In part one of this blog, I have described where the need to be seen comes from, how it came about. In this part we are going to zoom in on what happens when the child is not seen, when the child is not positively mirrored. Because that’s where two survival mechanisms are developed that still continue today in our adult lives.

We experienced not being seen as life-threatening

It is very painful when the child is not seen in an aspect. The child reaches out and mother (the nurturing environment) is not there. Mother is physically or emotionally not available. There is no contact there, there is no connection. And this lack of connectedness is experienced by the child as life-threatening. After all, the child is totally dependent on mother for love, protection, care, warmth and nourishment. The child dies without a mother. And this painful experience triggers two movements.

The first survival mechanism

The first thing that happens reflexively is that the child moves away from the pain. In order not to experience the pain of not being seen, the lack of connectedness, the child withdraws. The child contracts itself and disconnects from his or her natural state of being; the open sensitive state. Now the child is afraid to reach out. The child will not reach out if it is not sure that the child is accepted in the aspect that was not allowed to be there. Now it is not enough for the child that mother is present. Mother needs to invite and reassure the child.

This defensive mechanism still operates in our adult life. When it is activated, we withdraw. We contract ourselves and disconnect from our natural state. We take a waitand- see attitude. We don’t reach out. We assume that our needs will not be met anyway.
We deny that there is a need. For example, we may be very sensitive to the need of others to be seen, but we don’t show that we want to be seen ourselves. We may even be proud that we have little need. When we are in this contracted state, we often feel small, weak or helpless. We feel inadequate mentally, emotionally and physically. It feels like we don’t have what it takes to do what we want to do there.

The second survival mechanism

So, the first thing that happened when we were not positively mirrored is that we retreated. We contracted ourselves as a defense against pain and we took a wait-and-see attitude. We waited for the right conditions to reach out. But because it is lifethreatening that there is no connection with mother, there is at the same time a tremendous instinctive need to restore that connection at the point where it was lost. And this sets in motion a second movement. Here the child does not wait for the right conditions to reach out, but begins to actively seek contact to restore connection where it has been lost. If I am not seen for who I am, how do I need to be in order to be seen? Is it by being nice? Or by being kind? Or by being smart? Or by being obedient? To maintain connection with the significant other, the child starts to adapt. The child adopts the behavior necessary to make sure he or she is seen. And that can also mean engaging in negative behavior.

This defensive mechanism is also still operating in our adult lives. When it is activated, we want something from the other person. We exhibit certain behavior because we want the other person to appreciate us, to like us or to love us. We exhibit the behavior we think is desirable to maintain connection with the other person. If I am this way or that way then I am seen and the connection with the other person is maintained. But in trying to maintain the connection with the other we lose touch with ourselves and with what we want, with our desires. And of course, the contact with the other is not real either, because it does not come from a real place; from our authentic self.

When we try so hard to be seen, we also try to ward off the pain of not being seen. But we don’t realize that the pain we are trying to avoid has already happened. We are not aware that when we try to maintain connection with the other, that we are then also trying to avoid the pain of not being seen when we were children. The pain of not being seen, the lack of connectedness with mother, was life-threatening to us, so we couldn’t let that painful reality be true. And that painful experience is therefore stored in our system and body as a wound. And now when we are not seen in our adult lives, we are touched in this wound and its pain comes to the surface. And that is why we try so hard to be seen; to avoid this pain from the past.

Understanding and healing the pain

We all have these two defense mechanisms. As long as we don’t become aware of these mechanisms, we keep playing these out. We keep living these child pieces and stay trapped in the past. But when we become aware of these mechanisms and understand what they are trying to do, we feel safe and allow ourselves to face the reality of not being seen, instead of defending ourselves against it by contracting ourselves and losing touch with ourselves. In other words, we allow ourselves to be in our natural state again, present, open and sensitive. And this dissolves the defense mechanisms and we feel relaxed, at ease, free and able to set aside our story and start living who we really are. Our natural state is what heals the pain, dissolves our obstacles and sets us free. Isn’t that a blessing? Isn’t that magic?

Since this pain was originally experienced as life-threatening, it takes courage, compassionate understanding and patience to allow this. Be very kind to yourself here, no judgment. And reach out for help where needed.

Inquiry practice

How do you deal with your need to be seen? Do you reach out? Which behaviors have you adopted to ensure you are seen? What is your style? In what ways do you attract attention. Is it compelling, or is it more wait-and-see? Or do you draw no attention at all? Do you deny the need? Are you more sensitive to others’ need to be seen and don’t show that you want to be seen yourself? What is your style? Do you do things differently in different areas of your life? How do you do it in your work, in your relationship, with friends, with strangers, in your family?

We all have both attitudes, but one attitude is more dominant than the other. Both, demanding attention and barely entitled to it, are ways of dealing with our need for mirroring. And both are a defense against the pain of not being seen.

Can you feel the pain beneath these defense mechanisms? How do you see it in your life? How do you notice it in your body? We are not trying to solve anything. Rather, acknowledging your style with understanding and love makes them clear, transparent and open, allowing the pain underneath to surface and heal. We allow ourselves to face the reality of not being seen, rather than defending against it. Our natural state, our openness is what will ultimately heal the pain and dissolve the defense mechanisms.

You can do the exploration with someone else for fifteen minutes each, or you can do the inquiry in writing.