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 façade 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…