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Learned Invisibility

Do you feel absent in your relationships?

“I don’t know who I am,” Kevin said softly to himself. It was as if he had amnesia, except he realized he hadn’t forgotten his past, he had never really known who he is. Kevin thought about his childhood and teenage years and realized he had never felt fully present or actively engaged. It seemed to him that he was always moving at the edges of life.

When Kevin was a small child, he was Danny’s younger brother. Danny was older and smarter and stronger. Danny was larger than life—at least larger than Kevin’s life. When he was in junior high, he’d relished his intentional ability to seem invisible—it had been an excruciatingly awkward time when anonymity was often a blessing.

In high school, Kevin blended in as one of a group of guys, unremarkable individually but finding solidity in numbers. Adrift after high school, he never finished college and instead found his identity in managing a fast-food restaurant. Adulthood meant recognition as a uniform and a nametag but not as an individual.

When Kevin got married, he became Sheryl’s husband, she being much more outgoing than he. It was the same after the kids came. His identity expanded to Heidi and Steven’s father. But the older they got, the less they seemed to need him.

As he thought it about, Kevin realized his sense of self always came as a corollary to someone else.

“If I’m going to get over this,” he said, “I’ve got to learn who I am.”

Coming Out of Hiding

When Kevin came to us, it wasn’t because of any major trauma in his life. Yes, his kids were teenagers but they were doing fairly well with the adolescent transition. He’d settled into a comfortable relationship with Sheryl and his job was stable.

Yet, Kevin was battling a profound depression. He didn’t understand why and couldn’t see any way out of it.

What began as a couple of sessions of counseling through his employee assistance program at work became a yearlong journey of discovery. This journey would take him from his childhood, through his young adulthood, into early middle age. Through this journey, Kevin became acquainted with someone he’d never really taken time to know before—Kevin.

In Kevin’s household, there was only room for one dominant personality—his mother. She ran the household, her husband, and her children. Opinionated and vocal, her personality permeated the entire house. She did not allow others to express strong feelings, either positive or negative. She was the conductor of all thoughts, feelings, and opinions in the house. Others could express themselves but only at her direction. Kevin’s older brother, Danny, waged a constant battle, chaffing against these restrictions. As he watched the fallout between this clash of wills, Kevin determined never to be put in that position. Unlike Danny, Kevin was afraid of his mother.

Over the years, Kevin developed a pattern of withdrawing into himself, of becoming “invisible” around his mother, forcing himself to merge his identity and personality into hers. What she liked, he liked. What she didn’t, he didn’t. If he had a different feeling or reaction, he did not express it. He came to understand that this was the tactic used by his father, who seemed to “click” himself off whenever Kevin’s mother entered the room, retreating to the television or the newspaper.

Kevin continued this pattern by aligning himself with other, more dominant, personalities. He allowed himself to take his sense of identity from other people in his life. It seemed safer that way.

This pattern produced a perception that Kevin was unremarkable, that he really didn’t have many thoughts or opinions, that he was a follower and not a leader. Kevin became the person who would be chosen by a leader, but not chosen to lead. By the time he reached middle age, Kevin was no longer content to be considered unremarkable. He longed for others to see him as a person of value and worth. But he was afraid it was too late. Kevin was afraid he’d spent his whole life hiding in the shadows.

In order to overcome his depression, Kevin needed to understand that it was safe to come out of hiding.

Sound familiar?

Take a look at relationships in your life, past and present:

  • How does each person relate to you?
  • Is it a positive or a negative way?
  • Do any present relationships mirror past relationships?
  • What does each relationship tell you about yourself?
  • Who are you in that relationship?

Positive Affirmation

I will pursue positive relationships that nourish my spirit and help me overcome my depression.

2013, Gregory L. Jantz, PhD, Turning Your Down Into Up: A Realistic Plan For Healing From Depression, WaterBrook Press.

More from Gregory L. Jantz Ph.D.
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