Afraid of Being Seen: Recovering from Trauma & Learning to Show up Authentically
by Lisa Greene
Listen to Editor in Chief Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
I spent much of my life attempting to be invisible.
Growing up in a fundamentalist religious home, showing too much emotion or disagreeing with authority had dire consequences. I watched my mom ostracized from the community for speaking up against hateful rhetoric. I saw my sister nearly kicked out of the house for wearing a spaghetti strap tank top.
I knew stepping out of line was not an option. So I hid.
Fear of being seen followed me like a shadow through life. As I got older, I no longer presented as the “shy” kid. In fact, I could fool many people into thinking I was bubbly and outgoing.
Instead of “giving in” to the desire to stay hidden, I did the opposite. In college, I worked as a server, partied frequently, and volunteered as a health educator, speaking about sexual and emotional health to groups of students that could reach 90. While this sort of lifestyle was utterly opposite of how I grew up, I was still trying to live up to expectations, albeit different ones. My three older siblings had all left the church ahead of me, and my parents separated for a time, leaving only my father still in this restrictive belief system. I felt almost compelled to conduct my life in a way that was the opposite of my childhood value system.
After college, I returned to my hometown, knowing that a part of me was there to uncover. Going back and working in opposition to the patriarchal violence of fundamentalism felt like my next step. So I pushed myself to get a job as a community organizer for domestic violence and sexual assault prevention. A position which required immense networking, teaching, public speaking, and a constant sense of being “on.”
Though outwardly I engaged, the real me hid under a veneer of people-pleasing. I struggled to advocate for what I needed or ask for help when it was necessary.
In my journey towards healing the trauma of my childhood, I found that this drive to keep my needs hidden was a coping mechanism. And this coping strategy created an emotional hindrance that prevented me from expressing myself authentically.
Wanting to be invisible came from a desire to hide because I learned that drawing attention to myself could be dangerous. Though I showed up publicly, I held a profound fear of asserting myself and setting boundaries. I was intensely anxious at the thought of letting people down. Most of all, I was terrified of my authentic self being seen and heard. I hid my feelings and passions, apologizing when some real part of me accidentally slipped out as I desperately attempted to present what I hoped others wanted to see.
My fear of self-expression came up over and over in my twenties. It caused issues creating stable romantic relationships, maintaining close friendships, expressing myself creatively, and so much more. Even my dark and drab aesthetic appearance was a symptom of this drive to remain hidden.
I lay on the cold kitchen floor one Sunday night, sobs racking my body. Although I had spent the day preparing, I still felt utterly exhausted at the thought of teaching classes and managing staff all week at my community organizing job. I remember thinking of all the eyes on me and shuddering with terror. What if they could see how much I hated being their focal point? What if I messed up and said what I actually thought?
After years of people-pleasing and forcing myself to show up as someone I thought others expected, I was burnt out. I couldn’t maintain the pretense any longer. Hiding under this mask was slowly sapping all my energy, leaving me with crippling anxiety and depression.
I knew this protective mechanism had outlived its usefulness and was now becoming a barrier to living a full life. And I had to address the complex set of fears and beliefs about my self-worth that lay at its foundation.
Foremost, I didn’t want anyone to see the real me because I was terrified of someone having power over me again. I had learned to hide my innate feelings in my childhood because it could be dangerous to express them. I felt that the vulnerability of expressing my authentic self would give others control over me. It seemed scary to be seen because then it was possible to be shamed and rejected. If I never allowed the true essence of me to be recognized, no one could touch that part of me. But I also missed out on being accepted for who I really was.
Not only was I afraid of being hurt, being visible meant I ran the risk of hurting someone else. I was terrified that I would somehow limit other people by expressing my true self. And I was scared that by speaking my truth, I would cause another harm. While I remained hidden, I felt I was doing others a favor, not “bothering” them by taking up emotional space or burdening them with my needs.
I also believed I was unworthy of being seen. I spent much of my life accepting that love had to be earned through service. And I felt my existence was not worthy of being acknowledged on its own.
Since I didn’t believe myself inherently worthy of being seen, I looked for people who wouldn’t try to see me, which became a self-perpetuating cycle. I spent my time with folks who needed a lot of care and emotional attention. There was no room for me in the relationship, and that felt secure, but it also made being visible that much more challenging.
Ultimately I was panicked by the thought of owning my existence. Hiding my authentic self in the shadows, living a half-life, felt safe. I could be whoever anyone wanted me to be at any moment. I never had to commit to anything because I felt like a visitor in my own life.
Although I secretly dreamt of a future where I could show up as me, I kept my true self safely tucked away with all her messy needs and desires. I felt that if I were visible, I would have to be responsible for who I was, I would have to own my existence. The thought of “starting” life was terrifying; I was addicted to living for tomorrow.
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I ended up quitting my job and taking several months to focus purely on recovery. The process of healing this survival mechanism and learning to live a life where I show up authentically is not simple. It requires immense and continual work on traumatic memories and closely-held stories about my worth that I would have liked to gloss over.
These fears were linked to many memories and associations. I began to work through this profoundly rooted survival mechanism. After leaving fundamentalism at the end of high school, I had started to see that the physical act of leaving the community would not be enough to heal me of its scars. Being raised in an environment where it was dangerous to share and explore emotions, it was not encouraged to seek help, and seen as especially dangerous to look to non-church leaders for guidance. Furthermore, seeking inner healing was viewed as self-aggrandizing and prideful. Even though I had left the community those stigmas held fast.
My interest in mental health therapy began with a college psychology course during my sophomore year, where the professor assigned a small self-help book as optional reading. One of the first lines stated: at their core, all humans are good.
That one line struck me, if all humans were good, then I was innately good. I was not born a “sinner” who had to make up for the disgrace of being human. Seeing it in writing, I knew that a deep part of me didn’t believe it. I could both sense that healing was possible and also so far away.
I sought therapy in earnest for the first time that year. Therapy was the opposite of my childhood experience. There, I was encouraged to pay attention to my emotions, speak my opinion (even if it conflicted with the therapist), and care for myself. What awoke as I began diving into the therapeutic process was the dichotomy of conscious and unconscious beliefs. While I no longer consciously believed in sin, misogyny, or hell. At an unconscious level, my core beliefs about myself and my potential were the antithesis of healthy self-worth.
I have now been in therapy for eleven years. Four years ago, my current therapist and I began to explore some of my core trauma memories in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) treatment. This has been the deep dive that unearthed and dismantled so many of my faulty core beliefs.
I had to accept that creating this invisibility coping mechanism was not my fault. My younger self was doing a fantastic job taking care of me and staying safe. And through healing, I had the power to show up in a new way.
As I started to resolve some of these core memories, my self-worth began to increase. And my perspective slowly shifted. I first recognized how dangerous it was to be invisible. When I was hiding my needs and refusing to ask for help, it was hard for people to show up for me. Furthermore, my boundaries were permeable, and people without good intentions could take advantage of that.
I also began to realize that, by hiding, I was becoming very self-focused. In my refusal to let anyone see the deep parts of me, I could not meet anyone else in their depth. I lived an internally focused existence. I wasn’t doing anyone any favors by staying hidden.
Mostly I felt fierce, self-protective anger begin to rise up in me. I began to sense that I could take care of myself. Not just survive by people-pleasing and minimizing my own needs. No, I could take care of myself, my whole self needs, and all.
As a result, I began noting differences in my day to day life. One day, I really wanted tortillas, but there weren’t any on the shelf of the store. Instead of shrugging and leaving in disappointment, I asked a grocery store clerk if there were more tortillas in the back. Another day I spoke up in my meditation class without being prompted. These differences started becoming patterns that changed how I showed up in my relationships, work, and life.
My relationship with my family has also shifted. My three older siblings were the first to leave the fundamentalist community and were my most significant support through my healing struggles. We all dealt with the consequences of our childhood differently, but feeling it’s unsafe to have our authentic self seen seems to affect us all. As I have stepped into my authentic self, my relationships with them have deepened, and I believe it has permitted them to show their authentic selves to me in new ways.
My relationship with my parents, particularly my dad, has also changed and deepened dramatically. While I was still in college, my dad began seeing how he had lost connection with his wife and many of his children in his strict subscription to a fundamentalist worldview. He underwent some profound perspective shifts, and as a result, my parents got remarried. Soon after I moved back to my hometown post-college, he officially left the fundamentalist church over political differences. And in the subsequent five years, he has transformed into one of the closest people in my life.
My parents were actually instrumental in my recovery. Though I don’t believe that healing is dependent on those who hurt you acknowledging their wrong, it is certainly cathartic. Part of claiming my authentic self has been expressing to my parents the detriment of our childhood environment and having them hear and acknowledge that pain.
As I have journeyed through my recovery, I have noticed shifts in my capacity to show up authentically in my life. But I don’t want to give the illusion that I no longer desire to act out of this survival mechanism. Although much healing has occurred, which has allowed me to change my beliefs about my worth, these patterns are deeply ingrained, and they require continual self-compassion and awareness.
Currently, I find myself writing and coaching full time. Removing this cloak of invisibility, I have been able to step into my creative power in an entirely new way, publicly showing my work and being able to sit with the fear and discomfort that arises from showing up as my whole self. Shifting these unconscious survival mechanisms was not one and done. But I can tell you that through therapy, meditation, writing, and reconnecting to authentic, non-dogmatic spirituality, I feel a new sense of groundedness like I grew a new backbone. I also know this is just the beginning. My work as a writer will require me to put myself out there more and more. As a function of its nature, it’s not a work that I can hide behind. Instead, it will require me to reveal more of myself in an ever-evolving process of getting closer to full authentic expression.