Being Seen & Loving the Self

Learning how to be seen is a process because at its core is unlearning social expectations, and, at the same time, learning how to love oneself.

Nov 13, 2023

Being Seen & Loving the Self

I’ve always feared being seen. As a child, I would try to make myself as small and quiet as possible hoping, praying others wouldn’t notice me. It didn’t take long to learn it’s impossible to become completely invisible—regardless of how much I wished it so. This realization and the work I do forced me to reframe this as a problem that I could improve. I could learn to be more comfortable with myself and, in turn, more comfortable with being seen. After years of practice, I can finally say I’ve overcome the desire for invisibility and have even fostered a rough sense of comfort with attention. 

Being seen is to be vulnerable. It’s to believe and have the confidence in oneself to speak up and be secure in one’s own presence. As a young person, I didn’t have the language for what I was avoiding, and I definitely didn’t know there was anything wrong with how I felt. All I could pinpoint were the moments I became visible, and I didn’t want it. Like one morning in my AP high school English class when my teacher called on me. For some now forgotten reason, whatever I said or he said embarrassed me, and I turned a deep shade of red. This teacher thought it was “cute,” so he kept making jokes. In response, I tried to sink into my seat; my head buried deep in my arms. The redness of my ears creeping out from beneath the tops of my arms, the only cover I had, but it still wasn’t good enough to protect me from the shame of the class’s attention and the shame of being laughed at. The next day my teacher felt bad and brought me a huge Hershey bar as an unspoken apology. 

Almost 15 years later, this moment still sits with me. It’s one of three things I remember from this class, and one of the handful of memories I have from high school in general. The other two being Edith Hamilton’s*Mythology* and the first 20 lines of Hamlet’s soliloquy “Alas! Poor, Yorick.” This moment, a lesson within itself, has stayed with me partially from the trauma of being laughed at by the whole class—probably not an uncommon core memory for many—but it has mostly stayed with me out of a deep-seated sadness. The sadness stemming from feeling so ashamed of myself that I couldn’t bear to be noticed. Just imagining my earnest attempt to collapse into myself wounds me deeply. I don’t often wish for many things in the past to be different, but I wish I had the confidence and self-esteem to exist without the kind of shame my younger self felt.

I have this theory that being seen is a direct threat to our wellbeing. In nature, if we’re seen, we’re in danger of being harmed or worse, unalived. This primal instinct is still embedded deep within our lizard brain that’s activated in moments of high stress, which for someone like me, includes public speaking or any other moment of attention and sheer vulnerability. In these situations, there’s nowhere for us to hide, externally or internally. We must face those in front of us and be seen, and there is a level of tolerance one must build to be comfortable with the gaze of others.

The difficult part is not just with the individual, but women in general are asked to shrink themselves in multiple and seemingly endless ways. The skinny standard of beauty pressures women to physically shrink themselves to their smallest form, with a recent return to size 0, heroin chic. A woman is expected to keep her voice down. During Hillary Clinton’s campaign, commentators would frequently criticize her voice. Women are asked to “smile”—even in the face of harassment—which is a shrinking of their wants, desires, and self. Women of color, especially Black women, are even more harshly criticized for having the audacity to show up, speak out, and believe in themselves. The feeling to go unseen is not just a personality trait, but something that’s encouraged and celebrated by society. For those of us at intersections, these facets can multiply.

Because of the larger social context, it takes work, or it took work for me, to find value in myself. Part of this work is growing up, turning outside oneself, and being able to pinpoint oneself in the larger societal framework to realize many of our insecurities are intentionally exploited. One huge moment for me was learning there are some things I can control. One of those elements of control is knowing I can choose whose attention I engage with or ignore whether it’s an advertisement, trend, or negative comment from a colleague. Perhaps the best lesson I’ve learned is it’s none of my business what someone else thinks of me. 

@ehimeora said in a post on Instagram, “Once you overcome your issue with being seen, you’ll unlock a new type of blessing.” Before reading this, I didn’t necessarily realize the work I was doing was to overcome this problem. After reflecting on this framing, it became clear that was one of my biggest fears when starting this blog or doing anything really: I don’t want to be seen because I don’t want people to think poorly of me. 

While writing this blog post, my fear of being seen resurfaced and became a huge obstacle for my writing. This post not only took me a few months to write, it caused a total pause on all the writing I was doing. I was paralyzed by an unwillingness to be this vulnerable. It took quite a few months for me to work through exposing this part of myself. It’s one thing to build comfort within the bounds and safety of one’s own self. It’s a whole other exercise to express fear and vulnerability on “paper” for others to see. 

Even though I’ve told myself writing my blog posts each week is a gift to my craft, deep down in a place I’m reluctant to admit, I’m scared of what people will think. At the core of this is the fear of people knowing me for me, of seeing me. One surprising consequence of writing blog posts, sharing them, and being proud of my writing despite this dull, insistent fear is I have more confidence in myself, in my thoughts, in my beliefs. There will always be people that would like me to shrink, to collapse in on myself, but I no longer yearn to be invisible. I may not be entirely comfortable with the attention, but I am the most comfortable I’ve ever felt with myself, which is itself a victory and act of resistance.