showing off

Are you hiding from the world, or desperate to be noticed?

A psychoanalyst I know recently told me that people only feel the need to show off that which they have had to hide.

Since so many of my patients struggle with shame over showing the world an image of themselves that makes them feel like a fraud; or with a desperate need for attention; or with inhibitions that hold them back from showing themselves to the world at all, I’ve been giving some thought to the relationship people have to seeing and being seen.

I wondered if it’s true that people show off what they’ve had to hide; and about how much of ourselves we actually want others to see, and why some people seem to show off too much while others can’t seem to show off enough. Or perhaps “show off” is not the right term and we might better say that there are those who beg us to “see” them and others who make a habit out of flying under the radar. And how do we know just when is the right time for us to reveal each layer of ourselves in our most intimate relationships? And then of course there is also the question of what exactly we believe others “see” when they look at us. Do we take ourselves as an object of the other’s eye, and do we like what we think the other sees? Or do we see ourselves from the inside out and find it hard to take ourselves objectively?

Many of our early experiences involve the visual sense; we look around and see so much of the world long before language develops to help us put words to our experiences. We dream in images before we speak. What do we make of what we see when there is no language to help us organize what we’ve taken in? And how do we manage feelings of overstimulation, exclusion, and invisibility? In a sense, from our earliest days we need others to see what we see in order to helps us represent our experiences. Our very first experiences with images are thus embedded in our relationship experiences.

Sometimes we feel the need to hide ourselves from a parent who is ashamed of us, or needs us to fit a certain image of their choosing, or who cannot bear to see something in us that touches on something of what is inside of themselves. Sometimes we even start to hide those parts of us from ourselves.

And then there is the sense of exclusion about that which we cannot see, that which happens behind closed doors. Left to our imagination, the mind’s eye conjures up images that are linked to affects, either pleasant or painful to think of. And some of us learn early on to turn away from painful realities that feel too overwhelming to see or to know.

Our yearnings for recognition seem in many ways to be universal, and yet the wish to be noticed can also be a cover up for deeper wishes that seem perhaps less tangible and more painful or more shameful, like the wish to be loved or a mother hunger disguised. One’s impulse to hide can similarly be a defense against a wish to be seen, exposed, and revealed.

We are often caught between that which we can see and that which we cannot, between the revealed aspects of the other vs. the enigmatic aspects of the other so vividly depicted in the book “The Enigma of Desire” or in Meltzer’s work on the Aesthetic Conflict. Can we learn to accept that which we cannot know, cannot see, and cannot find while staying in touch with our desire to know more? Do we pretend we can know that which we cannot, and do we avoid knowing that which we can? How many of us have hidden from ourselves truths that were right in front of our eyes because we simply didn’t want to believe their meanings?

Seeing comes in many shades. There are gazes that are creepy; gazes that are loving; gazes that wash over us warmly; and gazes that violently penetrate us to the core. There are similarly looks that are revealing; looks that are exciting; looks that are concealing. Sometimes we see a whole picture and sometimes we get stuck on a detail, and this includes what we see when we look at our very own selves in the mirror.

Most people have a default; they either focus on what they see in the other or they focus on what they believe the other sees in the self. Perhaps such splits must be bridged by a relationship to seeing and being seen that is somewhere in the middle.

Not allowing ourselves to “look” can feed denial and inhibit curiosity and the ability to learn. Not allowing ourselves to be “looked at” can cause emptiness or despair and can also hide our gifts from those who might need them the most.  On the other hand, showing off can be a way that we hide what we do not have to show, or by which we show that which we have been conditioned to feel ashamed of. And looking when we’re not invited can lead to guilt and shame, or to power and control. Awareness, self-consciousness, exhibitionism, voyeurism, recognition, exposure, shame, and healthy vs. unhealthy self-esteem are all often tangled up together until we do the work of sorting it all out.

What do you think about your own relationship to seeing and being seen? Can you bear to look at it??

P.S. Want to learn more about doing a psychoanalytic intensive with me??

Click here