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The Need to Feel Seen

Why feeling like you don’t matter is so threatening.

For the last two months, I’ve had a problem I’ve been unable to either solve or get out of my head.

Four months ago, I moved to a new house. And by “new,” I mean that the whole neighborhood is under construction. I had no idea what moving into a construction zone would be like, but I’ve done my best to habituate to the various disruptions I’ve faced, the biggest of which was the noise.

That is until the builder began building the houses directly behind me, and the construction workers started blocking me in.

On one side of my house is a two-lane road with parking spaces on either side. On the other side is a one-way, one-lane road or alley, and the garages for the houses on both sides of this alley exit onto it.

Two months ago, the contractors working on building the houses on the other side of the alley from my house started parking vans, trucks, and other work vehicles there, effectively keeping my neighbors and me from being able to get out of our garages or drive down the road.

When this started happening, and I noticed that either I or one of my neighbors was blocked in, the first thought that came to my mind was, “Don’t they see the driveway right there? Can’t they see that they are blocking us in?”

The parking police

I started asking everyone who parked in the alley to move a block over to where there were designated parking spots that didn’t block our passage. But a few days of acting like the parking police stretched into a few weeks, and I loathed being put into this position. Some contractors moved without complaint, and a small few were apologetic before moving, but a fair number were argumentative. They’d all eventually move, but the next day, either some of the same people or new people would be parked in the exact same spots, and I’d have to start all over again.

It was maddening. And exhausting.

Therefore, I decided to get the builder involved. I wrote them a long email describing the problem, pointing out that the situation was causing a safety hazard and a liability for all involved (because if there were an emergency, we’d be unable to get out), and offering a solution or two. I thought asking the builder to take over the role of parking police would surely solve the problem.

But no. A month after I gratefully turned over the role to the builder, who installed No Parking signs on the street, hired a laborer to keep the street clear, and created some gravel parking spaces for the contractors, my neighbors and I were still getting blocked in. In fact, I was prevented from either leaving or returning to my garage three times in the space of 24 hours last week. The final time, it took the builder’s project manager several minutes to even find the person who’d parked his van in the middle of the alley. I stood on my driveway silently seething, watching the project manager go around to various crews and houses under construction looking for the owner of the van, a person who’d once again not seen that he’d blocked me in.

Anger turns to shame

I didn’t like the fact that this situation made me so angry, but it did. I also had an exceptionally hard time not ruminating about it for hours after each frustrating encounter.

Why did I find all this so threatening? Was it because moving into a construction zone had reignited some long-buried trauma of being crushed between two cars when I was 4, an event that I hypothesize in Is Fred in the Refrigerator? Taming OCD and Reclaiming My Life precipitated the start of my OCD? Was it because one of the many subtypes of OCD that I have includes the obscure one where I will ruminate on things that “don’t make sense” until I find a “solution” for them?* Was it because, in the course of living in this new house, I’d already experienced not one but two life or death emergencies where I had to leave the house immediately, one where a pet required emergency surgery and another that took the life of my beloved horse? Was it because I, like everyone, am stressed by the pandemic and the uncertainty of when it will end? Was it because I had the expectation that the builder, upon learning of the issue my neighbors and I were facing, would reliably be able to address the problem?

My perception of the situation as being threatening was probably influenced by each of these factors. But even after I came up with my own solution after being blocked in that final time—get up each day before 7 a.m. and move my car to a designated parking spot on the street in front of my house where I won’t get blocked in—I still could not let the issue go.

I kept ruminating, beating myself up for getting so angry. I told myself: Getting blocked in is not a big deal, there are way worse problems in the world, and in fact, you could call this one a “champagne problem”: I’ll only have to deal with this for a few more months; the builder really has tried to solve it; none of this was personal, as the contractors were probably just used to parking near their worksites; and people may or may not think I’m a horrible person for getting upset about this, but I don’t have any control over what others think of me.**

Predictably, none of that helped, and the shame set in.

Until, that is, I had the sudden realization that this issue was likely not due to any of the reasons I’d considered. Further, I’d had the key to why I couldn’t let this go from the very beginning. It was the thought that always came to mind whenever I saw I was blocked in:

“Don’t they see the driveway right there? Can’t they see that they are blocking us in?”

In other words, don’t you see me?

The problem was that I didn’t feel seen. It felt instead like I just didn't matter.

Not feeling seen

Feeling seen by others is a basic human need. Its basis is evolutionary: If your tribe didn’t see you, there was a risk you’d be left behind when the nomadic life of early humans dictated they move, and being alone equated to death. If other tribes didn’t see and respect you and your tribe, they were likely to invade your territory, take your resources, and leave you and your family to die.

In the ancient part of our brains, not being seen is equivalent to being sentenced to death.

No wonder I was angry and couldn’t let this go.

I've led a privileged life as a middle-class white woman, so I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t had a lot of experience of not being seen. I, like most everyone, have had the related experiences of been seen and judged as lacking, such as when I didn’t get the job or I received a bad review on a creative effort. I also, like most everyone, have been seen and mocked, such as when people turn OCD, the widely misunderstood disorder that made years of my life a living hell, into an intentional or unintentional joke right in front of me. These situations can also be disappointing, maddening, and even threatening, but I’ve been lucky in that I’ve not often experienced the particular threat of not being seen at all.

But now I get it.

Transforming shame into self-compassion

When I had my revelation that I wasn’t being seen, I texted my close friend Kimberley Quinlan, LMFT, who has supported me throughout this two-month ordeal of not being able to get into or out of my garage.

She called me immediately, and her words were validating. She said, “That’s exactly right. Not being seen is why you’ve been so upset.”

Kimberley is writing a book called The Self-Compassion Workbook for OCD (to be published by New Harbinger Publications in 2021), and she is a self-compassion expert. As I explained that I had turned to shame because I couldn’t stop being so angry, she wisely shared, “But the anger is so important. It’s what transported you to being able to say that you matter.”

I’ve always supported Black Lives Matter, but I don’t think I fully understood until I heard Kimberley’s words why the BLM movement and the protests, as well as the support of both by people who are not Black, are so crucially important. Because it’s incredibly invalidating and threatening to feel like you don’t matter.

Which made me think, was it the right thing to do to just give up on this whole parking issue? It’s not important in the grand scheme of things, but it’s important to me right now, and is it the right decision to move my car every day so I won’t be blocked in?

Again, Kimberley’s words went to the heart of the matter: “You backed down because that was the self-compassionate thing to do. You don’t need to feel as if you’re not being seen on a daily basis. It’s not whether you’re right or wrong. It’s whether what matters to you matters to others, and what you’re hearing over and over is that your needs don’t matter. It feels like a lack of respect. But your needs do matter, and they matter more than winning, and that’s why your solution of moving your car is the right one for you.”

It's important to underscore that backing down was the right solution for me in this situation, but it’s not always appropriate. Sometimes standing up for what you believe in is not only the right solution, but it’s the fiercely compassionate one (Neff & Germer, 2018) and absolutely necessary for change to occur.

I see you

Since having this conversation with Kimberley and recognizing the importance of being compassionate with myself, the weight of two months of baffling inter- and intra-personal conflict has lifted off my shoulders. Of course, I was angry. Of course, I felt threatened. Of course, I couldn’t let this go. Because to my brain, my very survival seemed to be at stake.

The anger and shame have melted away. I’m not angry at the builder or his employees who have tried to help my neighbors and me, as they’ve done the best they could. I’m not angry at the contractors, as they are just trying to do their jobs. I’m not angry at myself for being upset, because I was at the mercy of a powerful and protective part of my brain.

But I’m also now painfully aware of the importance of making others feel seen. Going forward, I’m going to endeavor to make a more concerted effort to see others in the following five ways:

  1. Learn and remember the names of people I interact with and/or see frequently. Over the past few years, I’ve made an effort to know and use the names of service professionals who come to my house (movers, electricians, employees of the builder, etc…) and people with whom I frequently interact (pharmacists, checkout clerks, etc…). But I could do better.
  2. If I can do something simple to help someone else feel seen and get their needs met, I’m going to do it. For instance, when I’m driving, I’m a big proponent of making room for someone who has their blinker on so they can switch into my lane. It doesn’t hurt me, and it says to them “I see you, and I understand and respect that your need to get over is important.”
  3. I’m going to stay off my phone when I’m with others. There are few things as invalidating as having a conversation with someone who picks up their phone in the middle of your story. It’s the electronic equivalent of walking away, which most of us would never do. Unless I know I’m going to get a call that’s a true emergency, I’m going to keep the phone put away when I’m with others.
  4. I’m going to make eye contact with people and smile when I’m out, especially while wearing a mask. We all feel a little more isolated from each other nowadays, with three-quarters of our faces hidden behind masks. So now more than ever we need to acknowledge each other’s presence. And even if I have a mask on, people can tell if I’m smiling at them.
  5. I’m going to continue supporting the efforts of people and groups who don’t feel seen, including Black Lives Matter. Because they deserve to feel seen; because they do matter.

I see you. It’s one of the most powerful and empowering phrases in the English language. Imagine what the world could be like if we all used it more frequently.

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Neff, K. & Germer, C. (2018). The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. New York: The Guilford Press. p. 150.

*To learn more about OCD around things having to make sense, please see chapter 18 of Is Fred in the Refrigerator? Taming OCD and Reclaiming My Life.

**To learn more about accepting the uncertainty of not having control of what others think of you, please see chapter 16 of Fred.