Feeling invisible is not pleasant and can even be a painful experience. When we are in an embarrassing situation, invisibility seems like a super power. In fact, in some circumstances going unnoticed can even save us a conflict or get us out of danger.
But when the others ignore us, ignore our ideas, and pass on our feelings, we can feel belittled, alone, and disconnected. As the psychiatrist Donald Winnicott put it, “It is a joy to be hidden, but a disaster not to be found.”
Over time, that feeling of invisibility can become chronic, causing us to feel rejected and insignificant. We can start to feel like we’re not enough, like we don’t matter in the least. That experience of invisibility can end up eroding our self-esteem and self-confidence.
The main reasons we can feel invisible
Experiencing social rejection, whether accidental or intentional, can fuel feelings of invisibility. Prejudices, for example, contribute to making people feel invisible as there are groups that openly ignore their ideas and violate their rights.
When a person does not receive emotional validation in difficult times, he or she too can feel invisible. The absence of empathy in others prevents him or her from connecting emotionally, which makes him or her feel alone and isolated, as if he or she does not exist.
We can also feel invisible and belittled when the others do not recognize our fundamental assertive rights. If they don’t treat us with respect, but instead try to impose their will and decisions, we may feel like we don’t count.
This sense of invisibility also manifests itself when our opinions are not taken into account and our right to express our disagreement is taken away from us. We can also feel ignored when the others relegate our needs to the background, so that they are permanently unsatisfied.
In short, we feel invisible when the people around us do not validate our identity, but ignore it, pushing us aside and excluding us from making important decisions.
When the problem are not the others
Sometimes we can feel invisible because we carry a history of childhood emotional neglect. If our parents paid us little attention and did not adequately meet our emotional needs, it is likely that that feeling of insignificance and rejection will accompany us into adult life.
Generally we become hypersensitive to situations of rejection or invalidation since these automatically make us return to our childhood. These experiences can distort our perception of reality and make us feel invisible when in fact we do count for the others.
In these cases, we can refer to four situations in which one can feel invisible:
1. The absolute “nothing”. We can feel absolutely invisible when the people most important to us, such as our partner or our children, behave as if we do not exist. Usually it is because they are too overwhelmed with their own problems, but they can also be too self-centered or manipulative people who use indifference as punishment and a means of control.
2. Partial blindness. In these cases, we are not completely invisible, we receive attention, but it is residual or superficial. We can feel this way, for example, when we talk to a person, but in reality he or she does not listen to us and after a while he or she no longer remember anything of the conversation. We can also feel invisible when we interact with people who do not understand us or have no interest in knowing how we are.
3. Self-protective invisibility. Sometimes invisibility can be “positive.” In the oceans, for example, fish that live in the deepest areas do not need to be invisible because everything is dark there, while those that live on the surface emit dazzling flashes of light so that their predators mistake them for the flashes of water. In contrast, animals that live in intermediate waters, the pelagic zone, do not have those options. That is why most of the invisible fish live there. Invisibility helps them survive in a sea of predators.
4. Invisibility to protect the others. We don’t always try to make ourselves invisible to protect ourselves, sometimes we do it to protect the others. For example, in dysfunctional families or where the adults have serious problems, children may try to go unnoticed so as not to pose an extra burden. If we feel that the best we can do is to become invisible, we relegate our needs to the background and try to minimize ourselves.
In other cases, feeling invisible can be the result of unrealistic expectations. Narcissistic people, for example, who demand extreme attention, may feel invisible when they are not receiving it. However, that does not mean that they are not important to others, but only that they sometimes take a back seat, as it should be.
The consequences of feeling invisible
• Difficulties connecting with the others. When we feel invisible, we can develop defense mechanisms that make us think that we do not need anything or anyone. We try to deal with that vulnerability by hiding some needs that are not satisfied. That can cause us to withdraw into ourselves, unable to make deep emotional connections with the others.
• Neglecting ourselves emotionally. By dint of feeling invisible, we can come to think that our needs are not important. In fact, victims of abuse and neglect often learn to ignore their emotions and their most basic needs. We keep everything inside and do not express what we would like, which ends up taking a toll on us.
• Not setting healthy limits. Sometimes, after years of invisibility, when a person finally sees us, we can feel so special that we will do everything we can to maintain that attention. This can put us in a situation of emotional dependency because we may be willing to tolerate too much and fall into abusive relationships.
• Compensatory behaviors. In some cases, invisibility can lead to compensatory behaviors that help us get the attention and affection we need. In fact, it is common in dissociative identity disorder, which is reinforced the more attention we receive from people who are significant to us.
In any case, it is important to bear in mind that everyone, to a greater or lesser extent, needs validation. We can stop being invisible by resorting to more assertive behaviors and reaffirming our identity.
Schore, A. (2001) The effects of early relational trauma on right brain development, affect regulation and infant mental health. Infant Mental Health; 22: 201-269.
Mosquera, D. (2018) Los efectos de sentirse invisible: Entendiendo la conexión con las rupturas de apego tempranas y la negligencia. ESTD Newsletter; 7(1): 1-8.