To Be Seen

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Jane Eyre taught me that loneliness had more to do with being misunderstood than being alone.

Amy Tan

I was chatting with my 15 year old daughter recently. It was one of those priceless moments when I was able to be still and she was willing to share and be open. A winning combination. As she was talking about herself, her friends, the typical teen drama, she threw in this remark, “we all just want someone to listen to us.” I smiled, thinking about the deep truth just revealed. When someone is willing to listen, with openness and curiosity, we feel seen. Understood. Acknowledged.

Conversely, when we don’t feel deeply seen we will struggle, consciously or unconsciously, to get this need met. As children needing a sense of visibility and security, we likely displayed a variety of behaviors to get noticed. People-pleasing. Acting out. Shrinking. Excelling. Most of us have experienced some rupture in having our authentic selves seen, even with the best-intended parents. But more often in our families of origin we struggled to find the deep connections and validating sense of self that we needed.

This is when we began to develop negative feelings about ourselves along with defensive coping mechanisms. Feelings of unworthiness. Believing we’re flawed, broken, damaged, unlovable. We start to feel guilt, shame. This permeates our adult relationships as we seek to have our unmet needs satisfied. We unknowingly take these false beliefs into our adulthood, forming what Jayson Gaddis, author of Getting to Zero, How To Work Through Conflict in your High Stakes Relationships, calls our relational blueprint.

Unmet needs in childhood always leave an imprint.

A pillar of secure attachment is feeling seen. One of the best feelings in the world is when someone sees us clearly, compassionately, deeply. It’s the experience of being known. Different from feeling loved, feeling seen provides us with a mirror in order to see ourselves through the eyes of another, without distortions of self-judgment and negativity. The reflection we see is a different version than what we carry inside of us.

It makes all the difference, to be seen through the eyes of a compassionate and curious other.

Our initial attachments are a result of the caregivers we are assigned to, whether biological parents or not. We do not get a say in who they are, their relational style, their trauma history, their ability to love, punish, reject, nurture, soothe and heal. We are all stuck with the parents/and or caregivers who raised us. We take these attachment experiences into life with us, both in how we relate to and how we connect with others. It’s a complex system that defines a lot about us–how we show up with others, how close we’re willing to get, how demanding or distant we are, how we feel about ourselves, our core beliefs about love and intimacy, trust and betrayal.

Ironically, in wanting to be seen authentically we often end up with all kinds of protective armor that keeps us from getting what we truly want. Look at this list and see if you identify with any of the methods you might be using that keeps you from getting what you really want.

  • Defensiveness
  • Reactivity
  • Aloofness
  • Avoidance
  • Denial
  • Blaming
  • Self-criticism/self-blame

We’re not stuck with these beliefs or coping strategies. We have the capacity to examine and explore, to develop both self-awarenss and relational maturity. In fact, if we want to live our best lives, it’s a necessary path. We all want satisfying, successful relationships. Learning our relational blueprint is the essential map, a GPS system that can help us navigate when we feel lost or disheartened.

One of our deepest needs in our intimate relationships is to be seen and understood. It’s the source of most conflict, figting to be known. Couples fight about all kinds of issues–communication, money, family, sex, kids–but ultimately what’s wanted underneath it all is to be heard, understood…seen.

When you love you should not say, “God is in my heart,” but rather, “I am in the heart of God.”

The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran

5 thoughts on “To Be Seen

  1. This post is so meaningful. Thank you.
    I emailed it to my bookclub. This week we discussed the novel. « Imagine Me Gone » by Adam Haslett. Some of us are in the mental health field and loved the book. Others had no experience. Your post was rated as excellent by one person whose only reference was Silvia Path’s « the Bell Jar «  which she read in college.
    Many thanks again.


  2. Incredible insight. Thank you so much for articulating this in such an understandable way. Just being “present” with someone can change the whole dynamic of interaction. This is what I want to practice. Thank you. 🙂


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