The Safety Zone of Being Small and Unseen

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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Photo by Joshua Eckstein on Unsplash

Daydreaming about being in the public eye receiving acclaim and notoriety is as ubiquitous as the air. Yet push come to shove not many would want that fantasy to morph into reality. Even folks I’ve rendered psychotherapy to who sought to attain and achieved fame expressed serious distress over being subject to the demands of a parasitic fan base and the pressures of always having to publicly measure up to impossible standards.

Indeed being put under a microscope is not tantamount to admiration and certainly isn’t emblematic of love. Makes me wonder if veteran actor Kevin Kline dons the industry moniker Kevin Decline not just because he is fastidious about accepting roles, but also because he prefers to retreat from the scrutiny of the public eye. Much like the iconic Garbo who backed up her theatrical pronouncement, “I want to be alone,” with leaving the limelight to do just that.

Of course, that level of visibility is rare and undoubtedly onerous. Yet even on a more conventional level retreating from recognition is a common reflex. The reason for this impulse can range from imposter syndrome to fears of failure or even success.

What concerns me the most however is choosing to make oneself small to avoid being targeted by those who seek to sabotage and undermine. This unfortunate ordeal is a common byproduct of achieving recognition. It is also a primary deterrent to standing in one’s power.

Years back I and a second-generation Holocaust survivor debated whether art needs to be shared. A prolific artist, she was of the opinion that showcasing her work to those who would just tear it down and diminish her efforts made it an untenable prospect. The more we discussed this issue the more I understood how the intergenerational consequences of her life contributed to bleak views of human nature that predisposed her to conceal vulnerable parts of the self.

Still, we agreed that gleaning healthy pride from ones’ talents and rendering the gift of inspiration through creative expression were invaluable benefits. Nevertheless, we concluded that the psychic toll and resultant wounds incurred from having one’s unique creative gifts subjected to collective denunciation, duplicity, and rejection is indeed a devastating possibility.

Truth be told, everyone’s a critic. To risk bringing to life ideas of personal beauty and meaning and to bravely share one’s artistic work is to reveal what humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow referred to as the real self. When one’s authenticity proffers acclaim self-worth and value is reinforced, but when that same acclaim catalyzes envy and even hate, injuries are incurred. Creative stagnation, blocks, and traumatic enactments rooted in one’s history are ignited.

I can certainly relate to those feared repercussions.

Looking back I recall that fateful day when I discovered I’d no longer be participating in acting classes at a local children’s theater I attended. In search of a source of healing and respite from the daily traumas incurred at home, I somehow had the moxie at ten years old to break out of my self insulation through performance art. Participating in an ensemble of young actors turned out to be a saving grace, but one day I arrived for my class and the office manager came out to inform me that my father simply refused to pay the meager dues. Humiliated and despondent I left and never returned.

Although my mother supported my efforts, she was financially dependent on my narcissistic father. Her being afflicted by schizophrenia ensured that his decisions held sway. Accordingly, what he gave he took away. It would not be the first time he would set me up just to watch me fail.

My benefitting from creative expression especially if it fostered self-esteem and socialization, aroused cruelty in my father. I was to remain a compliant worshipping muse, and any deviation from that role would incur punishment. My early grooming instilled the fear that actualizing my potentials would result in marginalization, if not abandonment. This indoctrination governed my life until I eventually found the courage to completely break away.

Undeniably, it is a damaging betrayal when one’s accomplishments and innate talents are torn down by one’s family.

I’ve encountered countless complex trauma survivors whose potentials and aspirations were squelched by malignant parents, siblings, and extended family intent on enforcing the edict that one’s gifts are a threat. These victims carry an insidious inescapable shame that the power and capabilities they possess are responsible for instigating feelings of resentment, inadequacy, and envy in others.

Tragically, this can become an internalized prohibition that stifles the natural desire to express creative gifts and actualize potentials. Expecting that any indication of happiness, accomplishment, or admiration results in contempt and myriad forms of emotional violence can lead to a life of capitulating to fear and resignation.

When one lacks healthy narcissism, the feared reprisal of visibility keeps one hidden until one reclaims and actualizes one’s essential nature. This process of reclamation entails healing the narcissistic wounds that hinder successfully owning and manifesting aspirations. It also means accepting that there will always be naysayers, sycophants, and backstabbers in life who want to cut you down and steal your thunder. It’s up to you to not let them.

Navigating the challenges of being envied, scapegoated, rejected, and ostracized, especially in a climate of acrimony and censorship is no easy feat. It’s no secret how contemporary cancel culture, cloaked in narratives of inclusivity and righteous morality, can shun, shame, and destroy those who dare to deviate from social prescriptions of correctness. When this form of collective assertion of righteousness devolves into bullying, it dismisses accountability while lauding punishment devoid of redemption. As a result, fears of being attacked breeds either unbridled aggression or silence and deference. Neither posture is conducive to embodying true power.

As psychologist and author Dr. Robert Firestone imparted, “Personal power is based on strength, confidence, and competence that individuals gradually acquire in the course of their development. It is self-assertion and a natural, healthy striving for love, satisfaction and meaning in one’s interpersonal world.”

Defying the personal and collective forces that impede the cultivation of self-esteem and actualization (Maslow) so as to tap into the source of instinctual power that Firestone describes necessitates a willingness to dispense with polarizations of ruthless acquisition and self-imposed sabotage. Moving past the blaming of others or the blaming of oneself is crucial to exhuming vital aspects of the concealed self where one’s libidinal energy and buried potentials reside.

While harnessing one’s innate awareness and strength is a triumphant victory it is also a testing ground for aligning with people and circumstances that celebrate your gifts.

For me, this involved breaking the pattern of serving as a perennial mentor, when what I really sought was friendship characterized by mutuality and reciprocity. Saying no to that which fell short of what I wanted tested my resolve. Although I knew that allowing obsequious accolades and one-sided dynamics to pass as relationships of sincerity and equanimity was esteem-deflating, it was not easy to refuse those who were invested in the pretense.

Holding on to what client-centered psychologist Carl Rogers said about the conditions people need so that the creative process in therapy can unfold, kept me resolute. Rogers conveyed that psychological safety and psychological freedom make room for acceptance, empathy, and the room to think, feel and contribute fully. Upholding these non-negotiable prerequisites in my life allows me full permission to share my gifts and stand in my truth without apology. Most importantly it allows me to encourage others to do the same.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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