Shame Series: The Other Cloak of Invisibility

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Shame is, inherently, something that we want to hide from the light.

It feels cancerous inside, but we don’t dare speak it.

Shame can be about something as deep as the secret of sexual abuse, or as small as what we invisibly internalize when we watch someone else hurt, criticized, ignored, insulted, or degraded.

I have been thinking a lot about shame and shadow.

We all carry dozens of those little hidden pains from our early life. Many of them operate invisibly, with us unaware that we are even shadowing a part of ourselves, living with something in hiding.

I’ve decided to “out” my shame.

If I still judge myself (and I do), if I still fear others judging me and ultimately deeming me unloveable or undesirable in any way, and if shames thrives on secrecy, silence, and judgement (according to Brené Brown, whose work on shame is so powerful), then perhaps what that shames needs in order to die is to be brought out, into the stark light of day, so that it can begin to shrivel.

And so here on Kindred Seekers I’m beginning a Shame Series, delving into some of my own shadow and shame, and airing it in that most glaring light of the internet.

Partly it’s for me. If what we don’t own, owns us… then it’s time to own it. Even though some of the things I know I need to share make me want to crawl into a hole and die.

Perhaps it can also bring someone else some comfort, some sense that they are not alone in their own inner shame. 

And so *gulp* …. it begins.

The Other Cloak of Invisibility

In the fictional world of Harry Potter, the Cloak of Invisibility is a magical item which allows Harry and his friends to conduct all manner of secret mischief, without being seen.

There is another kind of invisibility, though, one far more real and damaging.

A conversation recently in my life turned to the topic of feeling invisible.   

My heart bloomed in empathy. Because I know that feeling.

It is quite a burden to bear to move through life feeling invisible. Whether as a child, teenager, or adult… whether because of our physicality, our shyness, a lack of attention from our peers (or the wrong kind of attention)… whether because we struggle with our own inner demons, or we live in the shadow of others’… or for whatever reason feel as though we can’t be our truest selves… feeling invisible has a soul-crushing power to make us feel deeply alone.

Unworthy. Unloveable. 

The sneaky power of loneliness is that it has the ability to make us feel as though we are the only one experiencing it. Even though it is, in its many forms and colors, a universal feeling.

And yet every single one of us, at our core, desires to feel connected to others, and to be seen for who we really and truly are. 

I have felt invisible. Sometimes I think I may have put the cloak on myself.

At age ten, my mother left our family and began a relationship with a woman who, had I had the language at ten, I would have said was definitely toxic. As a young child, she would disparage me while I was within earshot, in the third person, my mother standing by and not defending me. 

I felt invisible.

As a teen, all that weird shit starts happening to your body. Exactly no one escapes puberty without incurring some sort of shame, bodily or otherwise, I’m sure.

For me, all of a sudden, I got sweaty. Like, too sweaty. Not just in gym. I didn’t stink, but I would sweat through the armpits of my tees. I was deeply embarrassed by this. My hands would sweat if I got the least bit warm. I remember being in my violin lessons and feeling mortified that my hot fingers were creating little beads of sweat on the fret of my instrument. I completely changed my attire around. For several years, I would only wear white or black tops, or things with a pattern, where if I sweat, it wouldn’t be as visible. I didn’t tell anyone that I felt uncomfortable about this, not even my parents. Eventually, some part of my raging puberty subsided a little bit and I stopped sweating through my shirts so much. But even now, as an adult, I become wildly overheated very easily… anything above 80 and I am kind of a sweaty goner. I hate it. It’s uncomfortable and embarrassing and I feel disgusting about it. It causes me to feel really anxious about touching people if I’m overheated. I have to put extra strength antiperspirant on my palms ahead of time if I want to dance tango for hours in a warm room. For some completely inexplicable reason, when I wake up in the morning, my body, especially my feet, will throw off an incredible amount of heat, and I will sit in bed with them out from under the covers, sweating, even if I am not that hot overall. In the summer I shower multiple times a day and change socks and underwear frequently. Funnily, the flip side is also true: I become very cold very easily. But cold doesn’t carry the same shameful sense of feeling disgusting. I truly hate it, I feel gross, I don’t want people to know or to touch me, and even writing this is painfully mortifying.

It makes me want to be invisible.

More in the Teenage Shame department: boys didn’t pay ANY attention to me. The degree to which I was invisible was pretty sad, actually. For starters, I was painfully shy. To wit: I sat across from a cute boy in study hall, who I knew from orchestra and choir, but spent the entire semester staring silently at my work, unable to bring myself to speak two words to him. I also went through a very awkward phase, as so many of us do: bad haircut, grungy clothes, hadn’t grown into my body. I remember wanting to wear makeup and dress a little girly, but it was very “off-trend” for my 90s hippie/artsy high school at the time, and you would get ridiculed, or at least questioned, for wearing makeup. Then, and now, I seem to retain a whiff of ice queen, completely uncultivated but there nonetheless. My theory is it was a deadly combo of the shyness coupled with a kind of poise I have always had, plus I was always a high-performing student who had a defense mechanism involving always trying to be perfect at everything. A recipe for “untouchable.” Even now, at 35, after having rolled back considerably on the shy factor and perfection factor, I apparently still retain a little bit of “witchy/mysterious,” according to my boyfriend. “Like I would totally notice you across the bar and want to talk to you, but probably wouldn’t.” Doomed with the ice queen routine. The sad result was, I didn’t date, I didn’t flirt, I didn’t kiss anyone, I didn’t experiment, and I didn’t have the experience of just getting attention from someone you liked who liked you back, until my twenties. I know I’m not the only late-bloomer out there, and some of you may recognize this feeling: it was as though there was a party I didn’t get invited to, and I didn’t get invited because no one wanted me there.

I felt invisible.

The last invisibility is perhaps the most painful to write. Early in my twenties, deeply lonely and not really connecting with my peers, my naiveté and inexperience mistook a kindred connection with a very much older, very married man, and I found myself in love, trying not to have an affair, saying no but then unable to really stay away… and the saddest part of all this is that I apparently couldn’t learn that lesson with one painful lap around the “other woman” track. I was doomed to repeat that, more times than I care to admit, finding myself somehow attracting men who were not available. I somehow lacked the self-worth, spine, or boundary-holding ability to say no to them and stick to that. There is nothing to make you feel quite so small, as being desired behind a curtain of invisibility, but a secret in every other regard. It is as though you don’t fully exist. We all deserve to be with someone who can fully be with us, who wants to share the joy of being with us with others and with the world. I had to learn that lesson the hard way.

I hated feeling invisible. 

The thing that strikes me so poignantly about shame is how often we don’t even think to share our pain with others, even those close to us, who could help or comfort us. It almost doesn’t even occur to us that we have a secret pain that could be relieved by sharing, by asking for help or understanding or support. We just carry it around, weightily, constricting our energy and keeping us small. So much of my life has been marked by a “holding in” — of emotions, of anxiety, manifesting in the way I hold pain and stress in my gut, in how I often want to hide from the world. I am truly an introvert, needing time alone to recharge…  but sometimes I suffer from over-bloomed introversion and isolation, wanting to hide when things are painful, when I feel lonely or lack confidence in myself. I came by that honestly, with parents who also tend to isolate, by being an only child, by being primarily raised by my dad after age ten. 

But I know the costs of loneliness have been great in my life. And I don’t want to hold things in anymore. I don’t want to be invisible, to hide from the world. After the rocky couple of years I’ve had, and the mountains of inner stuff I’ve worked on, I feel very ready to shed what is holding me back. I want to step more fully into my worth and power. I think I’m ready. But I know somehow that I need to unearth the deep, shadowed stuff I’ve been holding onto. So, welcome to the Shame Series. To Shame, I say: hello, old friend. It’s time to let you go. 

Photo: unknown.