts about staring at others, frequently worry about how others perceive your eye contact, or find yourself staring for long periods of time or to the point where it’s making others uncomfortable, there’s a possibility you’re dealing with something else.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
If your propensity to stare at others is accompanied by deep anxiety and a feeling like your staring is compulsive and hard to control, OCD can be a potential explanation.
OCD is a condition defined by both obsessions and compulsions. People with OCD will experience obsessions, which are unwanted and intrusive thoughts, feelings, sensations, urges, or images that are highly distressing and go against their normal way of thinking. They may then engage in compulsions, which are actions and rituals they do to ease their distress or stop something they’re worried about from happening.
OCD is most commonly thought of as a kind of mental health disorder that focuses on perfectionism or cleanliness, but OCD fears can involve many different topics, and they target the things that people value most. While it is a little less represented than other manifestations of the condition, some people experience a kind of OCD that causes them to compulsively stare at others around them as part of their cycle of obsessions and compulsions.
Additionally, even if they aren’t actually staring at people excessively, the fears that OCD targets can sometimes make people with OCD think that they are staring too much and making those around them uncomfortable.
These various OCD-related fears about staring might be related to several different kinds of OCD. For example:
- OCD with sexual themes: Some people with OCD will have intrusive and distressing obsessions that circulate around sexual themes or taboo topics. This might cause them to compulsively stare at inappropriate areas like the genitals or breasts as part of their way of coping with the stress and fear that those thoughts may bring.
- “Just Right” OCD: In this form of OCD, people will feel that they have to do things until they “feel right.” In this case, someone might feel “off” until they look at someone or something for a certain amount of time or a certain number of times.
- Somatic OCD: People with Somatic OCD find themselves fixating on certain bodily sensations or functions, one of which can include staring. In cases like “Oculular Tourettic/excessive staring,” they might have fears that they’re staring too much, even if they aren’t actually doing this behavior. This can be triggered by social situations like crowded areas, revealing clothing, or distinct visible features. They may feel the urge to stare in a way that feels out of their control, or have fears that their staring is making those around them uncomfortable or fearful, even if they aren’t actually engaging in excessive staring.
It’s important to note here that compulsions are hard to manage on their own, and people who have OCD often feel like these compulsive behaviors are out of their control. They don’t want to stare. In fact, it brings extreme distress if they are staring, since they feel unable to stop.
Social anxiety disorder
Another potential issue that could be causing your fear and stress over staring is social anxiety disorder. However, in this case, it’s usually more likely that you aren’t actually staring at people too much—rather, you might have related fears of interacting with others that make you feel that the way you look at others might be considered inappropriate.
People with social anxiety disorder (SAD) experience intense fear and anxiety at the idea of being perceived by or judged negatively by others. This anxiety often manifests in extreme self-consciousness and avoidance of social situations. As a result, studies have shown that people with social anxiety disorder tend to have an intense fear of being looked at by others, and in fact are known to avoid eye contact when interacting with others because of that fear.
Therapist April Kilduff, LCPC, LMHC explains that people with social anxiety are actually more likely to make less eye contact with those around them. “Instead of looking around and seeing what’s actually going on, they tend to be head down and assume that everybody’s staring at them because they did something embarrassing,” she explains.
However, this doesn’t mean that they can’t feel like they’re are staring too much. Kilduff goes on to explain, “It’s possible that, in someone who has social anxiety and isn’t used to looking at people, having just a casual glance can feel like staring because they’re not used to it.”
In other words, even normal and appropriate glances can seem excessive or inappropriate if you’re hyperaware of your eye contact with others and you’re worried about what they’re thinking of you. People with social anxiety disorder might also look at others as a way to “read the room” and better understand the social situations at hand, although they are more likely to do this discreetly, to avoid drawing attention to themselves.
Finally, there may also be an element of staring related to some people’s experience of autism, though this can be approached from several different angles.
Autistic people often communicate and carry out social interactions differently than others, which can sometimes manifest in things like difficulty making eye contact. In fact, some autistic people prefer to avoid eye contact when possible since it can contribute to sensory overload.
However, there are also some instances in which autistic people may find themselves staring at others out of interest or as a way to better understand the things that are going on around them.
Kilduff explains that she has seen this in a few different scenarios. For example, one reason that autistic people may stare is because “something is happening that they’re really interested in and fixate on. They may not be aware that they’re staring—they’re just into whatever is happening.”
“The other one is trying to learn how to mask social behavior and conversation,” continues Kilduff. “I’d say it’s actually more like observing, but it can come across to others as staring.”
“Masking” is a strategy that some autistic people will use as a way to hide certain characteristics of their autism when interacting with others. In this case, they might be looking at others to better understand how neurotypical people talk and engage with each other, then use what they learn during their own interactions.
Is my staring a problem?
Prolonged staring can feel uncomfortable or even threatening to others around you. It’s also likely not very comfortable for you if you’re constantly worrying whether you’re doing something to upset others or make them uneasy.
If staring, or even just the idea of staring, is causing you a high level of distress or distraction—or if it is getting to the point that it is actually impairing your ability to function socially or in public—that’s a good sign that it’s time to get help.
“I would say that if you’re getting feedback that you’re staring a lot and it’s causing problems socially, then you might want to see a therapist to inquire about what’s happening, especially since it can cause damage to relationships or in the workplace,” advises Kilduff.
How can you get help for staring too much?
Learning how to manage your staring or your fear of staring will depend on where your fears stem from.
If your staring is related to either OCD or social anxiety, exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) is the best form of treatment. Unlike traditional talk therapy, which can sometimes even make OCD symptoms worse, ERP has been proven highly effective in patients with OCD and a variety of anxiety disorders.
In ERP, you gradually carefully confront the things that you fear the most but without giving into the short-term relief experienced by performing compulsions like avoidance. Ultimately, the goal of ERP is not to make your worries go away completely, which is not possible with OCD or anxiety disorders—instead, ERP is focused on taking the power away from your fears and teaching your brain that you can tolerate uncertainty, doubt, and discomfort.
ERP might sound scary at first since it involves being exposed to the things that trigger your fears. However, your therapist won’t throw your biggest fears at you right away. Instead, you work together to rank situations from least to most distressing, and start from the least scary first and work your way up as you become better equipped to handle them. Over time, you will learn to sit with the distress that those triggers bring without engaging in compulsive behaviors like staring. Your brain might even get bored from those fears.
If you are or think you might be autistic, the goal would be to learn how to better manage your staring behaviors without suppressing them altogether, since they may be an important way for you to understand the world around you or learn more about the things that interest you.
Kilduff explains that she might work with autistic patients to come up with strategies to minimize the staring behaviors to more socially acceptable terms. “We would want them to be aware of how staring might come across, and what kinds of strategies we can use so they can still observe things, but maybe go a little more undetected.” For example, she might work with a patient to teach them to break up a stare into shorter increments and glances rather than one long hard stare.
It can be hard dealing with compulsive or excessive staring, especially since we often don’t want to make people around us fearful or uncomfortable. Luckily, there is help out there for these struggles—and it can be very effective. If you are interested in learning more about how ERP might help you, I encourage you to learn more about NOCD’s accessible approach to ERP treatment. Our therapists specialize in OCD and its related disorders and receive ERP-specific training to help anyone with OCD or anxiety disorders regain control from their fears.