Eye Rolls: When Your Story Doesn't Get a Kind Reaction
Eye rolls when you least expect them: why it happens and how to cope.
Posted April 5, 2019
When you share an important event that occurred in your life with friends or family, the expectation is that it will be met with some degree of engagement and appropriate reactions.
But an eye roll?
What does it mean when your story, especially if it involves a critical moment for you—such as an exciting promotion or a frightening car accident—is met with an eye roll?
Why Do People Roll Their Eyes, Anyway?
First off, let’s understand the common meaning behind eye rolls. Lisa Bahar, a licensed psychotherapist in Newport Beach, California, explains that eye rolls are an expressive form of communication that typically conveys judgement or an evaluation about what the speaker is sharing. “An eye roll often suggests disbelief, or is a ‘here we go again’ reaction.”
“Every emotion has a feeling and an action,” Bahar explains. This is why when you feel envy, you might roll your eyes, tilt your head, or press your tongue in your cheek in response to someone’s story. Or, if you’re angry, you might clench your jaws or fists.
Additionally, she says the act of sharing something with someone else can act as what’s referred to as a “prompting event” for the listener. When an event occurs (say, hearing someone else tell a story), it can prompt the listener to make an interpretation about what it means to them. Along with that can come eye rolls, clenched fists, or a host of other reactions.
When the Reaction Didn’t Seem Called For: Hurt Feelings
When an eye roll reaction seems to be unfitting based on the topic at hand, it may become upsetting or concerning for the speaker.
“When someone reacts in a way that is disproportionate and not in line to what the person is saying,” Bahar says the speaker is likely left feeling invalidated, misunderstood, sad, or angry. “The person speaking was probably hoping for comfort and ended up with a feeling of discomfort, so they may feel a bit abandoned.” In short, there likely was an anticipated reaction that wasn’t met, creating disappointment or confusion for the speaker.
Envy, Chaotic Lives: Some Possible Reasons Behind Eye-Roll Reactions
Bahar says that there are several variables worth considering when you receive a disappointing reaction like an eye roll. The topic may be one that didn’t go over well for the listener during another interaction they had at another time, having nothing to do with you. It could be a reflection of what someone else did or said to them. Then again, perhaps what you’re saying has everything to do with your relationship and your history together. “It may or may not be personal,” she says.
Furthermore, an eye roll and accompanying head tilt—in the case of someone discussing an uplifting event like a promotion as an example—could indicate envy, a feeling that you manipulated someone to get ahead, or it could be indicative of their competitive side.
But someone who rolls their eyes in response to someone’s scary experience—being the victim of a hit and run car accident, for example, or a bad fall down the stairs—may be a reflection of the listener's own life chaos, Bahar notes. If someone has a great deal of things happening, hearing about another person’s upsetting experience may add to their stress. Therefore, the eye roll could be a reflection of their own mounting life issues. Your story, in essence, may be adding yet another chaotic component to someone’s already overwhelming life.
After the Eye Roll: What Steps Should You Take?
When you feel invalidated during times like this, Bahar suggests taking the entire situation into consideration. Might the reaction perhaps reveal a kernel of truth about you and your story? Is there anything you can learn about the person and their life based on their reaction? Be open and know that it’s not always a personal attack on you or your specific story, she adds, but rather an opportunity to gain some insight into their world and even your own.
Ideally, Bahar recommends taking an initial step back if possible. “If you’re reactive, this can be hard to do,” she says, “but try to stop and don’t let your emotions take control of the situation.” Stopping and observing what is going on, she explains, can be beneficial. “Pause in the moment, journal about the experience, or speak to a therapist.” Otherwise, gossip can occur, creating a great misuse to time that could be better used to try to understand the response.
Another option is to communicate your feelings to the other person. Try to convey that their eye roll was hurtful. Admit that you may have misunderstood the reaction, but that you value the relationship and you're simply trying to understand. “This is a healthy form of communication that can strengthen the relationship,” Bahar says.
How you address the situation, whether you speak to the person or stop to observe and assess everything before reacting, is an individual choice. Ultimately, Bahar says that “it’s important to remember that you’re taking care of you” when you handle the situation. “You’re taking care of yourself in relation to the world and that’s significant.” It’s helpful to ask yourself what it is you really want from this person and whether you feel the relationship and objective is important.