“As in water, face reflects face, so the heart of a man to a man” (Proverbs 27:19). This statement has a biological basis. Deep in the lower brain is a tiny almond-shaped area called the amygdala (ah-MIG‑dala), which is the fear-processing center. The amygdala contains “mirror cells” which cause us to reflect what others are feeling. If someone smiles at us, we tend to smile back. But if someone is hostile, we tend to feel scared and defensive, often wanting to hurt back due to the pain we are feeling."
Other than people’s body language, the main way we have of tuning into people’s feelings is through their eyes. The eyes are truly windows of the soul. When people look at us, they either heal us or harm us. Eyes have power. Eyes filled with love, understanding and acceptance are healing. This is why we love to be in the presence of truly holy people who accept us as we are, with all our faults and foibles. The more we practice loving others, the more pure this conduit becomes.
The eyes are truly windows of the soulWhether we like it or not, this means that we are also affected by eyes which radiate disapproval, scorn or hatred. Even if we tell ourselves, “Don’t take offense and don’t be bothered by these harmful rays.” If we have a strong sense of self-worth and we encounter such eyes only briefly and rarely, such as at the supermarket or on the bus, we are able to shrug off the effects and return to a state of emotional equilibrium. But those who are emotionally fragile can suffer greatly, even from these minor encounters.
We “switch” eyes throughout the day, depending on circumstances. When people are happy to see us, we feel safe; but when we are criticized or ignored, we withdraw or attack back. This instinctual response to hostility is a survival tactic we all need. Those who live or work with people whose eyes exude negativity will inevitably suffer both physical and emotional damage. Research shows that our stress hormones soar, and the level of T-killer cells—the cells which destroy invading viruses and bacteria—plummets, within seconds of being criticized or yelled at. There is also damage to our sense of self-worth and security. People really do get sicker around hostile individuals. Pregnant women who live or work with hostile people give birth to babies with more health and behavioral problems.
Imagine the damage suffered by children who must sit for hours in a classroom with a teacher who conveys, in words, grades or gestures, “You are a failure! You are so slow! You did so poorly on the test! Your backpack is such a mess! You are not performing up to par!” Imagine if the child comes from a home where eyes often tell him, “Shame on you! You tracked mud onto the floor! Idiot! Look at these grades! You are a pest, a slob and a brat. You only listen when I yell at you!” Or, “Leave me alone! I am overwhelmed! I have no time for you! You’re such a bother!”
Marriage, too, can heal or harm. When a spouse rages frequently or shows contempt in looks, gestures or words, the victim will soon begin to suffer all kinds of physical and emotional illnesses, such as chronic anxiety and depression, auto-immune illnesses, thyroid dysfunction, fibromyalgia and digestive disorders. The body attacks itself, mirroring the hateful eyes of the attacker. It is impossible to maintain a sense of security and stability if one is told day after day, “You are a failure, a disappointment and a loser.”
Obviously, we will not always feel loving, especially when we are exhausted, overwhelmed or frustrated. If the “love bank” is full, an occasional withdrawal will not be harmful. However, if there is not enough in the love bank, people will adopt various protective behaviors, called defense mechanisms, to avoid “evil eyes” and help them feel safe. For example, some people learn to go numb and dissociate from what is happening. Others adopt OCD behavior, such as cleaning excessively or being “super-religious,” hoping that being perfect will keep them from being judged as unworthy. Some become super-achievers in the hope of winning praise from outsiders, yet feeling, deep within, “Nothing I do is ever good enough.” Codependents become compulsive people-pleasers and approval seekers, so terrified of seeing disappointment in people’s eyes that they will do anything to please people, including allowing themselves to be exploited and abused. Teens may be so used to disapproving eyes that they provoke contempt with weird clothing, body piercings, or rebellious and repulsive behavior. Some escape the loneliness with addictions, or become bullies, building themselves up by tearing others down.
Our immediate, instinctual emotional response is not in our direct control. Just accept what you feelUnfortunately, when people complain to advisors about feeling scorned, their pain is often trivialized as they may be told, “It’s just words. Ignore it. Don’t take it seriously.” Often, they are blamed and told, “You must be to blame. It must be because you’re not respectful enough. You have to be more organized/submissive/kind.” Thus, in addition to the pain they are feeling, there is now added a sense of failure at not being able to ignore the insults or change the other person’s behavior. If they tell a doctor about chronic fatigue, depression or panic attacks, they are apt to be given psychiatric medication to shut down the amygdala. So now they think, “I must be crazy for feeling bad.”
Ona’as devarim, which is the Torah expression for scorn, belittlement, contempt and ridicule, is compared to spiritual murder. The effects can be tragic, as evidenced by the teenage suicides which can result from hostility. Since we all experience “evil eyes” at times, we must learn to maintain our sense of self-worth despite people’s hostility. This requires that we temporarily disable the amygdala (fear center) and activate a portion of the brain known as the anterior cingulate, located just behind the eyes. This is the center of compassion and understanding. Each time that we practice the following exercises, we actually strengthen the anterior cingulate and weaken the primitive amygdala:
- Validate your feelings. Fear, shame and guilt arise in the amygdala. Don’t tell yourself, “I shouldn’t be feeling this way.” Or, “It’s my fault for not being able to please them.” Our immediate, instinctual emotional response is not in our direct control. Just accept what you feel.
- Do not take responsibility for other people’s anger (unless, of course, you have purposely done something to hurt them). Instead, disable your mirror cells and activate your anterior cingulate by feeling compassion for yourself, for the pain you feel and for people who need to be sarcastic, nasty and critical in order to gain a sense of power and superiority. They will never know true love.
- Do not internalize their scorn. People will sometimes think you are stupid, uncaring, crazy and inept. Remind yourself frequently, “In G‑d’s eyes, I have infinite worth. I am good enough for Him. He loves me, even if others don’t.” Instead of thinking, “I’m not good enough,” think, “I give myself permission to see myself with loving eyes.”
- If you are a sensitive, vulnerable type, keep a list of your daily acts of kindness and courage. This has enormous benefit.
- With unreasonable people, do not try to be reasonable! Be polite, but avoid explanations, justifications, excuses or defenses. Use your silence as a time to pray to G‑d for healing for yourself or others.
- Stop trying to change people. Just do your own inner “compassion work.” Those who have the ability to respond will do so. Those who can’t, won’t.
- If you must be in the presence of critical people, try to have “buffers” around you to soften the blows and “absorb” some of the hostile emotional charge.
- Train yourself to look at the world with loving eyes. Practice with nature—flowers, sunsets, trees, etc. Then practice smiling at people with these same unconditionally loving eyes. This is true “eye power”—and “I power.”
- Forgive yourself and others for being imperfect.
- Hostile people are very touchy and easily offended. If you are a codependent, you try anything to please them, fearing to trigger their rage by saying “No” to a request. Start small. Learn to say, “I’m sorry, but I cannot handle that right now.” Or, “It’s not convenient for me to do that.” Understand that if you suffered rejection or abuse as a child, you may still fear being rejected or abandoned. You may still think that other people determine your worth. Now, as an adult, you can acquire new tools. If people reject you for not always being generous, available or perfect, protect yourself by keeping your distance.
When we feel hurt by people, we can turn to the words of the Psalms to remind us of how King David dealt with such situations. Despite the pain, we can trust that G‑d views us with loving eyes and wants us to experience these events to strengthen our relationship with Him. Validate your need to be loved, to be looked at with caring eyes. Nutritious people are similar to nutritious food. Just as junk food destroys the body, there are those who will destroy our souls if we let them!