Anyone who spends a good amount of time longing for invisibility has a struggle with shame and/or anxiety on their hands. I should know. I still occasionally wish that I could slip through life unnoticed. Invisibility can seem so safe, especially for a survivor of abuse. Whenever conflict rears its ugly head, my mind and body still kick into flight mode. Some people are fighters and launch themselves into the fray. Others, like myself, turn to invisibility to minimize the attention of those around us. We freeze like the bunny wondering if the wolf has caught its scent.
I want to look at the emotional roots of this phenomenon because it produces adults who cannot share their emotions easily. They keep things carefully in neutral, convinced that any emotions they share are potentially dangerous. They believe those bottled up emotions, once let loose, will either cause loved ones to react in awful ways or that attempts at emotional intimacy will result in indifference and neglect. Better to keep the status quo. Better to wrap that invisibility around our emotions like a shield.
But the desire to be unseen develops from painful roots that must be excised and healed in order for an adult to maintain a healthy, emotionally intimate relationship. Transparency allows us to see and be seen, a necessity for an emotionally fulfilling life. So here is a look at some of the root causes of this desire to pass through life escaping the attention of others.
1: The desire for invisibility often stems from parental emotional neglect.
So many factors can shut down the emotional life of a youngster. Far from resilient, children take cues as to their worth from their interaction from their parents. A severely depressed mother is unable to help a young child learn to express their emotions. Even just poor parenting skills that focus on keeping children seen and not heard suppress a child’s ability to express themselves. Parental neglect isn’t about keeping a child in a closet. That is pretty rare. Instead, it comes from an inability to listen and validate a young child’s concerns.
Sometimes this happens in the busyness of life. Siblings can be rough with each other and if parents do not police sibling interaction, the message is clear. Your feelings, your fears and pain, your anger and your sorrow don’t matter. In fact, if a child believes his or her feelings don’t matter, it is a short step to you don’t matter. We must learn to listen to what is on our children’s hearts if we want them to be adults who can negotiate complex relationships later on.
2: The need for invisibility often stems from abuse.
In my abusive first marriage, like many others, I quickly learned to avoid any unwanted attention. I never knew when something would set my ex off into a raging rant. When he was clearly in a bad mood, I gathered my invisibility cloak around me like an impenetrable fence. I couldn’t let him in because he was dangerous. I was careful not to do anything to set him off, though that was self-deception at its most desperate. Abusers rely on unpredictability to keep their victims off kilter.
I became so dedicated to becoming invisible that my speaking voice changed. I am a fairly dramatic public speaker. I have taught for twenty-five years. Keeping my students’ attention was pretty easy for me. I laugh a lot, make jokes, tell stories, and even get passionate. But I had to ditch all that around my ex. I actually spoke in a deliberate monotone around him. I hid my personality, my emotions, and my convictions from him. I became a non-entity as do many abuse victims. It feels safer, though that safety is an illusion.
3: Guilt stimulates a need to hide.
Guilt is a tricky emotion. Sometimes it is necessary in order to hedge us in from behavior that would harm others or ourselves. I personally prefer the word conviction because to have a conviction is to have a strong belief. To convict also suggests that in our judgment of our own behavior if we convict ourselves or allow the Holy Spirit to convict us, we know when we have done wrong. But too much guilt, inappropriate guilt, or an inability to forgive ourselves can result in a shame that cripples. Then on comes the invisibility cloak. Appropriate guilt is focused on the misdeed. Shame says something is wrong with you. You are unworthy of love.
If we feel deeply unworthy or flawed, we are unable to give or receive love. Somehow that invisibility cloak works both ways. It hides our fears and inner selves from others, but it also hides any genuine love coming our way. Adam and Eve understood the need for an invisibility cloak. They had to settle for fig leaves. I see their futile attempts to hide their nakedness as more than a recognition of physical nakedness. I think that before the Fall, they were available to each other mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. After the Fall, they learned to hide from each other and perhaps even from themselves.
Several things lent themselves to my recovery. The first is that I learned to be utterly transparent to God. Once I learned that He was not mad at me, even while I was in error, I could tell Him all. He has never once shamed me. Disciplined? Yes. Shamed? Never. I tell Him everything and invite Him to transform me. Just the freedom to say to the God of the universe here I am, without any barriers, has freed me more than I can say.
Secondly, I learned to share who I was with a therapist. From there, I took chances with other safe people. I am better at knowing who is safe these days, but sharing my thoughts and feelings has made my marriage so much better. I don’t live in the fear of being known. Instead, I am an overcomer and my presence matters. Sometimes I pick up that old invisibility cloak. But these days, it’s tattered and doesn’t work as well. You see, I’ve gotten used to freedom.
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