Growing up, I used to get panic attacks from being in a crowd, at parties, in busy shopping centres, even on the MRT station platform. There were always too many pairs of eyes. They felt like searchlights sweeping over me, exposing my glaring awkwardness to the world.

To calm myself down, I would keep my gaze low. As I moved through the sea of bodies, I concentrated on the herds of shoes that shuffled past me. Shoes were less intimidating than faces, because you could observe shoes without them observing you back. The worn soles, undone laces and scratched heels gave me comfort. They were dirty and imperfect, like my own scuffed shoes.

Then I went to school and learned that my shoe-gazing habits pointed to a little thing called social anxiety. And it felt like an ugly character flaw. But I learned that other humans, too, had personality quirks and strange motivations and irrational fears – their own scuffs and scratches – that were as valid (or invalid) as my own.

Now instead of staring down at people’s feet, I ask permission to take a walk in their shoes, scuffs and all.

About the writer

Davelle Lee is a certified therapist with a weakness for a good story and a big ol’ slice of cake (preferably with an appallingly low cream-to-sponge ratio). A former features writer and communications specialist, she is based in sunny Singapore.

Highly neurotic, a bit of a wimp and extremely light-sensitive, Davelle can usually be found in a hole that she’s dug herself. (She’s gotten quite comfortable down there.)

She is almost permanently in sneakers.

Photo: Danny Wijaya, ExdLab