Have you ever been in a situation when someone walks into a room, they are angry and it changes the whole mood of the place? Even if they avoid eye contact, you know they are angry, and you may find yourself avoiding eye contact too. It is like you can feel their anger without knowing anything about what might have caused them to feel upset. Recently I had this experience and the awkward hush that fell over the room had me intrigued.
I decided to do some research on why people avoid eye contact when they are angry and here is what I discovered.
So, why do people avoid eye contact when angry? Avoiding eye contact when angry generally boils down to one thing: Protection. Either they are protecting themselves from you (or a situation) or they are protecting you from themselves.
Most often when someone is angry, they feel threatened, insecure or afraid and the anger catapults an individual to a heightened state of self-preservation. A convenient term used to explain this is the Amygdala Hijack, which I will explain in a moment.
But first, I want to share with you that as I began to explore this I realized that there is an important distinction we need to make.
We are talking about anger in this article, not hostility. The difference between the two is that hostility brings with it a destructive force.
When someone is angry and avoiding eye contact, they aren’t being destructive, and hostility would imply that they are most likely not going to avoid eye contact.
So, let’s talk about why people do this.
11 Reasons why people avoid eye contact when angry
1. Betrayal and a sense of loyalty lost between you and them
When they look at you, they find themselves feeling reminded of what they are upset about.
They could be protecting themselves from further hurt or anger or you from an aggressive response.
If you have committed a social infraction against them (or if they feel you have), quite naturally, they may be come off dismissive and eye contact will be limited.
This communicates a sense of “I’m not talking to you right now, or I’m not communicating with you now.”
Further it is akin to, you have hurt me and I cannot acknowledge you because it brings me pain, or in a more extreme form, it can be used as a punishment.
It will depend on people are used to dealing with anger and how they grew up.
I know I am big on loyalty and growing up in the harsh environment I did, has created a heightened sense of loyalty.
My husband once told me that he was a very loyal person.
I told him, “Yeah but you aren’t hood loyal.”
He asked, “What is hood loyal.”
I said, “You only know what hood loyal is when hood loyal is all you’ve got.”
The point is growing up in a harsh environment solidified a solidarity among us where you would do anything to protect each other.
We were all connected on a different level than most. When one hurt we all hurt. The lines that distinguish self and group were blurred.
That’s the best way I can describe it.
When it came to eye contact especially aggressive eye contact, we were masterful at it. In my culture, we rarely avoided eye contact when we were angry with each other, rather, we had a stare down, and it was a precursor to some to some tough moments.
But because of the loyalty, these spats were short lived and loyalty resumed.
Important: if you are concerned with the lack of eye contact in a romantic or social relationship, you won’t want to miss these eye contact warning signs and hacks. This eye-signal guide (I wrote) is probably as close as you can get to reading someone’s mind, and it took me years to gather all of this information.
2. Upbringing and tolerance in dealing with emotional upsets
How someone grows up and how they dealt with anger in the home has a lasting impact on how someone manages their anger.
My husband grew up in a home where it wasn’t okay to express anger. Anger was bad, and feeling such meant he was bad.
He gravitated toward stuffing his anger and saying nothing.
He told me the story that solidified his perspective when he was 11 years old. It was the championship soccer game, and his team lost.
He told me he remembers feeling angry that his team lost but angrier that the team they were playing, played underhanded.
He felt like the ref missed the pushing, shoving and didn’t call the slide tackles that the other team implemented.
As he was walking off the field, he clinched his hand and made a fist.
That was it. His dad let him have it about how anger would get the best of him. By being angry, it disappointed God, and there was no place for it.
He remembers feeling threatened on the way home. His dad wasn’t going to tolerate it. He realized that his anger would result in repercussions that would come at a cost.
After that day, anger was uncharted territory. He was ashamed of it and felt like it was unnatural.
Naturally he avoided eye contact because he didn’t want his anger to be “found out.”
It’s hard to say given this perspective what the true motive is for someone to avoid eye contact when they are angry but understanding that upbringing may play a role is essential to understanding others.
It wasn’t till years later that (in counseling) it was okay to be angry.
Anger is a natural expression and response to things like loss of control, fear, insecurity, or feeling threatened.
3. Shameful feelings dealing with unresolved anger
Just like in my husband’s case, shame was central to why he naturally avoided eye contact when he felt angry.
He was ashamed of the emotion. He just couldn’t be with it, especially if he felt angry towards someone else.
It was as if he had lost his ability to cope with a situation. Further, he made himself wrong for having those emotions.
If he had been more God-like, he wouldn’t have those types of feelings and would be a “better” person.
Anger simply created more self-loathing and torment and with the emotions directed inward.
The sense of shame came from a place of believing that he wasn’t good enough. Any time he felt that he wasn’t nice to others, and in a sense pushed some level of anger on them, he was filled with guilt.
If you feel like a lot of people don’t like you or you have ever wondered what to do when others hate you. I wrote an article addressing this.
4. Guilt without resolution or outlet
Closely related to shame is guilt. The major difference is that shame has to do more with the relationship with yourself and guilt is centered around your relationship with others.
Maybe you feel like you have a relationship in which you should have done things different. Maybe you should have treated them better, or not yelled as much.
In my husbands case, he was filled with guilt from his divorce. When you inflict any level of injury on others you can experience high levels of guilt.
Even further to this point, if you grew up in a house where you dealt with intense shame, guilt seems to go hand in hand.
This is one of the major reasons why people may not look at someone in the eye. If they feel like they have dealt with them in an injurious way, they may suffer from feeling guilty and not engage.
Even more so, if they have unresolved feelings of anger, they may avoid eye contact. If they feel like the other person is holding the injury over their head, then a guilty anger can simmer under the surface.
5. Anxiety – either anxiety that is foundational to anger or social anxiety
When people are socially awkward, or suffer from social anxiety, they may come off as angry when in fact they are simply uncomfortable.
It’s important to try to get a baseline reading on people. If they just look like they are angry, then, they may be experiencing social anxiety.
The best way to understand what is happening for someone is to ask (of course, if they will let you).
You will want to know if they feel particularly threatened, insecure, vulnerable or afraid.
I recommend approaching this with caution unless you are a trained therapist, or you might want to leave it to a professional anyways.
If you need a checklist on what is going on in the anxious person’s mind so you can ask “without asking,” wink, here is a link to another article I wrote on 21 anxiety-recovery hacks. It will give you an idea on what to look at to get the inside scoop.
Under the anger, it is normal to discover some sort of anxiety according to Albert Rothenberg, M.D. in his article on Understanding Anger.
In fact, the hint from clinical practice that gives rise to a fuller understanding of anger is the well-substantiated two step therapeutic approach — recognition and acceptance of a patient’s anger; and exploration of the underlying reasons for it. When this second step is undertaken and the roots of anger are adequately explored, another more basic phenomenon almost invariably appears: anxiety..Albert Rothenberg, M.D.
6. Fear Response – Amygdala Hijack
Averting your eyes is a trip inwards. So if you are feeling fearful or have the sense that you have or are about to lose control of your environment, then you may avoid eye contact.
This can be cloaked in anger. The anger would stem from the sense of a loss of control and being afraid.
Remember that anger is a protection mechanism akin to fight or flight. It can be rooted in faulty thinking and once the amygdala hijack occurs, you are thrust into a flight or fight response.
The amygdala hijack was a term you can discover in Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book on emotional intelligence. It refers to processes and chemicals in the brain that basically shut off the thinking mind and power up instinctive response.
At this point people get ready to throw down or get out of town, and eye contact won’t be high on the list of priorities.
Think of it as the world becomes two dimensional and everything is perceived in a black or white manner: threat, no-threat.
In the case of your being a non-threat, naturally eye contact would be secondary.
7. Insecurity – Retreating socially
When someone is insecure, they can be triggered easily. They may find your eye contact as threatening and revert back into their proverbial social shell.
This may be a reason for them to come off angry and avert eye contact.
If you find that people feel insecure around you, you can go to work on trying to understand their perspective.
While there isn’t much you can do if someone isn’t willing to share with you what feels real for them, you can be sensitive to the situation.
Look at what you might be doing to cause intimidation. If they feel intimidated, you may perceive their dismissive attitude as anger.
But the anger may be directed inward. They may feel inadequate and respond as upset.
While it may seem irrational, you can explore what is going on for them. I like to let people know that they are free to say anything they want and that is okay.
If they can get real with you, you may see the awkwardness subside.
8. Vulnerability and Isolation
Closely related to insecurity is a feeling of vulnerability. If someone is feeling isolated and vulnerable, they can come off angry.
A feeling of vulnerability or isolation can conjure up intense emotions and anger can ensue. Maybe they are far from home and aren’t happy with they are.
Maybe they have a sense of loss of their social network. There are countless ways that this can play out.
But if someone is angry about it, there perceived sense of vulnerability or isolation can result in a loss of eye contact or avoidance of the same.
9. Inability to Cope
My husband was with a friend at a competitive event and noticed that one of the friendliest members of the team was avoiding interaction at all costs.
He seemed angry and agitated.
His eyes darted back and forth, and he came off extremely dismissive.
Later he discovered that his teammate, in general as a baseline, is agitated by large crowds, and the intensity of the competitive environment threw his sense of ease into an emotional grinder.
He simply could not cope, and it was noticeable. Understanding what is going on for someone else in a situation like this can tough, but it pays to pay attention if you care about the person, and when it is the appropriate time, do some gentle digging.
That way you don’t take it personally.
Remember it is rarely personal.
10. Manipulation and controlling behavior
Anger resulting in a loss of eye contact can be a manipulative tactic.
There is a manipulation tactic that is quite effective. You may have heard of it. It’s called the “Raging Beast Method” or Raging Machine.
The way it works is if someone is angry about something, you get 10 times angrier about something else.
This causes the person to forfeit on the topic they were angry about in order to calm you down.
Avoiding eye contact can be a part of it. The whole, “I can’t look at you right now because I am so upset” is a way to get you to comply.
The way to handle this is not to insist on your topic. It’s time to deescalate and walk away.
However, it is important to bring the subject up again that was bothering you.
If the raging beast shows up again, then let the other person know that you aren’t going to stop the discussion and that the last time you were gracious enough to put your issue on ice.
If you are coming out of an abusive situation, you may find this article I wrote that covers dealing with a manipulative partner.
11. A Cultural role of eye contact (worth mentioning)
This part of the article focuses on culture. I think it bears mentioning that we can misperceive other cultures’ lack of eye contact as a sign of anger, when in fact, it may be a cultural baseline to avoid or avert eye contact.
In my culture, it is rude for younger people to maintain locked and loaded eye contact with older people.
They may not look at you, and coming from a western culture, may be easy to confuse with a lack of respect.
What does the lack of eye contact mean?
When we look outside of averting eye contact due to anger, we discover that there are again many reasons why someone doesn’t
First, it is important to understand that there is a fine line between how long someone should maintain eye contact with you.
Substantially less than this will cause feelings of distrust and more than this can come off as intense and even creepy.
However social anxiety and feelings of inferiority or awkwardness such as when you like someone (or they like you), can cause people to have disproportionate level of eye contact.
I like to ask people if they are okay and discover what is going on for them.
Overall it’s hard to say why someone isn’t maintaining solid eye contact. It could be a lack of confidence, lack of interest, or a social withhold.
The social withhold is when someone is closely guarding a feeling that they associate with vulnerability.
For instance, if someone doesn’t want you to know how they are feeling about the situation they may withhold.
They don’t want to be found out. Often the feelings are in the genre of many of the items listed above in the list of 11 things that often cause people to avoid eye contact.
Why do I avoid eye contact when I am mad at someone?
It’s natural to avoid eye contact when you are mad. Without reiterating all of the items listed above, the reminder of the social infraction they committed against you may disgust you (for lack of a better word).
When you can make yourself right and someone else wrong, you can avoid responsibility, justify your actions, and you may feel compelled to blame them.
In this case, you may feel a sense of superiority and you withhold eye contact in order to punish someone else.
It will really depend on the situation. If someone cheated on you, then looking at them may be a reminder of serious pain, and avoiding looking at them is self-preservation and an attempt to protect yourself against further pain.
What does it mean when someone can’t look you in the eyes?
If this is not the normal baseline for an individual, they may avert their eyes because they are experiencing any one of the following emotions:
- Lack or Loss of Self-Confidence / Self-Esteem
- A need to cover up something in the case of deception
- Social anxiety
Some other things to pay attention to is blink rate. Substantial increases in blink rates can be an indicator of anxiety.
Also when people look down, they are usually thinking about something that has an emotional charge.
This eye-related guide is probably as close as you can get to reading someone’s mind.