It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Feeling Invisible

This is one of the hardest posts I have ever written. It is the reason I have written only one post in the last month…because I have been struggling with this one. I keep shying away from it…I open the page and write a few words and then find something to distract myself. I procrastinate opening the page…I feel ambivalent about writing it…I simultaneously want to write it and don’t want to. Avoidance keys in big here…I am avoiding it emotionally, even though the mature adult in me makes me keep coming back to it, like a parent saying to a reluctant kid “do your homework!”. All this tells me that this is an issue I, personally, have not yet resolved.

When I was a kid my NM used to tell me “Children should be seen and not heard,” “Silence is golden,” and that I should only “speak when spoken to.” I quickly learned that the safest place for me to be was in my room, doing something she would approve of if she happened to look in on me…something not messy, like reading a book or doing homework. If I was playing with my toys on the bedroom floor, I would be told to “clean up this mess,” even if I was still playing with the items (assuming this was before she decided to “clean my closet” while I was at school one day and give the majority of my toys to the Goodwill). It was not until I was in high school and living with my father that I learned this was not a natural state of affairs: my stepmother became very angry with me for retreating to my room after I finished the after-dinner clean up. She found it very anti-social of me whereas I was doing my darndest to be on my best behaviour, which I defined as being “out of sight and out of mind,” as I had learned from NM was the proper way to behave.

But I wasn’t just invisible physically, disappearing into solitude when my household chores were done. I felt invisible on a deeper, more fundamental level, unheard, unseen, as if nothing I thought, said, or felt was taken into account by others. I was emotionally isolated, feeling disconnected from everyone else. My feelings or desires were seldom elicited and even on the rare occasion when they were, I do not recall them ever being taken into account: if decisions were made that were in sync with my wishes, it was coincidental, not by design. People talked over the top of me, behaved as if I was not in the room, would not allow me to finish articulating a thought without either interrupting me or changing the subject mid-sentence. It was as if I was the only one who knew I was there and felt or thought anything.

In later years, I married a malignant narcissist and his behaviour exacerbated my feelings of tenuousness and invisibility. The child of an immature, self-interested mother who nagged and harangued her weak, unassertive husband endlessly while wrapped in her martyr’s cloak, he was ambivalent about his father: on the one hand he despised him for meekly submitting to his mother’s constant demands, on the other hand, he identified with his father and was outraged on his father’s behalf. It took several years of marriage to this man to come to the realization that I did not exist in his world, that I was simply a female body upon which he projected his mother and interacted with me as if I were she, while he behaved as he believed his father should have.

This was absolutely dehumanizing. Just as, when I was a child and I was unacknowledged as anything other than an extension of my mother (and a nuisance when I asserted myself as anything else), that which was me did not exist. He saw me as his mother…even though she and I were as different as chalk and cheese…with a different face. He and I once had a row over…well, I didn’t know what it was over: he came home from work angry and I assumed something had happened at work (something was always happening at work to tick him off) but it turned out he was angry with me. As it happened, on his commute home he had held a conversation in his head with me, and the responses he attributed to me were things his conservative mother would have said, not the kinds of things that would come out of my uber-liberal mouth. By the time he got home, he was angry with me because of him attributing his mother’s attitudes to me. Somewhere in all of this, the beliefs and values and attitudes and feelings that were mine went completely unacknowledged. Why? Because to him, the person who was me was never acknowledged, did not exist. I was a convenient blank upon which to superimpose the persona of his mother.

The problem with this is that when you are not acknowledged, when you cannot see yourself mirrored in others, when they do not reflect back to you, like answering your questions or laughing at your jokes or responding to your greetings in an appropriate way, if your sense of self is not immensely secure, you begin to lose it. Jack’s anger at me, based on his fantasy conversation, was wholly inappropriate and so to snarl at me with that anger when I said “Hi, babe, how was your day?” was not only wholly inappropriate, it negated my very existence and focussed instead on the projection of his mother on onto me. To ignore my existence or, as my NM did, my achievements in school, by refusing to attend the choir concerts in which I was a featured soloist, failing to attend my high school academic awards ceremonies, even my high school graduation, is to act like the person does not exist, as if she were invisible. And if you get enough of that kind of treatment from the significant people in your life, you begin to feel invisible, too…you begin to wonder if there is really anything to see, since nobody else seems to see it.

It goes deeper than that, even. Have you ever said something in a group of people and nobody even acknowledged you spoke? Have you ever asked a question and the person to whom it is directed acts as if you were not even in the room? Have you ever been in a group and what you have to say is not ignored so much as it is not even heard? Absent strong self-esteem, such experiences can make you feel disconnected, unbalanced…as if you exist only at their pleasure and the rest of the time you don’t. It makes you feel unimportant, devalued, diminished, invisible, shunned.

Shunning is “…the act of social rejection... Social rejection is when a person or group deliberately avoids association with, and habitually keeps away from an individual or group. This can be a formal decision by a group, or a less formal group action which will spread to all members of the group as a form of solidarity. It is a sanction against association… Targets of shunning can include …anyone the group perceives as a threat or source of conflict. Social rejection has been established to cause psychological damage and has been categorized as torture.

“Shunning is often used as a pejorative term to describe any organizationally mandated disassociation, and has acquired a connotation of abuse and relational aggression. This is due to the sometimes extreme damage caused by its disruption to normal relationships between individuals, such as friendships and family relations. Disruption of established relationships certainly causes pain, which [may] be an intended, coercive consequence. This pain, especially when seen as unjustly inflicted, can have secondary general psychological effects on self-worth and self-confidence, trust and trustworthiness, and can, as with other types of trauma, impair psychological function.

“Shunning often involves implicit or explicit shame for a member who commits acts seen as wrong by the group or its leadership. Such shame may not be psychologically damaging if the membership is voluntary and the rules of behavior were clear before the person joined. However, if the rules are arbitrary, if the group membership is seen as essential for personal security, safety, or health, or if the application of the rules is inconsistent, such shame can be highly destructive. This can be especially damaging if perceptions are attacked or controlled, or various tools of psychological pressure applied. Extremes of this cross over the line into psychological torture and can be permanently scarring.

“A key detrimental effect of some of the practices associated with shunning relate to their effect on relationships, especially family relationships. At its extremes, the practices may destroy marriages, break up families, and separate children and their parents. The effect of shunning can be very dramatic or even devastating on the shunned, as it can damage or destroy the shunned member's closest familial, spousal, social, emotional, and economic bonds.

“Shunning contains aspects of what is known as relational aggression in psychological literature… Extreme shunning may cause traumas to the shunned (and to their dependents) similar to what is studied in the psychology of torture.”

A key word in this explanation of shunning is “rejection.” Ignoring someone, treating them as if they do not exist, is a passive aggressive form of rejection. In very young children, this is perceived as being life threatening: if their primary care giver does not acknowledge their existence, they cannot be entirely sure that their survival needs will be met. If the passive rejection is habitual, is it any wonder the child becomes habitually anxious with respect to his survival and even questions his existence? When you don’t seem to exist to another person, when you are acknowledged in only the most necessary ways…and when that acknowledgement often includes a negative or critical component…a child’s self perception is inevitably damaged. Such children may become shy, withdrawn, fearful. But not always…

“… sometimes the Invisible Child can hide behind an effective fa├žade of the bubbly center-of-attention favorite friend. In private the Invisible Child puts the mask away feeling more unseen and unknown than before. The Invisible Child often feels alienated from society and from what they refer to as ‘normal’ people. It is difficult to claim the physical body, to make opinions known and to voice feelings. Thus, the poser becomes the preferred method for surviving in a social world. The Invisible Child becomes masterful at creating an image that others find acceptable and to behave in a way that others approve of in order to be seen. This only engenders feelings of inadequacy and self-rejection…”  The best analogy I can think of for this is the Invisible Man: it is not until he puts on clothes that he is visible to others, and even then, he is not visible, only his clothes; when an Invisible Child put on a mask, assumes a public persona, the Invisible Child is still not seen, even though the faux personality may attract both attention and even admiration.

This pretty accurately describes how I lived most of my life and, to some extent, still live it today. If you were to meet me in person, you would find me friendly, effusive, outgoing, even funny. I am known to be an entertaining storyteller, a thoughtful hostess, and fearlessly assertive. You would never guess that I actually prefer to spend hour upon hour of quiet time alone, that I am “on” when others are around, but I am actually quietly introspective and prefer quiet, solitary pursuits over loud socializing.

Psychologist Joseph Burgo, PhD, writes about a patient who does not wish to terminate therapy, even though he believes she is ready: “Lately, I’ve also been thinking about a parenting style that isn’t overtly abusive but vacant or largely withdrawn instead. In such a case…the person also develops a sense of unreality, as if he were invisible. It’s as if she looked into the mirror of her mother’s face and found no reflection whatsoever…On some level, she’s afraid that without me and my attention, she would cease to exist. As a child, she must have felt that way in the absence of parental involvement: as if she were invisible, a ghost child without physical substance.

I can really relate to this feeling: when I was about 7 years old, my mother drove a very distinctive car…my father had had it painted hot pink for her. I remember walking home from school one day, along a very busy road, and seeing my mother’s car pass me en route home. I jumped up and down and waved and screamed “Mommy! Mommy! I’m here!” but she drove on past. Obviously, she didn’t see me trudging along the bridge, and I was crushed. How could she not see and recognize me? I cried for the next block or so, feeling painfully invisible, but dried my tears and put on my “cheerful, ebullient” look before entering the house…I might only have been 7, but I knew I was not allowed to be sad, hurt, or unhappy about anything in front of her…to do so was to invite punishment.

Many of us carry this invisible feeling with us into adulthood and as a result, many of us see rejection where it does not exist. One of my most formidable tasks of recovery has been to puzzle out when I am being consciously, intentionally ignored and when I am simply being part of the background, like everybody else. I have learned that I tend to insert value judgments where they do not really exist…like when a conversation is going on and my contribution is not acknowledged, I default to “I am not important, what I have to say is not important, they don’t want to hear what I have to say, they act like I’m not here, they don’t like me…” this can escalate mentally and emotionally, to an extreme degree (i.e. “nobody likes me, I am a terrible person nobody likes”) unless I consciously step in and stop that train of thought and remind myself that it is simply a conversation and my contributions are not, at this time, especially relevant to the rest of the group…which is a normal thing for everybody from time to time. Sometimes I have to consciously remind myself that I am not being intentionally marginalized, rejected, or shunned, however much my emotions default to that sad place. And sometimes it is hard…really hard…to force myself to seize reality from the despair my early conditioning foist upon me.

That is not to say that there are not people who deliberately treat us this way, and that has been my big challenge: to differentiate one from the other. My second biggest challenge is, when recognizing someone is marginalizing me, to not fall into that feeling of invisibility but, at the same time, not overreact and become over the top in my response. It is a balancing act that, fortunately, I am not called upon to deal with every day but when I am, it remains a challenge to me. I am particularly called upon to exercise this when out in public and someone steps in front of me in a queue, as if I was not there, or someone steals a parking place that, with turn signals blazing, I intended to take. I am especially provoked when someone makes assumptions about me or my motives, refusing to listen or acknowledge my assertions and preferring to substitute his own perceptions. This happened not too long ago when the spring in the door of my SUV (luxury SUV with super-heavy doors and a heavy duty spring) got away from me and bumped the mirror cowl of the car I was parked beside. I immediately snatched the door back and was examining the mirror for damage when the owner showed up and started screeching at me, accusing me of intentionally damaging her car (it was unscathed), and telling me she paid for the car and I had no right to damage it! I said “It was an accident, the door popped out of my hand,” and she just continued to shriek accusations and abuse right over the top of me. And I felt, simultaneously, invisible and the recipient of an unwarranted public tongue lashing. And so I said, in a voice calculated to be heard over her unending tirade, “It was an accident and your car is unhurt! You don’t have to be such a bitch about it!” and walked away.

That may not have been the best way to handle it, but I was suddenly visible to her, perhaps for the first time since she opened her mouth. It was not characteristic of me…I am a person who would die before creating a scene in public…but at least I was not paralyzed, standing there silently for her unwarranted public dressing down. My husband was shocked…this was the first time in the 12 years of our acquaintance he has ever seen me speak out in such a manner…usually I apologize if warranted or if not, I ignore the person and complain quietly to him later on. But I am working on not falling into that passive, accepting-of-abuse childhood pattern that was forced upon me in childhood, working on learning how to tell when I am intentionally not being heard/included/acknowledged and when my “invisibility” is just a normal thing for the time and place.

And that has been one of the big realizations: that everybody gets ignored, overlooked, disregarded from time to time, not just me. And they don’t react to it with anger, like Jack would, or a feeling of humiliation, like my husband, or by feeling shunned and invisible, like me. No, they roll with it, wait for another opportunity, and try again. They make themselves known in ways that do not embarrass or attack or offend others, they look for a way to fit into the situation seamlessly…to neither stand out unnecessarily or to be noticed for their reticence. And while I tend to be adept at this in social gatherings…that false persona of mine is very adept in social situations like the office or at parties…it is much harder in one-on-one or very small social groups, like with another 3 or 4 people at dinner.

I don’t feel invisible like I did when I was a kid, but I would be lying if I said I was past that problem at this stage in my life. It was not until I saw a thread on Facebook, however, that I became consciously aware of this, that I still struggle to deal with it, that the feeling of invisibility still creeps over me in some situations and I have yet to master it. I can only be thankful that my NM is long dead and not adding to it with her drama…


  1. Great post. Shunning is also contagious, sometimes conscious and unconscious. One thing that has always struck me as unjust or even cowardly is when people shun victims of bullying, out of fear of secondary association and becoming targets themselves. This is how bullying works. Create fear in those who are not targets, and then further isolate the target. It's a shameful form of behavior, and takes genuine courage to overcome. Bullies are ultimately so small, if people decide not to "bulk" them up through complicity or silence.

  2. re: the Burgo quote about the "unreality" of it all, I remember for years being around my NM and her husband, even both my NP, and feeling that kind of 'unreality.' Like I was a ghost. Sometimes the occasion would be putatively to celebrate one of MY occasions. But I'd just vanish into their mutual narcissism, like I wasn't there at all. It's unbelievably weird and hard to explain to anyone who has not experienced this. It gets down into one's soul, and leaves a vulnerability to feeling dismissed or ignored.

    1. I think that may be part of the difficulty I had in writing this. How do you describe or explain that feeling of disconnectedness so profound that you actually doubt your own existence? And tha vulnerability to feeling dismissed or ignored has not yet been overcome by me, although I must say it has improved dramatically over the years.

      When I was married to my NexH, I remember being surprised at seeing myself in the mirror, I felt so fragile and almost transparent. It is difficult to articulate, but many was the time that I felt nobody could see ME...the me behind the face...and they saw only what they created or believed me to be. I am sure my NM's years-long smear campaign played into that...people saw what she had prepared them to see and they dismissed anything contrary they actually saw as me "acting" and "trying to fool them" (again, NM's perception), so that their perception of me was simply a projection over the reality of me that was never acknowledged.

      It is still difficult to articulate but let me assure you, I totally get what you are saying. I have felt much the same.



    2. Hi V, I know you get it. I used to feel "frozen" inside, around my NP, a weird kind of turning to stone; alternately, there were times that I wanted to scream at them, "I exist." In fact, I've had many many dreams over the years in which I am yelling this at them--I"M HERE. I am a person, I am real. The pathological way they make sure the surface looks normal while nothing really is, becomes absolutely crazy-making. IN me, it created conditions for depression. And the ripple effects, we try to get people to 'see' us for who we really are, then feel weird and inauthentic. I think that this kind of damage cannot be overstated, and its worse precisely because it is almost impossible to describe to others. "But they had a party in your honor!" Yeah, but they acted like I wasn't there. They only talked to each other. They directed minimum affect or attention at me. At, say, my wedding. Jesus. What do you do with this, ya know? How do you describe how they are always "spaced out" or preoccupied during anything having to do with you? (I know you know). I have a major narc wound around this, and am working hard to overcome it, to realize that while there are times when I SHOULD have been the center of my parents' attention (starting from when I was little), the rest of the world doesn't owe me that at all. And it has to be fine. We didn't get it from the people we needed it from, when we needed it--EVER. So the search will always be fruitless and futile. There are ways to recognize this, as you know, and move on. It's hard hard work. hugs back. CS

    3. Wow. That was my childhood and most of my adulthood. I had a brief window of 8 years, between high school and marriage, where I was growing and feeling more alive and seen by others.But then, I married an N and I disappeared. I've been searching for a way to be myself again. It's hard. I live in his world, his state, town and everyone he knows. I must make my own place, no matter what he does. I can't wait for approval or understanding. I'll have to make my own friends, people he doesn't know. Otherwise it gets back to him and the comments start. Enough. I was invisible to my parents, to everyone at school, and in my marriage. I get to have a life now.

  3. Hi Violet

    This is such an eye opener that I can relate to so much! I agree with you and Calibans Sister that narcissistic ignoring/snubbing can be so difficult to describe and pin down - I found it easier to describe with relevant examples in my guest post. It is like being a small ghost in your own life and if you haven't experienced this first hand it is near impossible to understand. The quotes and definitions you included were incredibly helpful and the words 'trauma/traumatised' and 'a form of torture' really stood out for me - for years I thought that simply being ignored by my family was not something to get so distraught over, but now I am starting to realise how destructive it truly is. Thank you for posting about such an important issue :)


    I liked your article a lot and wrote a response on my blog. The being shunned by your own family creates life-long implications. I related so much.

  5. Great article. Another point I would add is that when you are the abused child of a Narcissist and nobody acknowledges your abuse or acknowledges to you that the way you are being treated is wrong and not your fault this is another whole level of feeling invisible and like what you feel and think is of no consequence. It is downright crazy making....lived it and unfortunately seeing this happen with someone I love right now :(

  6. I am really struggling with this right now. How do you know when someone is doing it intentionally (or is just an a-hole) versus the natural flow of conversation? Is it normal for someone to just not respond at all to 25% of what you say? Or to never respond normally, like never laughing at jokes, never understanding basic sentences, regularly responding only to parts of sentences? How do you even draw a line or put your foot down over something so bizarre?

    1. You can't know...passive aggressive people will intentionally ignore you or withhold responses and when you call them on it, claim they didn't hear you or were distracted or some other kind of plausible excuse, turning it around to make it look like you are somehow wrong or too demanding. Which is why I think it doesn't matter if a person is doing it intentionally or just an a-hole: what the person is doing is just plain rude and disrespectful. And you have the absolute right to determine how much disrespect you are willing to tolerate in a relationship.

      How much is "normal" in the natural flow of conversation? Depends on the people and the conversation. But if you notice either the group doesn't let you get a word in edgewise or a specific person (or people) fail to respond to you while responding to others, then it is a good bet you are being singled out for this treatment.

      And you draw the line at being treated rudely and with disrespect...only you can determine just how much you are willing to tolerate.

      Myself, I wouldn't make a big fuss over it, I would drop the person quietly because if a person is showing me disrespect, it means s/he doesn't respect me and may even be one of those people who think I have to earn his/her respect. Those people quickly and quietly become part of my history because I don't maintain relationships with people who are so full of themselves that they think the rest of the world has to turn itself on its ear to "earn" their respect. If they don't respect other human beings simply because those people exist and are therefore deserving, then they are too self-absorbed for me.

      But you are not me, so you have to make your own determination as to how much disrespect is too much, and take action from there. Personally, I think if you have to point out to someone s/he is being disrespectful and then ask for them to treat you with respect and civility, the person is already a lost cause.

      Best of luck to you,



  7. Dear Sweet Violet,

    I cannot begin to tell you how much your post has resonated with me. I, too, grew up with a NM and experienced the same type of treatment as a child (and as and adult) from her until her death 7 years ago. I felt as though you were writing not only about your own life experiences, but about mine as well. Lately, I have been feeling extremely invisible and have been depressed as a result. Reading your post lets me know that I am not alone in this journey. I see you. Thank you for sharing yourself with me. (((HUGS)))

  8. That is so right! I am being shunned by my entire family now. I have been NC for several months and plan never to see these people again. The fantasies remain, however, of telling my NexH off, or getting nasty in a witty way in my divorce response, including something snarky about the judge who denied my rights when N stole everything from me just before the discard. But I wont.

    Your wise words remind me of what the advice columnest Ann Landers (or maybe it was her sister, Dear Abby) used to say. She said that when someone is giving you the silent treatment -- passive aggressive and disrespectful treatment, I would say -- it's best not to respond. Just put on your hat and wear it out the door.

    (If you think about it, probably it's the thing that gets them really STEAMED!!)

  9. I have felt invisible my whole life. This link really opened my eyes to the damage my NM caused my sister and I....

    1. The material on that link was actually written by The Harpy's Child, who occasionally comments on this blog. It is very insightful and extremely well-written and gave me a lot of food for thought when I first read it.

  10. Hahaha, the irony of being told my comment will be visible after approval lol

    1. Agreed...very ironic...but a little sad when you consider that there are so many insensitive people out there that such a measure is necessary. Some days I reject more spam and troll/N attacks than I approve comments from readers!

  11. I can relate. As a child I would retreat into my own world. As an adult I shut down under pressure. Its interfering with my job preformance..... How can I gain new coping skills after 57 yrs?

  12. This is a spot on description of how I have felt much of my life. At 57, and two years out of a 22 yr 'relationship' with an N spouse, it covers all the nebulous feelings of not-there-ness. Overlooked as a child, I understand now how that could lead to constant feelings of anxiety and the fear of potential annihilation. And also how that fed into my becoming the projection screen for the N spouse's weird world. I was bred to become a perfect blank screen, a sounding board. If I asserted my self, I was dismissed or targeted. I simply did not count except when someone needed me.
    On the other hand, outside of 'family', I have felt seen, felt, and heard. I came to know that my family life was itself a kind of unreality, or at least, not the only credible one.
    My ghostly self still occupies the kind of spaces between realities. As a visual artist and writer however, I also get to create images of what is unseen and unfelt and make them real.
    Now that I am out of the relationship with the N, I have time and space to recover my self, and to counter those feelings of potential annihilation with knowledge of my effectiveness and affect in the world. I am finding out that the world does indeed respond to me, and I to it. And that I am anchored in it and within it.

    What I want to say is that it is very important to me to have my own experiences reflected back in a very real way. Thank you very much for your article. It made my own experiences real and acknowledged.
    Please re-publish this one regularly! It ought to be seen, read, and heard again and again!

  13. I have realised that I was so used to being invisible that I could not even see myself and I am now on a journey of self discovery

  14. Thank you for this information. I have been struggling with this issue for a lifetime and I thought it was just me. It has been enlightening.


I don't publish rudeness, so please keep your comments respectful, not only to me, but to those who comment as well. We are not all at the same point in our recovery.