We Can’t Be Seen Until We Can See Ourselves
“All of humanity’s problems stem from (hu)man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Afew years back, prescandal Comedian, Louie CK was on Conan, discussing the universal experience of being alone. Using his signature brutal honesty, he described the vacuum that sometimes emerges in moments where we unexpectedly find ourselves alone.
In our car.
When encountering that strange void, we get the first glimpse of our own powerlessness. And in his account (and for many of us, I presume), this moment goes so quickly unnoticed as we impulsively grab our phone and begin texting our friends in order of desirability, blindly requesting attention from any direction. Whatever uncertainty that awaits us relationally is undoubtedly better than this weirdness. And our desire to avoid the discomfort of loneliness is quickly met with that comforting “ping” of a text message.
Poor choices notwithstanding, CK’s human account highlights the present reality of how easily we can avoid connecting with ourselves.
In our hyper-digitized world, despite the ubiquitous discussion of the dangers of screens, stimuli, and never-ending competition for our attention, few of us — if any — are trained to embrace the discomfort of loneliness. It terrifies us. Makes us squirm. At the very least, it brings about low-level pain and anxiety.
Suddenly we are left to the terrifying “what-if” escape route?
“What if I die alone?” “What if I need someone?” “What if I’m not good enough?” “What if I should be doing something else?” “What if I’m being judged?”
Relegated first to our fight, flight, or freeze brain, avoiding the discomfort of loneliness comes almost as an evolutionary impulse. Being alone or cast out is a threat to our survival brain, and our desire for affirmation is rooted mainly in need to be accepted and safe. Yet paradoxically, our affirmation-seeking drive often comes from desiring extrinsic acceptance when we have not yet encountered ourselves.
Ultimately, many of us embrace a culture of busy-ness not because there is so much to do, but because it helps to quiet the voice inside us asking to be seen. Rather than face our own selves, it’s easier to distract. With so few of us trained to both like and love our own company, we run the risk of not being seen by others because we can’t see ourselves.
The unfortunate downside of our evolutionary brains in our post-industrialized and digitized economy is that we can go our entire lives without seeing ourselves. If you desire to avoid the discomfort, a cacophony of noise people will promptly meet you in the same space. And whether it’s sex, work, other people, substances, religion, or success — there are plenty of available distractions to keep you from yourself.
For most of my life, I hated being alone. I couldn’t name that of course, but I did. I’ve been through too many separations and divorces of all sorts; my underlying belief could only blame myself. And because of this, I’m all too familiar with the absolute terror that courses through my veins when feeling like I’m alone in the world. The paralyzing fright that I’m on my own. Unseen. Unheard. Unlovable.
I have spent countless days and nights in what I can only describe as emotional fits of fear and anxiety, clawing for someone or something to reassure me that I’m not entirely alone and missed in the world. These have lasted for a few hours up to days on end, ending only when my body grows weary, or I finally realize that no one can release me from my prison but me.
I’ve never been addicted to drugs, though I can only describe the post-emotional fit as I’ve heard withdrawal described. After waves of fear, anxiety, paranoia, maybe even physical discomfort have done their worst, there is a peculiar light at the end of the tunnel. Worn by exhaustion, fatigue, and tears, a feeling of strangeness and newness shows up. Feeling your breath deep in your chest, you awake to the same place you fell asleep, but something has changed — the something only being you and your perspective.
When you find your body still breathing without your effort, you realize that no matter how hellish, the loneliness didn’t kill you. Regardless of the scariest thing in your subconscious — you realize there is no tiger. There is no fire. There is only yourself.
Following these episodes, post-Acute Withdrawl Syndrome has still reared its ugly head, but it’s gotten a little smaller each time. In the wake of these encounters with myself, I’ve cautiously tried to begin a relationship. With myself. It’s been here that I’ve mustered the courage to take myself out to dinner, to speak kind words out loud, or even physically rubbing my own shoulders. All of these just small ways of loving myself in ways I didn’t know how badly I needed.
I have only been able to experience love in any real form when I began to love myself. And that could only happen when I regarded my own company as worthwhile.
It’s on the backside of these moments when you actually get to know yourself. And you realize that the connection you long for is real. We long for affection because it’s part of our DNA. Perhaps the most dangerous risk to our hyper-connected culture is being connected without being seen.
We are social beings who long to be seen.
In Brene Brown’s research, her discoveries are absolutely revolutionary. But perhaps chief amongst them is this one: the only difference between those who experience love and belonging and those who don’t is one thing: a belief in their own worthiness.
Not socioeconomic status, educational attainment, criminal history, family relationships. None of those. Nothing except our own belief. It’s only when we believe that we are worthy can we experience it.
Believing that we are worthy is a prerequisite for experiencing intimacy. As with all paradox, if you absolutely hate being alone and avoid it at all costs, it’s probably the thing you need the most. Not at the expense of avoiding authentic relationships or slipping into isolation, but because you owe it yourself to fall in love with your own company.
The answers you seek likely await you within the awkward yet strangely familiar quiet of your own company. When you get to know yourself — however awkward it is at first — you are full of more grace, wisdom, courage, insight, and creativity than you have imagined.