Growing up as The Invisible Child
“The magic of childhood is the strangeness of childhood – the uniqueness that makes us see things that other people don’t see.”
The author Maurice Sendak sums up an ideal childhood perfectly. Childhood is supposed to be the age of wish and wonder – the time when everything is infinite and nothing is impossible.
I remember being a little girl watching raindrops race down the window and making imaginary bets on which drop would win. I would feel a genuine moment of excitement as the drops got closer and closer to the finish line, caught in my tiny fantasy on a boring Sunday. Thinking back to those rainy days gives me a sense of loss because part of growing up is letting go of those fantasies.
But rain is an inconvenience now for Adult Me – I worry that it ruins my hair and stops me hanging my washing out in the garden. And besides, Adult Me doesn’t have enough bloody time to watch raindrops race (I have learnt that there is never ever enough time in adulthood. You spend your whole day rushing around in preparation for tomorrow which will also be a whole day spent rushing around ad infinitum)!
Fantasy and self-expression are two of the biggest building blocks in child development. A child uses her imagination and play as a means of exercising self-expression. Some children enjoy playing alone, especially those with particularly vivid imaginations. However, some children need companionship and friendship to lose themselves in play, and to start forming connections with other people. Friendships give us a sense of belonging and make us feel like we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
Our family of origin should also help us feel connected and seen for who we truly are. But what happens if we grow up feeling like an invisible child? The child who feels like nobody wants to play with or talk to her/him? The child who feels unrecognised, underestimated, and misunderstood?
1) Self-fulfilling prophecy
Growing up feeling invisible can make you feel as though you have nothing special to offer to the world. You might be the most incredible author or painter but if no-one has recognised or validated this, you might feel as though your talent doesn’t matter. I think this is the core tragedy of growing up unseen. Invisible children often go on to become invisible adults. You might try to hide from the spotlight even when you have earned your place in it. This only increases the feeling of invisibility and the situation starts to feel even more hopeless. There may be times when you feel bitter or resentful towards other people or society, and so you may retreat further back into yourself. You wish you were noticed but at the same time you shun all attention.
Addiction is a very complex area and there are many reasons behind why people develop addiction. Although drugs and alcohol are most linked to addiction, a person can get addicted to a very wide variety of objects or substances. An addiction is about the person’s relationship with the addictive object, not the addictive object itself. An example may be compulsive clothes shopping. Clothes are not addictive in themselves but the act of shopping can become an addictive cycle. One of the approaches I take as a psychodynamic practitioner is that addiction starts as a coping mechanism or a form of emotional regulation. If you grew up feeling invisible or ignored, you might have a chaotic or unstable sense of self. You might not know who you are as a person because you did not get the chance to connect and relate to other people. This is where addiction can begin. It allows you to step out of your anxiety and lose yourself to something else. You might feel shame and remorse afterwards but in the moment, you just want to forget everything. Addiction numbs the emotional pain and inner turmoil of your darkest days.
Being human is no easy task sometimes, and feeling like an invisible human makes it harder. When faced with a tough situation, people tend to act out or act in. Acting out is a way of externalising anxiety so you don’t have to feel it. Children are often described as “acting out” when they throw tantrums; they don’t yet have the words to describe how they are feeling so they have to literally act it out through their bodies. Adults can act out too through violence, passive-aggression and other more nuanced behaviours. Acting in occurs when you internalise anxiety and start thinking that you are bad. Your inner voice verbally bullies and beats you, leading to chronic feelings of shame and self-hate. People who feel invisible have a tendency to act in and quickly start to believe that they are not worthy of goodness or kindness.
Feelings of invisibility can often go hand in hand with low self-esteem. Your mind starts to go into overdrive: “Maybe I’m being ignored because I’m no good…maybe I deserve to feel this way.” You begin to seriously doubt yourself, and there is no achievement or accomplishment which can convince you that you are deserving of success. You have no sense of feeling proud of yourself which can lead into the recent phenomenon of burnout. Burnout occurs when you push yourself beyond your limitations and into a state of emotional and physical exhaustion. People who lack self-esteem are particularly susceptible to burnout because they feel that nothing they accomplish is good enough. Instead, they overwork themselves into a frenzy because this time they might find the elusive pride, this time they will prove that they are worthy of recognition, this time they will feel happiness. As a therapist, I believe that overworking and subsequent burnout is a complex defence mechanism against feelings of inferiority and invisibility. Are you living to work or are you working to live?
Feeling invisible, ignored or forgotten is an intensely sad experience. No human exists in a vacuum, and to be seen by another person is to be known. Being recognised matters. I hope you found recognition in my blog today.