There have been times in life when I felt like an outsider, most of my life actually. Instead of dredging up stories from my deep past, let me tell you what the last few years have been like.
I’ve lived in my current community for 14 years and worked at my employer for over eight now, and only now am I finally starting to feel a connection of some sort. It’s like I’ve been wearing the Harry Potter invisibility cloak. Some of that is self-imposed, running around as the working mom of three young kids in a new community. But some of that is inflicted on me. Of course in the latter case, that says a lot more about other people than it does me, but it doesn’t make me feel any better!
All of this sets up a pretty good case for therapy, to talk through why that is, and what that does to me mentally not to mention the very real physical health implications a lack of connection does to a body, but honestly I don’t have the time and don’t want to spend the money dissecting that because it is a never-ending quest.
I desperately miss those precious few times when I was warmly welcomed and felt totally loved and included, one of the gang. I don’t have a posse…a group of friends to hang out with. My friendships are all one on one, spread out all over the US, and believe me, I value those, but frankly, I’m a little bit jealous of Taylor Swift and her squad.
And as a mother, I feel it even more acutely whenever invisibility affects one of my kids. You can imagine, then, how much this article a mother wrote about feeling invisible spoke to me. Take a moment to read it now. She’s got a great attitude and idea about how to manage the pain.
Sometimes the social anxiety, fear of rejection, and actual rejection was so bad, I had to stay at home. For example, there was a time when I sent my husband to dance rehearsals because he had thicker skin than I did. I told him about two young, affluent mothers at the dance studio. One woman had twins who played soccer with our daughter, so we had met her before from those activities. However she refused to acknowledge my greeting whenever I saw her, and she did the same with him. A wall had gone up, and she simply couldn’t be bothered with “others”.
My husband, being the guy he is, let’s most things roll off his back. He thought it was funny how she refused to acknowledge him, so he decided to turn it into a game. This woman and her friend always sat together and talked while our girls rehearsed.
He made it a point to greet them and gently engage them in conversation. They flatly ignored him, every time. This went on, week after week, for the nine months of dance season.
Never once did they crack. Never once did they show an ounce of friendliness.
Now my husband is a personable guy. He can carry on a conversation with anyone and he is well received the vast majority of the time by the people he encounters. But these women specialized in making others invisible. This isn’t a case of one-time preoccupation. This was a mission on their part.
I am reminded of a board meeting I attended. At the start of the meeting, one of my coworkers – someone senior to me – made it a point to go down the line to greet each of the outside directors one by one with a handshake but skipped me sitting in the middle of the line of them. Granted, he hadn’t seen the other people in a few months, but it’s not like I run into him all the time at work. It was remarkable. All he had to do was nod and say hello, but he literally ignored me while he said hello to every other human around me.
That was not an accident. That was deliberate. Believe me, I know to listen to my gut, and that guy is not the warm people person he pretends, or perhaps aspires, to be. How hard could it have been to say hello to me?
It makes me wonder what I have done to make people feel included, welcomed, in my social circle over these many years. Maybe I’m not that good at it. Maybe it’s been so long since I felt “at home”, I don’t know how to reciprocate.
It makes me wonder if our home is literally a safe haven for our kids. Do I cultivate that feeling of inclusion, full visibility, for them?
This brings to mind a funny episode. My coworker Doug was excellent at brokering introductions and making people feel welcome. He and our boss most certainly did that for me when I moved to Pittsburgh…he immediately made me feel at home there, and made it clear I was a welcomed addition to the team.
Doug knew of a coworker, Madison, who was moving back to Pittsburgh and would be working out of our office from that point on. He could not be there to take her to lunch her first day in the Pittsburgh office, but he knew I would be, and he asked me to welcome her. I was happy to do so.
Madison and I went to lunch that day and we invited another coworker, Joyce, to join us. Madison and I really hit it off, laughing and joking about a number of things, talking a mile a minute, such that the much quieter Joyce exclaimed, “How long have you two known each other?” We both looked at our watches and replied, “About 15 minutes!”
Just one. All it takes is just one person to help bridge the gap between unseen and seen, visible and invisible, stranger to acquaintance and maybe even friend.
My husband and I talk about where we want to live when we retire, and our current sentiment is “not here”. However, we don’t want to wait until retirement to make that move. We want to do it when we can perhaps influence where our kids will end up when they are old enough to be on their own, which means we may pack up and go while they are still young. And if we do this, we may voluntarily force all of us into a situation where we feel invisible all over again. Except with the next move, we will deliberately choose a place that feels like home before we go, more so than Ohio has ever done for me despite growing up in this state. It’s a risk, but we’re willing to take it.
You see, the risk of feeling invisible may not impact me as much since I feel this way all the time as it is, but as a mother, I worry about what this would do to our kids. Do I have the mental fortitude to help our kids through this sort of transition? Why is loneliness and invisibility such an issue?
Anderson Cooper said something poignant on CNN’s New Year’s Eve telecast earlier this month. The clock had struck midnight, all the songs had been played, and he and Andy Cohen were signing off for the night. Anderson acknowledged that New Year’s Eve can be an incredibly tough inflection point for a lot of lonely people, who no doubt reflect with melancholy on the year that had passed and maybe with some dread for the one ahead.
I was so touched that he said something to acknowledge these people who were no doubt alone, watching him on TV just then. For a moment, Anderson acknowledged those people…he saw them. In a way, I felt like he was talking to me. He spoke from a place of knowing, talking about one particularly difficult new year’s eve where his father had been very ill and ended up passing away a few days into January. He knew what it was like to stop for a moment and realize that the year ahead promised moments of pain and it would be tough to get through. One has to breathe deeply to muster up the strength to plow through what’s ahead.
It made me think of the years worth of new years, when my husband and I would crawl into bed after midnight, and I’d just cry in his arms over the feeling of invisibility and loneliness I felt living here. I can’t tell if that’s just the fate of a someone like me, a nomad who has moved around a lot, if that’s the small town where I live, or if that’s just society today. What does it take to belong?
Are there people in your life right now who need to be seen, to feel included? What can you do to help them in the coming days? What stories do you have to share on this topic?
Photo by Adam Solomon on Unsplash