Today, we really need to talk about invisibility. Perhaps, given everything that you already have to face in your life, invisibility is nowhere near the top of your list. Perhaps it is not even on your list. However, anyone who has ever been in an abusive relationship has been made to feel invisible. That feels to me like an issue that needs to be looked at. My wish is not to add to any load you already carry. Rather, I want to help you expose and overcome a belief that may be pulling you down unawares.
The appeal of invisibility
My first conscious brush with the notion of invisibility came, when I was very young, via H.G. Wells’ book, “The Invisible Man” I am not sure that that was obvious reading for a little girl but I had older brothers who were gifted all sorts of books intended to educate and civilise them. (Although neither brother, I would say, grew up improved by the “improving” books they were meant to read.)
Small as I was, I doubtless misunderstood the point of “The Invisible Man”. I rather liked the power that invisibility conferred on the protagonist. In my defence, I was a fairly invisible little girl.
Children who grow up in abusive homes learn that they are invisible. I certainly learned that. H.G. Wells made me think that invisibility might actually offer some kind of superpower, in addition to opening up the possibility of slipping under the parental radar.
A survival strategy
My parents were abusive and narcissistic. As an adult, I would say that they both had very high levels of anxiety. They were routinely neglectful, manipulative and ill-tempered. They were Narcissists who were rarely satisfied by the contribution we children made to their public stature or private gratification. Being invisible was a not unreasonable survival strategy for a thin-skinned child.
Unfortunately, the coping strategies that we develop to survive as children in difficult situations indicate a narrowing down of our options. Above all, we have had to exclude the normal, functional option of showing up and getting our needs met.
I would contend that anyone who sticks around in an abusive relationship does so because they have come to accept the fact of their invisibility.
Now, this does not necessarily mean being invisible in all areas of life. I have known a number of professionals who can be impressively assertive in their professional life, yet go home and become invisible to their own needs.
To outsiders, that just doesn’t seem to make sense. Roughly speaking, their argument goes, “What’s the problem? If they can show up in their professional life, surely they can do the same in their private life?” That argument is based on the right-minded – but wrong – assumptions that human beings are not riven with contradictions and fault-lines in their thoughts and feelings. If only.
Some of us were brought up to be two different people – a doormat in the home but a competent adult elsewhere. Others were brought up to invisible, across the board. I belonged in the latter category. Even today, I am aware that that training still sometimes holds me back.
You are struggling with invisibility if …
You can get a clear sense of how invisibility affects your personal and professional life by thinking how willing you are to put your head above the proverbial parapet. Underpinning that willingness is a belief – or lack of belief – in your own worthiness in a specific scenario and a fear of the risk that you could be exposing yourself to.
Abusive people will tell you, often in so many words, how unworthy/worthless you are. But they also reinforce that message with behaviour that suggests that they do not see you – or want to see you. That explains why they can leer at others in front of you, be vile about you to your children in your presence,or simply treat you like you are not there.
The Silent Treatment and feeling invisible
The Silent Treatment is their most extreme and brutal way of saying, “You are invisible to me.” (Sure, there is a contradiction at the heart of that treatment because, if you really were invisible, they wouldn’t have to make the point to you, in the first place. But, still, The Silent Treatment can be very wounding.)
However, every time they disregard your wishes, silence your voice or dismiss your needs as unimportant, they are actually saying to you, “You are invisible to me.”
Eventually, we get the message and give up. But before we do that, we spend way too long, metaphorically shaking their arm and saying, “Look, I am here. See me. Hear me. Acknowledge me.”
Don’t believe everything you see and hear
The more you appeal for the attention of someone who resolutely refuses to give you that attention, the more persuaded you become of your own invisibility. The people who declare, “I would never put up with that.” and “How could you put up with it?” may or may not be telling the truth. Either way, they are having a field day – at your expense – by saying, “I am much too good at being visible to let that happen to me.”
What they don’t understand and maybe you don’t fully grasp either is this, you didn’t just let it happen to you. You were not stupid or weak or ignorant. What happened to you was that you grew up experiencing emotional invisibility as your norm. Not through any fault of your own but because, for the people around you treating others as if those others didn’t exist was their norm. We all learn what we live.
Getting to grips with the problem
So, how do you address invisibility, if it has been a problem for you, too?
First off, you forgive yourself for all the times that people got away with behaving badly towards you. You did that because you didn’t realize that your feelings were important enough for you to hold them accountable.
Then you forgive yourself, if you don’t even feel confident enough to hold them accountable now.
Next, you reassure yourself that you will start to a better job in the future, bearing in mind that any job will be a better job. But from now on, you will be doing your level best to learn through doing.
Envision, envision, envision
Then, you start to think about what you would have liked to say to a person in a specific situation that did not feel okay to you at the time. Only you didn’t because you didn’t think your feelings mattered enough for you to vocalize how you felt. Take a moment to think what you would have liked to say. Then envision yourself actually saying it. Let that be a game that you play over and over in your head, in different scenarios. Notice how you feel as you see yourself saying it.
That is the sum total of what you have to do. Forgive yourself for having been made to be invisible, acknowledge that you will do a better job and play with giving voice to your feelings.
How hard is that?
“Yes, but… Annie,” I can almost hear you asking me, “what will that do?”
I am so glad you asked. Here’s what it won’t do: it won’t transform your world overnight . But what it will do is subtly undermine your limitations and start to demolish that wall of invisibility that stands between you and your sense of your own worth. Play with envisioning your new response, without expecting miracles, and just observe the subtle – and maybe not so subtle changes – you start to see.
Just for fun
And, just for fun, let me set you a challenge. If you do play with it, observe what you experience and feed it back to me via email, the person whose account most resonates with me will get a free coaching session with me. We will use that seesion to work on the issue that is causing you the most difficulty, right now. Offer open until March 7th. So, if you want to win a session for which my normal fee is $250, get started right away.
Annie Kaszina, international Emotional Abuse Recovery specialist and award-winning author of 3 books designed to help women recognise and heal from toxic relationships so that they can build healthy, lasting relationships with the perfect partner for them, blogs about all aspects of abuse, understanding Narcissists and how to avoid them and building strong self-worth. To receive Annie’s blog direct to your Inbox just leave your details here.