Yes, that was me in my early twenties.
And as I look into the eyes of that young woman and try to remember what was going through her head when the photograph was taken, I find myself reconnecting with that deep desire she had to be seen and understood.
The photographer was someone I barely knew – an older man who saw something in me that I couldn’t see myself, the promise of which was enough to entice me into at least partially undressing.
When we can’t see or understand ourselves properly, one of the ways we look for that understanding is through the reflection of others.
What I am also noticing, as I look back at the old photos he took, is that most carry that same apparent contradiction of wanting to reveal and yet wanting to conceal. And any quick glance through headlines and social media shows how pervasive these same contradictory desires still are.
A barrage of selfies—revealing and less revealing—hit us daily. Big bums, flat stomachs, perky breasts, all crying out for attention. And along with them are other headlines that show our desire to hide ourselves—concerns over breaches of privacy, leaked stories and images, as well as increasing emphasis on safeguarding our assets.
They all seem to be pointing to the same thing: we’re hungry to be seen but also scared of what that may mean.
Instagram, Facebook and the other networks, along with webcams and easy-to-use photoshop software, mean that we can now easily attract attention to ourselves if we want to while keeping the seer at a relative distance. We can choose how we want others to see us, what we want to emphasize and what we want to hide. But the reality is that, no matter how much attention we get, we’re still not being really seen in the way that we hunger for.
At a deep level, we all carry this fundamental yearning to be seen for who we really are. If attention was all it took for us to feel seen, then most of us would all be feeling pretty satisfied by now with the ample opportunities offered by new media.
Instead, the opposite seems to be happening. It’s almost as if the ease with which we can now show ourselves to the world is bringing to the surface this deeper yearning. Like the sight of a glass of water at the end of a marathon can make us feel more thirsty—so close but still not quite there—the opportunity to be seen by more people brings within reach the possibility that we may finally get what we need but emphasizes the lack we’re currently feeling.
To reach a place where we feel fully seen requires a couple of things of us (apart from the ability to be able to slow down and to ‘see’ clearly, both of which I’ll cover in upcoming articles).
Making peace with ourselves.
The truth is that most of us are pretty scared about revealing ourselves completely. We fear how others may react to what they see. We fear the criticism, judgement, even rejection, that may—and often does— follow a more open display of who we are. After all, once we’ve revealed something about ourselves, it’s damn near impossible to hide it again.
And, to make matters worse, we’re often really not sure whether we are worthy and lovable. So we reveal the parts we think will win approval or, at least, acceptance, and we conceal the rest—continually waging war with ourselves at a fundamental level.
“I don’t want the world to see me because I don’t think that they’d understand…”
(from Iris by The Goo Goo Dolls)
But we can’t be saying ‘I want to be really seen’ on the one hand while still saying ‘don’t look too closely’. One of the natural by-products of being normalized in society is the repression of certain aspects of ourselves. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we push away traits, urges, perspectives and even physical characteristics that we feel won’t meet with external approval by family, peers or the world at large.
A consequence of this is that we don’t want to, or are unable to, show ourselves fully. But if we’re partially hiding, we will never really feel seen. Acknowledging and accepting these aspects is a necessary step in allowing another to see us more fully. I’m not saying we need to make a public display of these, but we do need to reach a place where we are comfortable and accepting of ourselves and no longer feel the need to hide parts of ourselves away from trusted others.
Getting to know ourselves.
To be honest, I’m not sure that we can ever be fully seen by anyone, including ourselves, which is why I’ve been emphasizing the feeling of being fully seen.
This is because the process of self-development, and therefore self-understanding, never comes to an end while we’re alive. But we can certainly feel as if we are really seen at any moment in time—provided, that is, that we’re tuned in to who we are at that moment.
When we have developed a good degree of self-understanding and acceptance, our energetic vibration is clearer and it is easier for others to really see us. Our core essence shines through more clearly. Conversely, if we’re not tuned into ourselves, then no matter how clearly another may feel they can see us, we’re not open to being seen—our essence is masked and clouded by doubts, fears and masks that we wear.
Ironically, when we can see and accept ourselves, the hunger to be seen by others diminishes significantly while at the same time we seem to find it easier to actually meet others who can ‘see’ us. We have less need of the mirror which others’ attention holds up for us and through which we look for confirmation of who we are.
But it is still a wonderful experience when we share that ‘deep seeing’ with another— something which can happen more readily when they have also done a journey of self-discovery.
The more we can connect deeply with ourselves, the more comfortable and accepting we are of others’ depths.
Even without having done the deeper work I’ve mentioned above, though, everyone can have the experience of being fully seen, although it may be for shorter periods of time.
With the help of a willing partner, some time and a quiet space, we can practice seeing and being seen—which in turn may give us the confidence or impetus to do the deeper work. In fact, it can help us become aware of what has being getting in the way of our ability to be open to the wider world, as we watch the feelings and thoughts that emerge during our practice.
The following exercise, to be shared with another, is one of the most basic, and yet most effective, ways of practicing.
- Start with a simple mindfulness meditation, focused on the breath and body, in order to quieten the mind and bring you into the present moment.
- Sit facing and simply look into each other’s eyes, staying with any initial discomfort at being looked at so directly. If you want to share how it’s making you feel, that’s fine—or you can share afterward. Simple touch is okay too, like stroking a cheek or a hand. Synchronizing the breath, if that’s comfortable for both of you, can help to open the connection further.
- Immerse yourselves in the eye-gazing for as long as possible and then, separately or together, share how the experience made you feel both about yourselves and about the other. What feelings emerged? What thoughts? Did you feel comfortable or perhaps want to laugh, or run away?
On a daily basis, we can start to address this hunger to be seen by just taking a few moments to make proper eye contact with ourselves in the mirror and with the people we interact with—slowing down so that we can see the person behind the ‘image’.
So often we rush through the day, barely acknowledging the person who serves us coffee, the cashier in the shop, other colleagues and even family members. This simple act of slowing down for just enough time to make meaningful contact can be all that’s needed to tip the scales for many people from feeling isolated and unseen, to connected and seen.
(If you want to read more on authentic relating —including practical tools to get you started, the importance of quality and intention, as well as the challenges of being authentic in an unauthentic world—watch out for several more blogs specifically on that subject which I’ll be posting on Elephant Journal over the next few weeks).
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: courtesy of the author