Fear of Being Seen

Little girl covering her eyes with her hands to avoid being seen.

Children who were frequently teased, judged, criticized, micromanaged, mistreated, compared, guilted, shamed, bullied, or abused often grow into adults who are terrified of being seen by others. Understandably so. But this translates into a fear of vulnerability, intimacy, and authenticity. A fear of self-expression and even of self-examination. The sense of self atrophies for those of us with developmental trauma or CPTSD, which necessarily impacts the shit out of our capacity for healthy relating.

Through the Lens of Attachment Theory

Insecure attachers, whether anxious, avoidant, or disorganized, are essentially folks who learn at an early age that being seen is not safe, connection is risky, and people can’t be trusted. Their experiences teach them that loneliness and isolation are safer. And although it usually doesn’t happen consciously or intentionally, they hide their authentic self from the world. They armor up, put on a mask, and perform their finest impersonation of someone who thinks everything is fine.

The avoidantly inclined build up an alleged self through external pursuits — school, work, material success, socializing, passion projects, helping others, addictions, etc. Perhaps under the assumption that a house with a lot of things in it must surely indicate the presence of an authentic person. However, by design, they don’t have enough time, availability, or emotional bandwidth to connect with the secret life inside of them or to share it with anyone else.

Chronic self-abandonment is the beating heart of anxious attachment. Thus, the so-called self of anxious types is often of the “who do I need to be to get you to love me?” variety. They tend to be overly dependent, which pushes others away or sets them up as saviors. Also, they nearly always date avoidant partners. In any event, and not by coincidence, the anxious-attacher seldom has the incentive or opportunity to share their authentic self with another (if they even know what comprises an authentic self).

Disorganized attachment, of course, is an alloy of both anxious and avoidant patterns. But the end goal is the same — avoid the risk of being seen at all costs.

When Science Confirms What We Already Know

In 2004, Dr. Ruth Lanius began investigating the Default State Network (DSN) of the human brain in traumatized individuals via fMRI brain scans. The DSN is essentially the idling brain. What happens in control groups of people who are not thinking about anything in particular is they pay attention to themselves. This can be seen in the activation of a series of midline brain structures (orbital prefrontal cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate, posterior cingulate, and insula) which Bessel van der Kolk has coined “the mohawk of self-awareness.”

In his book The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Van der Kolk explains how all these areas of the brain contribute to our sense of self; how they connect with various systems to give us a physical sense of where we are, to integrate sensory information from the rest of the body, to relay messages from the viscera to the emotional centers, to coordinate thinking and emotional responses, etc. Essentially a network of consciousness. And these regions of the brain showed significantly decreased activity in the resting minds of people with extensive trauma histories.

To quote the book directly:

The contrast with the scans of the eighteen chronic PTSD patients with severe early-life trauma was startling. There was almost no activation of any of the self-sensing areas of the brain: The MPFC, the anterior cingulate, the parietal cortex, and the insula did not light up at all; the only area that showed a slight activation was the posterior cingulate, which is responsible for basic orientation in space.
There could be only one explanation for such results: In response to the trauma itself, and in coping with the dread that persisted long afterward, these patients had learned to shut down the brain areas that transmit the visceral feelings and emotions that accompany and define terror. Yet in everyday life, those same brain areas are responsible for registering the entire range of emotions and sensations that form the foundation of our self-awareness, our sense of who we are. What we witnessed here was a tragic adaptation: In an effort to shut off terrifying sensations, they also deadened their capacity to feel fully alive.

Regrowing Your Mohawk

So after adverse childhood experiences strip you of your sense of self, how do you get that thing back? Well, first of all, I recommend finding a good therapist, coach, or mentor who can help guide you through this process (not just combing the internet looking for ways to recreate your life in three easy steps). Next, your task will be to find tools and strategies to connect to the life inside you. And finally, you must discover how to share that life with others.

Because, as the Latin proverb goes, “One man is no man.”

This process of re-selfing may include meditative and mindfulness practices, yoga, journaling, biography work, nervous system regulation techniques, various types of therapy (both cognitive and somatic), learning about trauma, shame, dissociation, codependency, boundaries, feelings, needs, and nonviolent communication. You may have developmental arrests in self-acceptance, self-compassion, self-worth, self-protection, self-expression, self-care, self-esteem, self-confidence, or self-discipline. It all depends on your experiences.

The journey of self-discovery is unique for everyone, but oddly enough, it’s not a journey you can go alone.

Being Seen

Ultimately, in recovering a true sense of self you will discover how inherently valuable, worthy, and lovable you are. And you will find that connecting deeply with yourself is an essential part of relating to others. Without possession of a real self, there’s nothing for anyone to grab onto. It’s a fundamentally non-relational way of existing.

In other words, lonely as shit, as any insecurely attached person will tell you.

A client recently asked me point-blank, “What’s the antidote to shame?” I’m pretty sure he knew the answer already but wanted to hear me wrap words around it. I said because shame is such a primordial fear of disconnection, the logical antithesis is true belonging, which requires radical authenticity.

And authenticity amounts to knowing who you are and what’s happening inside you, paired with a willingness to share that with others at any given moment.

How appropriate that a trauma induced through negative consequences of being seen by the monsters of our childhood is remedied by stepping back out into the light to be seen once again.


The Wallet Keeps the Score, by Stressel van der Broke 😂

The Wallet Keeps the Score, by Stressel van der Broke 😂

The Wallet Keeps the Score, by Stressel van der Broke 😂

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*This article contains an Amazon affiliate link to the book mentioned.

Published by Adam

Mentor, coach, speaker and educator for over 12 years. I have recovered from and triumphed over many obstacles and afflictions. It brings me tremendous joy to help others overcome similar circumstances so they can live their best lives.

5 thoughts on “Fear of Being Seen

  1. The Wallet keeps the score made me laugh
    Your words so often clarify and quantify my experience so clearly. It helps a bit with the isolating feelings of no one really knows. Thank you for your work

    1. 😂 Laughter is one of my favorite medicines! And I’m delighted to hear that I’ve helped put words to your experience. Feeling like no one understands is one of the worst feelings on earth. Thanks for reading! 🙏🏼

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