The Unbearable Pain of Needing to Be ‘Seen’

Person stands against row of old windowsWhere do you feel safe? For me, it is not in my husband’s arms, it is in his heart. It is in a deep knowing that he will hold me there and that he feels me there even when I am not immediately in his presence. That with him I can take deep breaths and breathe in the love and affection he provides. The safety. What must it be like to have never had this feeling?

I didn’t have this feeling consistently before him. I trusted me, and I took care of me because that is what I learned to do as a child. Children who don’t feel “seen” by their parents often have an emptiness that grows with them as they move into adulthood.

What if you have carried this feeling with you for years, and now here you are, sitting in a therapist’s office, trying to “open up” and share your trauma history and heal from past abuse? How do you learn to trust the person who is supposed to be helping you, the one who is sitting across from you saying they will be with you in your journey, who holds you gently in their heart, looks at you with knowing eyes, and talks to you about your worth? The one who says they won’t judge you even before you share your most painful secrets?

As a therapist, when I sit with someone who has never felt seen, I ask myself, “Why do I know you? Why can I feel you? What is it about your pain that is also mine?”

We all have parts of ourselves we wish we didn’t know, parts we say to ourselves, “That’s not me” or, “Who is that person?” We reject these needy, angry, or acting-out parts of ourselves in the same way they were rejected by the very people who were supposed to hold us fiercely in their hearts and minds: our parents.

We tell ourselves, “If they couldn’t love me, those people who bore me in their bodies, how could anyone else?”

And then we give up trying to explain these ugly secrets to ourselves, to others. We hide them, lock them away in the attics of our minds, put them in files, into containers, send them away. When an experience is too much for the minds of children to bear, this can happen in a fraction of a second.

And then we give up trying to explain these ugly secrets to ourselves, to others. We hide them, lock them away in the attics of our minds, put them in files, into containers, send them away. When an experience is too much for the minds of children to bear, this can happen in a fraction of a second.

Later, as adults, we may berate ourselves for this. But children cannot handle the types of trauma or even harsh words from a loved one the way most adults can. They crack more easily.

Other times, forgetting doesn’t come so easily or quickly. We have to focus our attention on trying to forget. Eventually, the more parts of ourselves that are hidden, the more we reject and disavow ourselves of them, the larger and more intense they grow. Sometimes they develop a life of their own.

When parts of the self develop their own life, memories, experience, belief systems, and values, when they have their own sets of thoughts and feelings about experiences, they are so separate we call them “alters” or “self states”—parts, in other words. These parts are out of our awareness or just on the other side of it. Dissociation should be thought of not as mental illness but rather mental injury, born out of the anguishing kind of pain that comes from feeling empty or from being filled with rage, feeling unloved, unwanted, used. You feel unrelatable and unknown, even to yourself. Getting to know these discarded parts of the self can be scary.

I know you likely will not trust me, that you may not be able to bear looking into my eyes. That it will become more painful as you get to know me and start to expect me to be there. That just when you think you are starting to feel hope, you will become the most terrified you have ever been. Because you will have finally been seen. And while you have waited your whole life for this, it may very well be more petrifying than you imagined.

That is why I will forever be in debt to you, the person in therapy—for allowing me to see into your eyes, your past, your most feared parts of the self. I will wonder to myself why and how I know you, why you are in my life, and how it is I can “feel” your presence. I will remain separate from you and yet walk beside you for a time. I will try to be a vessel worthy of your sorrow.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Kimber R. Olson, LCSW, BCD, therapist in Anchorage, Alaska

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Lange


    July 25th, 2016 at 9:10 AM

    Do you ever feel like you are making the most of the time with your kids and then they come back and hit you with the statement that they always felt ignored as a child?
    How can you avoid them feeling like that if at the time you feel like you are doing everything right but that is not how they perceive it at all?

  • Kimber Olson

    Kimber Olson

    July 25th, 2016 at 10:52 AM

    Hi Lange. I think the best thing we can do in situations like this is to acknowledge our children’s feelings. I think about it like this: What would I want from someone I perceived as ignoring me? I would want them to “see” me in the moment. To say that they are so sorry I felt that way, that they never meant for that to happen. Our natural tendency is to defend ourselves, to explain how we did the best we could, or describe how we experienced the situation. But if we want our children to feel seen, maybe we just tell them how sorry we are that they experienced us in this way. And possibly ask if there is anything we can do to today to make them feel seen.

  • charlene


    July 25th, 2016 at 4:37 PM

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this…a lot of food for thought. I was just blogging about this subject so the information here has helped me a great deal. This was so on point. A subject I’ve been dealing with for my whole life. I had a therapist who accused me of seeking attention, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I feel like I move through the world invisibly.

  • Kimber Olson

    Kimber Olson

    July 25th, 2016 at 11:07 PM

    Thank you Charlene. It’s not fair when we are misread, any more than when we are not seen. I hope you try again with another therapist. You should never feel invisible. You are worthy of so much more.

  • Lange


    July 25th, 2016 at 5:11 PM

    Thanks for the suggestions

  • Kimber Olson

    Kimber Olson

    July 25th, 2016 at 11:05 PM

    Absolutely Lange. I hope it is helpful.

  • Susie


    July 26th, 2016 at 8:10 AM

    I suppose that there are times where it can easily be confused as to whether you are seeking out attention or really just seeking out love.

  • Kimber Olson

    Kimber Olson

    July 26th, 2016 at 4:30 PM

    One of my favorite cartoons is of a mother and her friend sitting on the couch and talking. There is a child just behind them painting on the walls, “I need love” he has written. The mom tells her friend to ignore him, “He’s just trying to get attention”. Yes, they can be confused, but perhaps even seeking attention can be a way of seeking out love?

  • Josie


    July 29th, 2016 at 1:30 PM

    awww KImber that cartoon makes me sad :(

  • Kimber


    July 30th, 2016 at 12:39 PM

    Me too Josie.

  • Royce


    July 30th, 2016 at 11:22 AM

    You have a lot more patience working with this than I ever could. People like this seem to be so needy, I’m not sure that I could be aorund them all the time. That’s why you are in your line of work I suppose. I know I wouldn’t ever be good at that.

  • Kimber Olson

    Kimber Olson

    August 3rd, 2016 at 9:12 AM

    I rarely feel/sense that response in myself Royce. I truly love what I do. But I also think it’s good that you know yourself and your limitations. We should all be so lucky to do what we love and are good at. There are so many things I wouldn’t have the patience for. A classroom full of kindergarteners for example!

  • mentsh


    October 27th, 2019 at 7:28 PM

    I truly don’t get why “feeling seen” is supposed to feel good? I thought that was what I wanted, and I’ve been in therapy a few years now. But it doesn’t feel good. It feels empty. It feels meaningless. It even feels dangerous, and invasive. Maybe it’s because I’m autistic? Maybe it’s because I’m so different from other people? I don’t know. But it doesn’t feel hopeful or encouraging or comforting to think of my therapist knowing the things he knows about me, or him thinking about me when I’m not there, or even him seeing me when I am there. I want to disappear again. I don’t want people to know what’s wrong with me, what’s so different about me. I don’t want anyone having thoughts in their heads knowing how weird I am, all the ways I never fit in, all the disgusting things that were done to me, and all the ways I coped with the thoughts I had. If I were a beautiful, attractive, enjoyable person inside, like a diamond in the rough, someone that was a treasure to relate to when finally revealed as my true self, then maybe. Maybe I could enjoy finally being seen. But what has emerged is ugly, weird, awkward, unlikeable…people were right to ignore me or reject me or be ashamed of me. I didn’t belong, and I still don’t. The good that’s come of all this is that now I know it, now I understand why I don’t fit, and I can take measures to protect the outside world from my real self. At least now I understand that it’s better to mask as thoroughly as I can manage so people never again have to see the real me. I’ve been told many times by people that I’m not all that bad, that they do like me, that there are valuable traits I offer in a relationship. And yet, I still have no real friends. No one actually wants to be around me. They talk the talk, but what they walk out is their real impression of me, that I’m icky, off, weird…I don’t fit. So I’m learning to accept this reality and work with it. But as I keep working towards better mental health, I read articles like this and it doesn’t make sense. I can’t enjoy being known, because what there is of me to know is not enjoyable. I have to figure out my own version of mental health that doesn’t require being authentic.

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