We Long to be Seen....

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What is it like to be seen?

I mean ‘really seen’.  

Not the part we show when we are at our best. Or the part we let people see when we want to be liked or accepted.  Or the part we’ve been told is wonderful from the time we were kids…’you are such a happy person!’ - ‘you are so brave!’ - ‘you are so funny’.

I mean the part that isn’t happy…..that has fears…that feels sad. The parts we keep hidden because people might not appreciate them, or we have decided we don’t like them.

I think being truly seen is what we all want. I know it is what we need in order to feel authentically ‘known’ and accepted.

AND it is also terrifying!

I recently attended a training program where we were asked to partner with someone we didn’t yet know and look into each other’s eyes for 2 minutes without speaking.  She encouraged us to avoid the glassy-eyes/blurred-out vision that helps people win staring contests. Our task was to see each other and allow ourselves to be seen.  Literally.  

We were asked to notice of any discomfort or emotion that came up during the exercise.  I thought to myself ‘this will be interesting but shouldn’t be difficult’. After all, I am a therapist who is privileged to meet, and know, new people all the time. I’ve always been told my eye contact puts people at ease and enjoy connecting with others in that way.

The exercise began.

I immediately noticed it was hard. I was struck by my struggle to look into her eyes for an extended period of time. Instead, I looked down at the floor and then back to her eyes….but only for a few more seconds. I looked away again, to scan the room to see if other people were struggling like me to keep the gaze. Instead I found that most had tears trickling down their cheeks and others were exuding empathy through kind eyes. Wow. I turned back to my partner and again, she was able to meet my gaze.  

The messages in my mind were instinctive and strong.  ‘I’m doing this wrong’ ‘What kind of therapist can’t gaze into someone’s eyes?’ ‘What does she think of me for looking away?’ ‘She is better at this than me’ ….

As the two minutes went on, I noticed emotion welling up in my chest with tears trying to work their way out. I tried hard to keep them back.  ‘I don’t know this person - don’t cry.’ ‘She’ll think you’re a bad therapist if you cry in this silly exercise’. ‘What in the world am I crying about?’ ‘What is she going to say after this exercise is over if I cry?’

Well, my cognitive brain won and I remained distracted enough to keep the emotion at bay.  My tears didn’t make their way out.  When we processed the exercise together, I shared my experience first and told my partner that I found the exercise difficult because I just couldn’t get past the fact I wondered if I was doing it right. That I wasn’t sure if I was ‘allowed’ to break the gaze at all. I blamed my lack of emotion on the fact my perfectionist-brain took over and hijacked my emotional experience.  At the time, I even believed that myself.

But it wasn’t true. My perfectionist brain didn’t hijack me.  After talking through the exercise with a dear and trusted colleague and friend, Liz, I realized that my emotions were actually highly engaged, working overtime to protect me from being seen.  I protected myself - and blocked her from really seeing me - by creating a strong wall of thoughts, judgments and negative messages around my vulnerabilities and emotion.  Those thoughts took me away from whatever else was happening inside my heart while this kind, warm stranger looked into my eyes.  Her supportive gaze didn’t overcome the part of me that said it wasn’t safe to allow my emotions and my authentic experience to show. I didn’t trust this stranger actually cared about me. After all, she just met me 90 minutes prior.  If she didn’t care, then she would judge and that was just too much of a risk.  In addition to risk of this stranger judging me, I felt as though my reputation as a therapist was in jeopardy as I was in a room of 100 colleagues.  It was so much safer - and more familiar - to remain ‘put together’ as confident, competent and supportive of others.

As I talked through this with Liz - whom I trust very much - I felt the emotion and tears come back. The same feelings bubbled up inside as she asked about my fearful parts, my concern of being judged, my embarrassment for ‘failing’ the exercise.  Her empathy and complete acceptance of my experience were touching my heart in a profound way.  She was seeing me and, because I trust her, it felt good.  I realized those tears were telling me that I wanted to be seen after all. I didn’t want to look away from the stranger, or end my conversation with Liz.  I just needed the safety to know that whatever was inside, was ok, lovable and ‘enough’. I didn’t need to have it all together…and I wouldn’t lose the respect of those I care so much about.  I needed to be given the time and space to explore the blocks I was putting in place to resist the care and interest of the stranger.  Those blocks were trying to help me stay safe…emotionally.  To keep myself together.  I needed to get to know them, to thank them for their hard work, and tell them they don’t need to work so hard anymore.  

Liz and I talked for a while and our connection as friends and colleagues became notably stronger.  She was able to see me, and I felt seen by her. These are the experiences that bond friends, family members and life partners.

I have carried this experience with me into my work with my clients. I have always worked to create the space for my clients to find, explore and welcome their parts that block others from seeing them.  I just hadn’t realized I had blocks too!  The process of identifying the presence of blocks, exploring them and understanding them allows them to ease up a bit.  On other other side of those blocks is an opportunity to feel what we all long for - to be seen and fully known.  

It is a privilege to help couples and individuals identify their blocks and to create the space needed to change or overcome them so they can really be seen and known.  Those bonding moments happen in my office because I was able to go through the process myself.  

I look forward to seeing more people. And allowing more people to really see me.

Laura Cross