Between Visibility and Invisibility

Have you ever felt that you just want to be invisible and not attract the slightest iota of attention to yourself?  What’s behind this urge?  Why do we highly sensitive people often feel that we are better off not attracting attention to ourselves?  In this brief post I offer some ideas put forth by Elaine Aron (in a blog post from 2014, available at http://hsperson.com/invisible-yet-definitive-part-of-yourself/) and add to them my views as a researcher and highly sensitive male.

the_great_invisible_man_by_mik86k
Source: mik86k.deviantart.com

On Having an Invisible yet Definitive Part of Yourself – Elaine Aron

Have you ever felt invisible as an HSP? Of course you have. You are.

I have sometimes said that high sensitivity affects all aspects of life, social and otherwise, as much as one’s gender affects one’s life, but gender is visible and sensitivity is invisible. Other examples of fairly permanent characteristics that are largely invisible are high I.Q., being wealthy, being color blind, or having a prosthetic limb or breast reconstruction. These can give the people possessing the invisible characteristic the feeling that they carry a secret that eventually must be disclosed to intimates, but when? And what about the reaction?

Of course now and then we who are highly sensitive ourselves can tell when someone else is. However, people who are not highly sensitive have often asked me, “So how do I know if someone is highly sensitive?” They are finding us to be invisible.

I find that difficult to answer, since we really are not visible in the ordinary sense; but I try because I guess I do not want us to be so totally invisible any longer, at least to those who are interested in finding us. So I say that as you get to know someone better and better, the signs are clear. Highly sensitive people are typically good listeners, need more down time, are bothered by noisy or crowded places, may want to do novel things all day (they can be high sensation seekers) but then want to go rest in the evening, notice things that others miss, cry easily, are upset more than others by injustices, feel more joy and compassion, are conscientious and loyal, fussy too, tolerate caffeine poorly, feel pain more, are slow to make decisions, and see the larger consequences of plans and actions. None of this can be seen right on the surface, but it does not take long to find these qualities if you are looking.

Often, at least in the past, we have preferred to be invisible. Many parents have asked me if they should tell their highly sensitive child or his or her teachers or relatives that this child is highly sensitive. Others ask me if they should tell the person they are dating or even engaged to about their trait. Some people have read The Highly Sensitive Person with a brown paper bag book cover so that no one would know. Clearly we have felt we needed to be invisible.

Our invisibility may have some good evolutionary reasons. If highly sensitive animals, including humans, were always the ones to spot the good stuff, such as the most nutritious food, our going off to enjoy our cache required that we be invisible in the sense that the others did not notice us leaving. A mating strategy for sensitive males in some species is to mate with the choicest female while the other males are off fighting or recovering from fighting. That works better if the tough guys have hardly noticed you. Sensitive animals may generally feed in more hidden places, yielding the best dining spots to the pushy ones in order to avoid a fight and possible injury. However, during a food shortage these sensitive animals are the only ones who know the hidden spots where food can still be found. At those times it’s best to be invisible as you sneak off to eat.

Or there’s my favorite. We often know shortcuts to get around traffic jams, but those are not short cuts if everyone knows them. If your car had a red flag on it, signaling HSP Driver, you would have every car following you as soon as you made a turn off the main highway. In short, if all HSPs were taller, shorter, fatter, thinner, or had redder hair than others—or had any other sign of our trait—it would be less of an advantage.

Now, however, using all sorts of media, including the documentary under production that is appropriately titled Sensitive: The Untold Story, and in our day-to-day lives as well, we HSPs are choosing to tell the non-sensitive 80% of the world’s population that we exist, so that they actually can now follow our lead to the better things in life that we have noticed and they have not so far. The problem is that they cannot find us unless we continue telling them that we exist and who we are. We still have the choice, however, as to when and where to say we are highly sensitive and what good stuff we will tell about, and what we will keep our little secret!

While evidence from animal studies indicates a similar percentage of highly sensitive individuals in over 100 other species the way sensitivity is expressed in the human population may be affected by unique factors like culture, childhood experiences, and life choices specific to each person.  No two HSPs are alike and, thus, as Elaine has articulated it is harder to “pick us out.”  Many of us do not wish to be labeled or to stand out in any way due to a number of factors:

  • early rejections by family, friends, or authority figures leading to a sense of shame, denial, or repression.
  • not wishing to be the center of attention (or in fact to attract any attention) because it is overstimulating.  Being excessively overstimulated, say, by being “put on the spot” may make some HSPs frazzled, anxious, and emotionally activated thereby hampering their ability to “be” the center of attention.
  • we prefer to observe, collect information, and cognitively process the current events instead of being an active participant.
  • being invisible may simply be more comfortable in negotiating the demands of life.

Within each of the above points lies a limitation.  This is especially true in terms of career where extraversion, enthusiasm, intense socialization, and being “out there” in a personal sense is expected and encouraged.  To be quiet in the workplace is to often be ignored and categorized as “too quiet,” “shy,” “distant,” or “aloof.”  Often people who do not speak up are passed over for promotions, interesting new projects, or social gatherings.  Very often the above assumptions are entirely wrong!  The reason they are wrong is because they can only be established in comparison to an arbitrarily established norm.  Thus, I am too quiet as compared to whom?  I am shy as compared to what standard?  I am distant or aloof by whose measure?

It is only through contrasting people’s behaviors against a range of behaviors that may exist in a given group that one is considered “normal.”  Does that mean that the group’s behaviors are, in fact, normal or acceptable?  Many corporations may be considered to be quite predatory and exploitative.  Why would we wish to fit that normal?

The observation has been made throughout my life, in many circumstances, that I am “too quiet.”  The fact is I was bored and chose to retreat inside my own mind where my rich inner life is entirely capable of occupying my time better than mindless babble about sports, politics, or other minutia I had no interest in.  My ability to alienate myself in boring circumstances is akin to a Ferrari: I can go from 0-60 (or in this case from present to checked-out) in 2.5 seconds if what’s facing me is boring.  This is, of course, problematic in the workplace where, let’s face it, A LOT of the things we have to do are boring.  Being invisible in that sense is not so much a choice as a defensive play to survive the boredom on a day to day basis.  I’ve been in positions where my major daily battle was chiefly to stay awake.  This was always especially true for computer-based work.  If I were up and about the battle to stay awake was much easier.

My unique struggle has been being a high sensation seeking highly sensitive person and the tug of war that is almost constantly ongoing between the more outgoing part of myself that wishes to have new experiences, avoid boredom, and find that sweet spot in my optimal range of stimulation and the sensitive side that often wishes to retreat, rest, and think things over.  In that sense being invisible is less of a viable option because the need for stimulation, to do interesting and novel things, outweighs the discomfort any situational anxiety might cause.  Being invisible might be more comfortable, but it does not necessarily satisfy us or help us to fulfill our potential.

For those of us who are highly sensitive males the issue of being invisible is taken to a whole other level with hegemonic expectations of masculine behavior often decrying even having an emotional life, expressions of empathy, or anything short of extreme extraversion and mastery of all things at all times.  Western culture, especially American culture is steeped in a masculinity that glorifies anger, aggressive behavior, domination over women, and winning at all costs.  In some regions of the US traditional notions of this rugged masculinity are giving way to the demands of the 21st century emphasizing cooperation, mentoring of others, inclusiveness, and empathy.  In others these traditional notions still prevail.  Invisibility as a highly sensitive male is often a way of creating a public persona or mask that may be more acceptable to other males, and indeed females who subscribe to and perpetuate culturally derived conceptualizations of what a “man” should be.  Curiously women do not statistically choose to be with violent, aggressive, emotionally unstable mates, though some find themselves with these types anyway.

The question seems to be: why would we choose to be invisible?  I suggest to you that many of us do not choose to be invisible at all.  It’s the society that has chosen to be so superficial as to attach a quick label to every person and that fails to dig deep enough to reveal the depths of people like HSPs.  It seems that in our age of fast and easy access to all the cumulative knowledge and wisdom of the ages we have largely lost our curiosity for each other.  For those of us who are old enough to have grown up in decades before the 1990s (when the internet and electronic distractions began to prevail) we know that all we had back then was each other.  Knowing other people was both a source of pleasure, stimulation, and bonding that held communities together and offered support in times of crisis.  In the 1970s I grew up in a neighborhood where we rode our bicycles near constantly, invented games to fill our time no matter the season, and enjoyed a familiarity with each others capabilities derived through the often ill-advised adventures we undertook.  Somehow no one was seriously injured and we survived to adulthood and reproductive capacity.  At least one of us went on to become a PhD.  Many adults were great storytellers and could spin out a tale with killer punchlines leaving everyone in stitches.  That ability to entertain others is largely gone now as people bury their faces in their phones, scurrying from place to place having secret (though public) conversations with unseen others on their earpieces.

We’ve moved from being a society where people had an instinctual knowledge of how other people were to a society where we are suspicious of others intentions (justifiably so in some cases), intentionally wall ourselves off from others, and then say we’re depressed, anxious, and unfulfilled!  It’s no wonder: we’re not evolved to be antisocial, we’re evolved to be social animals who interact with others.  Some of us (HSPs) may be lower on the sociability front than others, but that does not mean we don’t value our interactions or wish to spend time with others: we just have a daily energy budget that may be depleted in draining circumstances.  Does this mean we should all be as social as the dominant group?

Each of us is unique and possess a deeply individual set of lived experiences that color and inform our choices.  For some of us being invisible is a choice, perhaps a necessity, as we make our way through what may be a difficult life.  For others being invisible is not by choice and we find ourselves simply passed over by a society too superficial to notice our depths or care to engage those parts of ourselves not immediately apparent.  For yet others invisibility is a tug of war with a desire/need to be visible as we ride the seesaw of highs sensation seeking and high sensitivity.  The aspects of ourselves we choose to reveal at any given time and place are but mere shades of a much larger tapestry of potential personality.  Knowing when, how, and whether we should be more visible or less visible takes time, a certain amount of experimentation, and a willingness to tolerate some emotional discomfort and ambiguity.

In my life I moved from being invisible by choice to being visible by choice.  I now move between the two and, while I at times value not being the center of attention, I know I am entirely capable of sharing my inner depths and inviting others into that experience in ways that are non-threatening, authentic to my identity, and that honors my sense of ever-expanding potential.  Perhaps what the worlds needs from us as HSPs is a way to return to humanness, a way to retreat from personal attacks, dumbed down interactions devoid of substance, and emotional depth and complexity.  Finding ways to embody our depth of being requires of us that we first find a balance between visibility and invisibility, between conscious engagement and prudent self-preservation, and between love for ourselves and love for others.

    Cover Thrive

Tracy Cooper, Ph.D. is the author of Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career (available now on his web site at a 25% discount), and a consultant helping HSPs and HSS/HSPs in career transition and crisis.  His web site is at drtracycooper.com

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