Visibility, Please!

What is psychological visibility, and how can one nurture it?

A reader writes:

It deeply affected me to read your recent article on ten tips for well-adjusted children, wherein you stated the goal of childhood is to come out feeling loved and visible.

When I thought about my own childhood, I realized that was entirely lacking. These days I’m concerned that my emotional troubles, and particular hardships such as sustaining focus on my goals, being ambitious, and serene, are deeply connected to feelings of psychological invisibility.

It might raise my level and performance to great heights to satisfy this need, if it is indeed an unfulfilled emotional need holding me back.

However, having felt invisible most of the time, I’m very stuck on introspecting on it. It would be interesting to hear your take on this topic.

Dr. Hurd’s reply:

To feel ‘visible,’ psychologically speaking, means to be valued as important by significant others.

There are two ways to feel ‘invisible,’ psychologically.

One is, ‘I’m not important to anyone. Therefore, I’m not important.’

The other is, ‘I know I’m valuable. But nobody else seems to recognize it.’

Your question doesn’t imply which one it is. But spend some time trying to figure out which way you actually feel. That’s important.

It’s important that YOU feel what you’re proposing to spend time on is significant. If not, then the recognition of others will matter very little, once you get it.

I think this explains why some celebrities or famous people end up unhappy, or even destroying themselves via suicide or substance abuse.

When we see this happen most of us ask, ‘How could that be? He got all this celebrity and fame [i.e. visibility]; yet he destroyed himself?!’

The most likely explanation is the person didn’t see him- or herself as doing something worthwhile in the first place.

What we’re talking about here is the difference between loneliness and despair. If you’re lonely, then you haven’t found the people to appreciate your work, talent or personal qualities—whatever it is you have to offer.

One way of putting this is, ‘I want to find my kind of people [or person].’ Loneliness isn’t easy, but it’s not the end of the world either. At least you have yourself, the values and attributes you cherish, and the continuing hope that you’ll find others with whom to connect. Maybe you’re not reaching out enough. This is a practical, but solvable, problem.

Despair is a whole different story.

Some people despair when they learn that childhood might and should have been different. In other words, that childhood might and should have led to a warm feeling of love and acceptance, at its close. Of course, sometimes there are problems even then. I have talked with people who authentically felt loved, valued and visible throughout their childhood. Yet not everyone in the world will treat them the same way. When they encounter this difficult fact for the first time, they’re sometimes stunned and thrown off course for years. Everyone has their challenges.

Fulfilling your need for psychological visibility is a worthwhile goal. But keep in mind that you’ve got to pass a favorable judgment on your own activity first. It’s not enough to feel worthwhile about yourself, although that’s crucial; it’s important to feel good about the activity and the qualities you exhibit in daily life (in or out of career).

Sometimes we pick activities for which we’re not well-suited. We don’t obtain visibility because we’re not very good at those endeavors. Instead of blaming the choice, we blame ourselves. That’s a mistake! If your choice of career or other activity isn’t worthy of your talents, then find something else.

Sometimes we choose people in whose eyes we wish to be visible. Sometimes those people are interested as much as we’d like, and when so it’s one of life’s more rewarding connections. Sometimes we don’t get the level or kind of response we want. It’s disappointing or even hurtful, but it says nothing about the possibility or impossibility of the next connection. It’s only when we conclude that because we’re invisible to one person (or group), that we’re destined to be invisible to all, that despair sets in.

Nothing is destined wherever choice and variation play a role. Life offers a more diverse and surprising array of possibilities and choices than any one us will ever live long enough to fully exploit.


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