A lot of people feel invisible, for many different reasons. Perhaps you’re one of them; but what do you mean by “feeling invisible?”
Perhaps you feel like you don’t matter, as if you aren’t a vital part of the world that’s going on around you. Maybe you feel overlooked by those who are supposed to love you, or work with you, or live close by you. Or perhaps you feel only seen and appreciated for what you can do, instead of for who you are inside. Or maybe you feel more like an object, and not a real human being with importance and a voice that longs to be heard.
These feelings of invisibility can can whisper to you that you’re not worth as much as others, conjuring up shame that you aren’t acceptable, or welcome, or important. Invisibility can begin to define you.
If it’s part of depression, then some of that “invisibility” may be imagined or misperceived. Maybe you are, in fact, important to many people, but they are busy with their own lives and you take their inability to meet for lunch (or intermittent phone calls, lack of texting back, etc.) personally when it’s not. Your depression is exaggerating normal human interactions and redefining them to mean something different than reality. If this distinction is the case you, you may want to talk with a therapist or someone you trust.
However, this invisibility can stem from a variety of different sources, including cultural or societal norms.
- You feel invisible because of your gender, race, age, economic, or marital status. Perhaps this group to which you belong carries with it broad assumptions or expectations that aren’t realistic or fair…and certainly don’t apply to you. Being defined in this general way because of some attribute or characteristic about you can leave you feeling unknown, unaccepted, unseen.
- You’re actively hiding due to prejudice or nonacceptance. You may feel as if it’s not safe to be open about who you really are, because of prejudice or nonacceptance. And it can be very lonely. You can feel as if that who you really are has to stay “cloaked” from the world out of fear of rejection or even violence.
- You’re seen as what you do, not who you are. You’re “ the waiter” or “the nail lady.” You’re providing a service and you’re not seen at all. One of my patients told a story about asking the woman who was doing her nails a question. “I asked what her Vietnamese name was. Not the Amercanized one that she’d chosen. Her eyes filled with tears….. and she told me that no one had ever asked her that question.”
- You’re a condition not a person. I had shoulder surgery several years ago, and I overheard one of the nurses or someone say, “Rutherford – the rotator cuff in bed seven.” You’re seen as a condition, not as you.
Maybe some people make their lives more simple by deciding who they’re going to notice and who they’re not. They make their jobs easier by not noticing someone’s humanity but by labeling them – objectifying them (which we’ll talk more about later..). I recognize that many medical professionals and others do this in order to protect themselves against the horror of their jobs – like firemen, police officers, paramedic — not only doctors and nurses.
Your childhood might be the source of your invisibility.
- Parental neglect can be emotionally more confusing than physical abuse. You’re simply ignored. Maybe parents are too busy trying to make ends meet. Or maybe the neglect is fairly benign – it looks more like apathy and very little emotional connection. “My parents were there. They fed me and clothed me. But we never did anything as a family.”
- Parental addictions or mental illness can cause invisibility to become a child’s unconscious strategy or choice in order to stay safe. If your parent is high on meth, psychotic or manic, or has an explosive temper — the risk of punishment for inconsequential “crimes” is so great, you can choose invisibility and staying out of the way.
- You are the “good” child. You may have worked harder and harder to gain some kind of attention, not realizing that it’s highly likely that your “role” in the family has become very entrenched. You’re the one no one has to worry about. You likely strive for perfection and may feel very supported professionally – and definitely “seen.” But never get the attention from your parents.
- You’re not the “favorite” child. If your parents had “favorites” you can feel invisible if you’re not that favorite child. We used to believe that middle children would belong in this bracket but that myth has been deposed.
- You were (or are) shy. Shyness is social anxiety which is severely paralyzing at times and can be tied to physical symptoms like stomach problems. It’s not introversion — Introverts can “act” extroverted – it’s just not their preferred way of spending time. But shyness can’t be turned on and off and you can certainly feel invisible.
Invisibility due to being treated like an “object…”
- You’re the victim of narcissism, sexual abuse, or exploitation of some kind. Exploiters – abusers – will look for people who take immense responsibility in relationships and they manipulate that very trait to grab power. And you can begin to be treated like an object – whether as a child or an adult. Maybe you’re being exploited for sex. Or for what you can do for your abuser – what purpose you serve for them. The more that occurs, the more invisible you will feel. And yet – there are times that your perpetrator will tell you how important you are to them – how special you are. And that blinds you even more to the dynamic of what’s happening. It can be a vicious cycle. Your worth plummets and you can become more and more dependent on the crumbs they offer from time to time to feel at all worthy or important.
How to find your voice…
So what can you do about these feelings of invisibility? How do you confront shame and find your voice?
Cultural or societal…
If your invisibility is culturally induced, Deepak Chopra talks about a distinct plan to try to figure out what may be your own mind convincing you that you are invisible, and offers an analysis of what you can try to do about it. He suggests that looking for what you have control over is paramount and making a list of what you can actually do to figure out what may be your own insecurity and what could be the steps toward solution of the problem. If you feel invisible because of your age or your gender or because you’re divorced, then where can you go – what can you create – that would help you feel more connected or that can challenge stereotypes?
This kind of invisibility may be more complicated because what we experienced in childhood runs very deep. But you can begin to work with and change any of your own coping strategies that may now be irrational or self-destructive — what I term being an emotional grownup. One of my most popular podcast episodes offers steps to do just this.
You first have to identify abuse as abuse. A narcissistic relationship as narcissism. And exploitation as exploitation. But leaving those relationships isn’t as easy as one might think. But perhaps the most important thing to remember is that whatever shame you feel – that you “should’ have stopped it, that you should’ve left — will only keep your sense of worth in the trash. Plus it’s frightening to leave.There may be threats of actual physical violence against you or your children. Your exploiter has told you over and over that you couldn’t make it on your own. You have to balance what is true danger with the cost of staying in a relationship that is so destructive.
Look for what you have control over. Confront your shaming voice. Make an action plan.
Life is far too short to feel invisible.
You can hear more about depression and many other topics by You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!
My new book entitled Perfectly Hidden Depression has arrived and you can order here! Its message is specifically for those with a struggle with strong perfectionism which acts to mask underlying emotional pain. But the many self-help techniques described can be used by everyone who chooses to begin to address emotions long hidden away that are clouding and sabotaging your current life.
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Originally published on August 25, 2019; updated and republished on July 30, 2021.