What makes a person “invisible” to others, and how can you move out of the shadow of invisibility and learn to shine?
Chani doesn’t remember a time she wasn’t invisible.
“As long as I can remember, I’ve always been invisible. In school, teachers never gave me much attention. And as soon as I was out of their class, they’d have no idea who I was anymore.”
Chani also remembers being ignored in social settings. When she’d be talking to a friend, other girls would join the conversation without acknowledging her. “They’d come over and talk only to my friend — completely ignoring me.”
Although her school days are behind her, invisibility has followed her into adulthood.
“Recently, at my sister’s wedding, a former teacher was waiting to wish my sister mazel tov, and she asked me who I was, so I told her. Oh, she said, I guess I taught your sisters but not you. I replied, No, you taught me, too. She gave me this puzzled look and said, remind me — what’s your name again? I told her but she still drew a complete blank. It hurts. My sisters are recognized, yet somehow I’m not. But at this point, I’m used to it.”
The feeling of going unnoticed is not uncommon. People who have lived through invisibility describe it as an experience of being unacknowledged and undervalued, as if they don’t matter; they feel as if they fade into the background.
The source of feeling invisible can often be traced back to childhood or adolescence, yet while some are able to shed these feelings of invisibility with time, others say it lingers long into adulthood, where it continues to color their experiences.
Dr. Shirley Matteson is an Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Texas Tech University. In her previous role of classroom teacher, she noticed there were some students who hovered on the periphery of a teacher’s consciousness. She termed these students “ghost children,” and thought they were few in number. It was only when she became a supervisor and began to observe other classrooms that she learned “ghost” students were more prevalent.
“In observing classrooms in other locations and in talking with teachers in multiple settings and states, I’ve confirmed that ghost children appear in a variety of school settings and grade levels,” she says.
After conducting a study on “ghost children,” she concluded that often these students can be shy, appearing to lack social skills. Many times, they have good grades, but are the ones who try to remain under the radar to avoid attracting the teacher’s attention. They can sometimes be thought of as underachievers, and some are unfortunately bullied. Not surprisingly, she noticed that “ghost children” often sit at the side of the classroom.
Dr. Aviva Biberfeld, a noted clinical psychologist in Brooklyn, hypothesizes that a student who feels invisible is likely more introverted, agreeing with some of Dr. Matteson’s conclusions. “A shy temperament, low self-esteem, or both, are harder in schools,” she adds. “Schools tend to notice smart students, and those with extracurricular talents.”
Chani describes herself as shy, and admits she deliberately avoided attention in the classroom, but she thinks her shyness combined with her good grades led to invisibility. “If you have a loud or outgoing personality, or if you’re shy and doing poorly, then you’ll get attention. But if you’re doing everything right, if you’re not breaking the rules, getting good grades, there’s no reason for a teacher to notice you — and they don’t,” says Chani.
A diligent student, Devoiry also followed all the rules. She began to feel overlooked when she started high school, where it intensified over time. “I received no recognition for my hard work and dedication,” she recalls. "At my school, to get noticed, you needed to be from an elite family, or a student who attracted negative attention. My parents were dedicated and hardworking people, not from the wealthy, well-connected, or upper echelon.”
In school settings, students can be classified in one of five groups: rejected, neglected, average, popular, or controversial — with schools reserving much of their resources for all except the “average,” who tend to fall under the radar because they seem okay. But the “averages” often feel the sting of invisibility. While average students may be successful within their own circles, they rarely stand out. And they seldom receive opportunities to tackle an academic or creative challenge, which would allow them to grow.
In high school, Gitty fell into the “average” category. “I floated through school, until 12th grade when I was put in charge of organizing the Chanukah Chagigah,” she says. “But I had not one moment in the play, no connection with any teachers. They didn’t notice me, or really know me. My group of friends weren’t the ‘best’ people, so we fell under the radar.”
She admits that her self-esteem may have played a part in her feeling invisible. “I was always wondering what people thought, wishing to read minds, but not talking about it. Maybe it’s a lack of confidence: I’m unsure if you’re going to like me, so I stay where I am.” She often second-guessed things in her life, especially the authenticity of her friendships.
Rivky can empathize — she lived with a stream of second-guessing, self-doubting thoughts in high school. “I always asked myself, Is your hair the right way? Is your sweater the right kind, your shoes the right ones? Are you smart enough? I always felt I was missing something the other kids had — be it yichus, money, the right marks, the right look. I’d think to myself, If I was a little smarter, I’d get an award for this, or if I helped out more, I’d get the chesed award. Maybe if I was the rebbetzin’s granddaughter, I’d get attention and the teacher would call on me more.”
Making friends was tough, too, and Rivky didn’t have a circle of friends until 11th grade. Even then, it wasn’t the sort of deep, meaningful friendships she craved. To make matters worse, she struggled to pass her classes, often scoring in the forties and fifties. “Maybe I was a nebach case,” says Rivky, “I don’t know. But I definitely felt insecure and alone. I felt invisible when it came to friends.”
The Long Shadow
Feeling invisible, especially during adolescence, can have a lasting impact. Most people long for self-actualization, which happens when they believe they reach their potential, when their internal self-image matches up to real-life actions.
During adolescence, already a precarious time, individuals discover and form solid ideas about their sense of self, which can last a lifetime. When they’re successful in reaching their goals and receive approval from significant people, a positive sense of self is achieved. Being overlooked and feeling ignored complicates self-actualization, and can have a significant impact that can be felt years later.
For Chani, now 25, feeling invisible during adolescence led her to develop perfectionist tendencies. Even when she achieves excellence in her work, she still doubts herself. She recently began designing boutique-worthy scarves and blankets, but she often undercharges for them, second-guessing her skills. The same applies to her drawings: “I won’t show them to anyone because I feel like they’re never good enough. I think my insecurity stems from never having been validated in school, never having been given attention. If it was never good enough for anyone then, why would it be different now?”
Having felt invisible to her peers, Rivky, also 25, describes herself as “cautious” when choosing her friends. In her work as a sought-after hairstylist and sheitelmacher, she interacts with people on a very personal level, and many times, it almost feels like friendship. “My clients are often like my friends, but at the end of the day, they’re just clients, who can leave from one day to the next. I have two good friends and an amazing family, and those are the relationships I work on and try to strengthen.”
Even though Gitty has been out of school for decades, she has never stopped feeling invisible. “It’s a part of me,” she says. “I’m successful in my work as a teacher and I’m very involved with my students, but I’m never the morah the parents know if I meet them outside of school.”
Having endured invisibility for so long, Gitty is hyperaware of people who may feel the same. At social gatherings, if someone starts speaking, only to be cut off by another guest, she’ll be the one to say, “What were you about to say?”
In her work as an educator, she’ll be sure to appoint a student who reminds her of herself as a committee chair, even if it’s a minor position. “I have a radar. I watch people being ignored, and I feel pain.”
Because of her past, she is exceptionally sensitive to rejection. “A cousin moved here, so I invited her for a Shabbos meal. When she said no, I felt so rejected that I never invited her again.”
Sometime later, the two met at a simchah, and it came up that they’d never gotten together for Shabbos. “I realized then that it could’ve been one of a hundred reasons that she said no,” admits Gitty, “but I’m the kind of person who wouldn’t try again. I get scared off; I take it hard.”
While circumstances that give rise to invisibility cannot always be avoided, there are countermeasures that can be taken to mitigate the effects of being overlooked, as well as strategies to leave invisibility behind.
A strong home environment and supportive parents can go a long way. “The earlier parents develop secure relationships and positive attachments, the stronger self-esteem will be,” says Dr. Biberfeld. “Going into high school with a positive self-esteem makes the effects of feeling invisible much less.”
Parents should “positivize,” says Dr. Biberfeld. “That means they should actively work on seeing their child succeed, and communicate positively about strengths, without minimizing or invalidating a child’s painful experiences. They should also keep the lines of communication open so their child doesn’t feel more isolated.”
Some girls are simply not cut out for school, says Dr. Biberfeld, but they can survive intact if there’s an adult in their lives bolstering their sense of self. “There needs to be an adult to believe in them, an adult they feel seen by. It can be parents, or anyone with a protective factor.”
Devoiry says her mother was responsible for bolstering her self-esteem and helping her maximize her potential. “As the oldest of seven, I was given a variety of responsibilities through which I was able to prove to myself my capabilities.”
On the flip side, complicated family dynamics can exacerbate feelings of invisibility. “People I see in my practice who suffered in high school weren’t coming from simple backgrounds,” says Dr. Biberfeld. “The ones who felt more crushed — it wasn’t just high school that was causing the pain. If a girl starts to feel invisible during high school, it’s often because there was a previous vulnerability that allowed the feelings of invisibility to take hold.”
This may explain why some people still feel the impact of their invisibility years later, and why others can walk away from it, mostly unscathed. “We don’t all start the same way,” explains Zev Elman, a psychotherapist in Brooklyn. “We approach the same situation with different psychological needs, and different abilities to get those needs met.”
Parents can also help their children alleviate feelings of invisibility by maximizing their strengths in other areas, showing them they have the potential to shine. “Give a girl other outlets to get noticed,” Dr. Biberfeld advises. “Let her work with special-needs children. Volunteering in a soup kitchen or in a hospital can also give a good feeling. Parents should ask, What can we do to help her feel she matters? Think music, voice lessons, photography, graphics.”
You can’t break free from invisibility without doing some honest internal work, too. “You have to ask yourself if you’re surrounding yourself with the right people,” says Mr. Elman. “Are you seeking validation from where it isn’t coming? Try not to work hard and expend your energy getting acknowledgment from people who aren’t going to acknowledge you. If that’s a pattern you have, notice it.”
When feelings of invisibility persist into adulthood, counseling can help. “It’s possible for someone to work on their own to combat invisibility, but it’s much harder,” says Dr. Biberfeld. “It would take a very determined person, someone who was able to pinpoint their issues, who would read books on emunah and bitachon, and have the guidance of a rebbetzin or mentor.”
Even for such a person, it could still prove challenging. “Wounds that happened through other people are very hard to correct on their own,” says Dr. Biberfeld.
The ability to identify and face the difficult emotions bred from feeling overlooked may be the key to walking away from its shadow. “Not to glorify struggling or pain, but working through something can help you develop resilience and self-compassion,” says Mr. Elman. By noticing, naming, and processing pain — instead of denying or dissociating from it — you can move past it.
For Rivky, having an outlet in summer camp gave her the opportunity to feel positive about herself, and lessened the effects of feeling invisible at school. “In camp, I was the most popular, the most fun, the cutest, the coolest.” One year, she ended up with a star role in the camp play. “I loved to dance and sing, and in camp, they cared about talents. I loved sports, and camp had sports. I found friends and I was very secure there. I knew my way around, figured it all out.”
Those summers at camp gave Rivky the opportunity to see who she could be away from a place where she was overlooked. Things started to fall into place for her when she took a hairstyling course while in 11th grade, and she found she was really good at it. “I gave haircuts in the high school bathroom. Sometimes I got in trouble for it, sometimes not.”
Rivky also credits her supportive home life for helping her move past her traumatic high school experience. “At home, I didn’t feel these issue of being invisible, and I was able to overcome it by leaving school and making something of myself.”
Graduation can mark the end of acute invisibility because girls leave the bubble of high school.
“Getting out into the world and throwing yourself into experiences, and saying yes more — this helps a person move away from invisibility,” says Mr. Elman. “It’s a move toward being active in a direct and visceral way that is self-realizing and self-affirming.”
After graduating, Devoiry channeled her personal strengths into a career, and she’s now a registered nurse. She receives much positive feedback from patients, and often provides guidance to her colleagues — all of which boost her sense of self-worth.
For someone who doesn’t feel enough self-actualization, who still feels invisible, any experience that will bring a person toward being seen is a step away from invisibility. “If you’re not in a job you like, take a step toward the one you want,” says Mr. Elman. “Any step that will direct your developing self-concept will mitigate that sense of invisibility.”
Outgrowing invisibility is far easier when you’re in a healing relationship, be it with a peer, mentor, or spouse. “A relationship that involves understanding and deep knowing is essential. The wounds then become a place of relating and bonding, as the space is held for their vulnerability. From that perspective, the wounds become gifts,” says Mr. Elman.
And where there is healing, confidence blossoms. “I don’t care when people don’t recognize me because at this point, I recognize that I’m important to my family and my kids and husband,” Chani says.
The same sentiment is echoed by Gitty. “The whole world might overlook me, but in my house I’m never overlooked. Even if I’m not needed anywhere else, I’m always needed at home. My confidence is complete over there.”
Invisibility is often associated with loneliness. But if you approach it from a different perspective, the solitude can be an opportunity for self-actualization. “We have to understand that, to some extent, invisibility is normal. Can we accept it as a part of life?
“If so, it can have utility and allow us the space to redefine who we are, how we live, and what is important to us,” says Mr. Elman. “Perhaps we can think of having bouts of invisibility from time to time to help us reconfigure.”
And if we use our “invisibility time” well, it can propel us to greatness, as it did for Devoiry. “When I go to my children’s PTA and bump into former classmates and teachers who claim to have no idea or recollection of who I am, I proudly walk past them with a smile,” she says. “Their behavior only turned me into a better and stronger person
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 688)
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