Many people don’t realize just how important it is to be seen by others. This is why social media has become a jabillion dollar industry — it provides anyone with internet access the possibility of being seen by an essentially infinite audience. Every second of every day, someone somewhere in the world is uploading a selfie to social media.
Look at me!
But are these people actually being seen, or just being looked at?
What’s The Difference?
When someone spends a lot of time with you, pays attention, sees your highs and lows, your idiosyncrasies, and really gets to know you for all that you are and all that you are not, and can interact with you accordingly, then you may conclude that you are truly seen by them. And when they are kind, loving, and accepting of all of you, it feels downright lovely.
If someone doesn’t know the real you and only sees some manicured, public version of you, being noticed by them can feel nice, for sure. But it’s usually superficial and fleeting. Turning heads on your sexiest day can give you a nice little ego boost, but it pales in comparison to the experience of being loved and accepted when you’re at your worst.
It’s like the difference between eating a nice, home-cooked meal and chowing down on a big puff of cotton candy. Yeah, cotton candy looks neat-o and tastes yummy, but that shit ain’t food. It’s basically an edible cartoon made of sugar.
And such is the fake connection people are currently gorging on. Social media is the McDonald’s of human connection. Please don’t confuse what you do on the internet with your actual life. Sure, this virtual reality can be a tool for establishing human connection. After all, I wouldn’t be sharing these thoughts with you if not for the internet. But reading all of my articles is not what will make us dear friends.
Being Seen Is A Developmental Need
People talk a lot of trash on attention-seeking behaviors, looking for external validation and whatnot, but we are social animals whose identities are formed in relation to others. It’s only natural that we wanna be seen and accepted by those around us.
Observe any small child, and you will see their bids for attention are unyielding. Mommy, look at me! Daddy, look what I can do! We learn everything we need to know about ourselves, others, and the world through such interactions.
Healthy and emotionally attuned parents will mirror, echo, and validate our experiences and model appropriate responses for us. They don’t always do it perfectly, but mature parents make the repair when they drop the ball.
The Empirical Science of Connection
The Still Face Experiment, conducted by Dr. Edward Tronick in the 1970s, asked parents to engage socially with their infant (strapped in a stroller or car seat) for a while, then go completely blank-face unresponsive. The babies completely lose their shit and go through a predictable series of distressed behaviors attempting to reestablish connection.
After two painful minutes (you’ll have to watch the video), the parent begins responding to the baby again, and the crisis is averted. This experiment swung the door open for a lot more research into the far-reaching impacts of childhood abuse and neglect on our social, biological, and neurological development and long-term wellbeing.
I won’t launch into a scholarly journal at this point, but suffice it to say that humans literally cannot function properly without authentic and meaningful connection, which all begins when we are seen by another.
Not Being Seen Sucks
My parents split when I was three, and I grew up with an every-other-weekend dad. He wasn’t really involved in my life to any significant degree. He’d scoop me and my older brothers up twice a month, and we’d go shoot guns, watch horror movies, and eat ice cream. I usually either felt invisible or like a burden. To be fair, maybe I was trying to be invisible because they were such dickheads. But I remember one specific instance of not being seen that stands out vividly in my mind.
Let me set the stage…
As a wee lad, I rollerbladed a lot, but only until I discovered skateboarding, and it became my life. I skateboarded constantly — inside, outside, day and night. Oftentimes I would skate to middle school an hour before classes started so I could shred around the parking lot with friends and work up a good pubescent funk to waft through the halls. I carried my skateboard with me like a congressional medal of honor. Skate shoes, skate clothes, skate videos, skate stickers plastered everywhere. You get the picture.
One day my pops was trying to convince me to do something with him, and to sweeten the deal, he said, “You can bring your rollerblades.” I remember looking him in the eyes, mouth agape, and thinking, this motherfucker has no idea who I even am. Granted, he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but after years of him calling me the wrong name and giving my brothers shit that I wanted for Christmas, it finally clicked.
He could not see me.
Effects of Not Being Seen
If no one sees you, do you even exist? Who the hell are you? Do you matter?
Being invisible is a very lonely and scary experience. Over time, it can be soul-crushing. Toxic shame thrives in isolation and also skews self-perception significantly. It can really turn into a downward spiral.
Being looked at but not truly seen can be just as detrimental. When people notice you for being successful, that doesn’t mean that they value you — just that they value success. If they notice you for being sexy, they’re not really seeing you, just your sweet beach bod (which is not actually who you are, btw).
So, what may seem like validation is often more of a counterproductive affirmation that you’re unlovable and worthless unless you achieve things or stand out.
I’m not gonna yammer on here about what I’ve already written in Vulnerability Is The Price of Admission (a great read for more on the importance of being seen and heard). But the big takeaway is that humans require meaningful, authentic connection in order to thrive, and they suffer mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually without it.
How Do I Fix It?
Cultivating meaningful connection will look different for people depending on the effects of their abuse, neglect, trauma, or past conditioning. Most people avoid sharing their authentic selves with the world because relationships don’t feel safe to them. Remember, every human behavior is in service of meeting our needs or protecting ourselves.
But generally speaking, here are some valuable suggestions:
- Work with a therapist, coach, mentor, clergy member, or twelve-step sponsor who you can share everything with. This is often the safest option, governed by some measure of confidentiality or anonymity. You’re only as sick as your secrets, and it’s great to be able to share all your dirt with someone and realize that you’re still lovable.
- Call or meet with a close friend or friends as a regularly scheduled part of your week. Check in with each other. Talk about life, feelings, insecurities, ambitions, resentments, triumphs. Everything’s on the table.
- Join a small group, book club, or fellowship of some sort that meets regularly and encourages vulnerable discussion. Group therapy, twelve-step fellowships, and some religious congregations lend themselves easily to this task.
- If you have a partner, schedule a weekly time to sit down and openly discuss your feelings and your lives. If you are not completely honest with your partner, it does not bode well for the future of your relationship.
- Work on getting to know yourself better, so you have something to share with others. Develop your passions. Get in touch with your wants, needs, dislikes, and preferences. Learn how to communicate clearly and set healthy boundaries. Double down on self-love and self-care practices.
- Learn about shame, trauma, attachment theory, perfectionism, codependency, addiction, or anything that may be impacting your ability to relate to others in a healthy way.
Somewhere along the way, humanity decided that it wasn’t ok to be human (a pretty fucking stupid decision if ever there was one). People hide their imperfections, apologize for their feelings, and condemn themselves (and others) for making mistakes. They’re out here taking steroids, starving themselves, airbrushing photos, nipping, tucking, and squirting jelly into various body parts with hypodermic needles. When the aliens land, how the hell are we gonna explain this shit?
There are plenty of studies that show around 90% of people think they’re above average at this or that. Obviously, that would be mathematically impossible, but the implication is that people are deathly afraid of being average, or [gasp] below average! I cannot fathom why being a regular-ass human is so terrifying.
This kind of thinking has the “extra woke” populace spraying kerosene on the brushfires of cancel-culture. But digital mob violence and new age McCarthyism aside, I really think we could all snack on a little slice of humble pie and chase it down with a tall glass of chill-the-fuck-out.
Don’t let your imperfections and insecurities prevent you from cultivating authentic human connection.
They are, in fact, the very things that make authentic human connection possible.