Several readers responding to my recent post about a client who felt invisible have asked me to discuss the opposite experience — the person who fears being seen and desperately wants to remain invisible. It’s a very different issue, with roots in profound shame.
I find it useful to think about the person who fears being seen as the opposite of a narcissist: narcissistic personalities want very much to be looked at and admired — for their appearance, accomplishments, possessions, etc. — but they unconsciously fear being truly seen. In my forthcoming book, I talk about this clamoring for attention as a sort of reaction formation: the unconscious fear of being seen becomes the conscious desire to be looked at. With the person who longs to remain invisible, that dread of being truly seen may instead be conscious, but it shares the same root: a fear of being exposed and despised.
In psychotherapy, even though this person wants help, she fears that if the therapist truly sees her, then that therapist will reject her with contempt or revulsion. Unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, they feel ugly and defective inside, or displace that feeling onto their appearance. They believe that they are essentially unlovable; the only hope they have of getting something that they need is to keep themselves hidden from view because nobody who knew the “truth” would willingly give them anything.
You sometimes see this dynamic in people who grew up with narcissistic parents. As children, they felt that the only way they could get what they needed was to take care of their parents’ needs first, in the sad hope that the parents would then grow enough to be able to function as such. That was certainly my case, and I’ve seen it in other situations where the person had to subsume his or her own needs/feelings to those of the parents. In other words, in order to get what you need, you have to keep those needs out of sight; in order to get the love and attention that every child craves, you have to appear selfless — that is, without a self and hence invisible.
This fear of being seen and found to be defective is often reinforced by a savage and perfectionistic superego that fuels a profound level of self-hatred. As discussed in my post on the most common defenses against shame, the primary defense is the creation of an idealized false self meant to deny the feelings of inner ugliness and defect. Narcissists strive to convince themselves that they actually are that ideal self; they crave the admiration and envy of others in order to confirm that belief. The person who wants to remain invisible instead feels persecuted by that ideal self-image, constantly compared to it and found wanting, so they instead try to keep their true selves hidden and out of sight.
On a practical level, psychotherapy with such individuals can be challenging because they keep important information hidden from the therapist for long periods. Sometimes they may feel safe enough to tell their therapist about the fear of opening up, but often they simply talk about issues and feelings other than the most important ones. From the therapist’s point of view, it may feel as if the work lacks a kind of vitality; he or she may feel at a distance from the client and that it’s very difficult to get close. Dreams may offer a way in. Often I have to rely on my intuition; if the person hasn’t old me so already, I might say something along the lines of: “It feels like you’re afraid to really open up to me, as if it’s dangerous to let me see you fully and so you have to keep yourself hidden.” In any event, you have to be patient and not press too hard. It takes a long time for a person struggling with this kind of shame to develop trust enough to reveal themselves.
In writing this post, I was reminded of the character of Charlotte Vale in one of my favorite old movies Now, Voyager (1942). Crippled by a profound sense of inferiority and ugliness, she shuns any kind of attention and wants very much to remain invisible. She lives under the domination of an autocratic mother who lacks all maternal qualities, expecting Charlotte to conform to her every whim. Mother Vale has effectively eradicated Charlotte’s sense of self. With the help of kindly Dr. Jaquith, Charlotte escapes her tyrannical mother and develops a genuine sense of self and self-esteem. She finds a kind of healing when she bonds with a young girl very much like her former self, providing the kind of loving acceptance she had always craved as a child. Sentimental, perhaps, but a wonderful movie and a moving portrait of a woman who longs to remain invisible but finds her way into the light.