The discomfort of being ‘seen’

Most of us go through life feeling misunderstood. Something tells us that, despite our best efforts to be honest, reasonable human beings, other people just can’t see or understand the ‘real’ us. And as hard as we think we are trying to be ourselves, the struggle to be seen and really ‘felt’ in our relationships is ongoing. We blame others, of course, for not making the effort to properly get to know us, for getting caught up in the superficialities of being human. We feel lonely.

But the truth is, we are complicit in this ongoing struggle to be seen. Without realising, we are the ones keeping our true selves hostage inside us, because to be seen is to be vulnerable. We invest a great deal of effort (most of it unconscious) concocting our ‘story’, which feeds into our persona and determines the shape of the mask we wear in our daily lives. We do all this so people don’t see us for what we really are, keeping our insecurities, our ugliness, our pain in the shadows.

Recently I spoke to a woman who had endured unimaginable pain and trauma in her childhood; the kinds of things we would be scared to even imagine. For years she kept the trauma hidden, telling no one about her experience, but now it was time for it to come out. She said the worst thing about working through the trauma, bringing it into the light through group therapy sessions, was the feeling of being seen and judged by others in the group (even though they had all shared their own stories). It was easier when it was all hidden, she told me. The discomfort of being ‘seen’, especially in the context of her trauma, was like a leaden weight on her chest. After her first few sessions, she had been suffering panic attacks and crippling bouts of anxiety whenever she thought about the other people in the group and what they must think of her. As a result of her discomfort, she was considering giving up on therapy completely.

The fact that she thought things were easier when the trauma was hidden stuck with me. It seems simpler to live a lie, to pretend we are fine when we are not. We get comfortable in our pain. We even allow it to become a part of our identity; thinking we are our depression, our addiction, our anxiety makes it familiar, and familiarity brings us fleeting relief. Many of us, if we were the victim of a trauma long ago, get stuck in our ‘victim’ mindset because it seems safer than opening ourselves up to the painful process of healing.

It feels easier to live our lives around our pain than it does to go through it. Being open and vulnerable is terrifying, and that terror is what causes our hearts and minds to close up and withdraw. We may not realise it, but hiding the truth of who we are until we are safely behind closed doors takes every drop of energy we have.

There is good news. Once you commit to healing, and working through the pain you have kept so tightly packed away inside you, the discomfort will gradually start to subside. Being open with others, and more importantly ourselves, is scary; there’s no doubt about it. But once you start to see the results of your commitment, start to feel new energy filling up the space once reserved for your pain, there will be no going back. You will be another step closer to being yourself.

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