Have you ever thought about the way you look at people? What’s the intention behind your gaze – are you sizing them up as an “other,” or are you seeing them as a fellow being? Are you even seeing them at all?

If I’m getting a little too abstract or “hippy-dippy” here, bear with me – I’ll explain!

“Hard eyes” vs “soft eyes”

A few years ago I took a psychology course in college called “Expressive Arts Therapies,” which focused on the various applications of art in therapy and healing. One lesson that always stuck with me was a mindfulness exercise about the way we look at others, specifically whether we use “hard” or “soft” eyes in our gaze.

To look with “hard” eyes is to look with your mind already made up, so to speak. Your gaze is focused and direct, resolute. You’re seeing only what you want to see. “Soft” eyes, on the other hand, implies more of an open gaze; you’re taking in a broader picture and thus a broader impression of what – or who – you’re looking at.

(Fans of the television show The Wire may recognize this concept from a line of dialogue by the character Detective Bunk: “If you got soft eyes, you can see the whole thing. If you got hard eyes – you staring at the same tree missing the forest.”)

During the exercise, the class sat in a circle on the floor and, at the professor’s direction, regarded each other with hard eyes. The feeling around the group was tense and defensive as we stared intently, giving each other the once-over. Our posturing was closed and rigid; some people squirmed.

Next, the professor told us to look around with soft eyes. The mood shifted: we were sitting in more open positions, we smiled as we made eye contact, and our postures were relaxed. The feeling was friendly and inviting.

The professor invited us to discuss what we noticed about each experience. The general consensus was that, when looking with hard eyes, we were focusing on purely the physical appearances of others. We sized them up based on what they were wearing or what they looked like, and then made judgments and comparisons according to what we saw. To be the recipient of a hard-eyed gaze was uncomfortable and awkward, and we were all painfully aware of it when it was directed at us.

Soft eyes, though, were a completely different experience. We all agreed that when looking around with soft eyes, we were seeing people as a whole rather than focusing in on their outward details. We noticed smiles, eyes, and a general feeling of joy and safety. We felt as though we were acknowledging the person rather than their appearance. To receive a soft-eyed gaze felt positive and warm – like a greeting.

I thought this was a compelling exercise in intention: most of the time we don’t realize we’re looking with our hard eyes – it just happens. After that class, I resolved to be more mindful in the way that I look at others as well as how I look at my own self.

The way I look at others is directly proportional to how I look at my own self.

Looking from a lymphedema perspective

Sometimes life with a chronic illness can make hard eyes our default way of looking at things.

I know that’s true for me: the way I look at others is directly proportional to how I look at my own self, so prior to reaching a place of acceptance around my lymphedema, I wasn’t very kind in my gaze.

I saw so much wrong with myself and my body that I assumed others were noticing those flaws, too; in an attempt to “beat them to the punch,” I looked at others judgmentally before they could do the same to me. I was constantly picking apart their appearance and comparing myself to them, which did nothing but feed my insecurities through an endless loop of anxiety and self-deprecation.

Something had to change, and it sure as hell wasn’t going to be my lymphedema: it needed to be me.

After a lot of work around my body image and my lymphedema treatment, I was able to reach a place of acceptance. My gaze used to be like a slammed door – abrupt, closed, unwilling to open up. But now it’s a welcome mat.

When I look in the mirror, I look at myself with soft eyes. I know myself and what I’ve been through. I know I’m so much more than what my outward appearance or my lymphedema may seem to say, and the same goes for everyone else in this world.

Instead of being quick to judge or take inventory, I have been looking at people with openness and kindness, and I invite you to try the same. When you’re walking down the street, be intentional with your gaze. Smile at the stranger passing you, look at them with soft eyes – chances are they’ll probably return the gaze. And, hey – practice directing soft eyes toward yourself while you’re at it!

I know this concept is a little more abstract than what I usually write about, but if it resonated with you, go ahead and give it a try. (And if this wasn’t your cup of tea, no worries – I’ll be back to my regular medical programming in the next post!)

Do you practice mindfulness with your gaze and “look with intention”? Does living with lymphedema influence the way you look at others?