To Hide or Be Seen: That Is the Question

A therapist claims a special talent in performance of a common, but elusive function: penetration of another’s makeup. For counselor and client both, however, the obstacle to understanding each other is the same: they look at each other through the lens of their own psychology.

Be careful.

Think of the psychologist as a perfected version of yourself at the job life requires of everyone, every day: making sense of the social world. A friend or neighbor, if comparable to you in nature, presents no challenge. The likeness to you makes the task of “getting inside his head” effortless. “He is not so different from me,” so you say.

Should the essence of the acquaintance not match your own, on the other hand, you don’t “get him.” His extraversion collides with your introversion, talkativeness with your thoughtfulness, risk-taking with your risk-aversion. The behavior strikes you as unpredictable, inconsistent with your standard for thought and action. The man might still be attractive to you, perhaps because of his dissimilarity. No matter, misunderstandings and conflicts follow.

In the end, you shake your head, wonder what you are missing, and can’t explain “why he is like that.”

Individual life experience and the basic, inherited stuff in our brain limits us.

“Oh, you’ll have fun. Come on,” one says.

“What is he thinking? Who does he think I am?”

Both parties are at a loss.

A competent mental health professional received the trained-advantage of getting outside himself, to search into and through the eyes of the other; to imagine himself as the other. The doc discards inadequate evaluations as he would blurry glasses. Ego-driven attachment to initial assumptions and impressions cannot be permitted. The counselor must be willing to start over: to trash, revise, or rebuild the faulty conception he created for replacement by a new one.

Here is a crucial truth about true understanding: you will never grasp everything about the other.

Add one more, perhaps more important: your perspective of the other is your invention, neither the other as he is or as he thinks he is. The drawing you made of him is like an  antique map of creation; inexact at best.

My therapeutic peers and I never lived in a patient’s shoes despite his resemblance to predecessors who sat in the same office. We could not claim precise insight even if we traveled through terrain similar to his life’s path.

“You don’t know me,” is always a true statement whether spoken by a friend or client, though we might discern qualities he does not admit to himself.

Each of us wears blinders. We screen off part of life. Emotional survival depends on it. Secrets from our friends and loved ones are dwarfed by our veiled sense of ourselves. Those who live astonishing lives of travel, accomplishment, and courage, still do not fathom the entire world, the world of every other person, nor the world of their truest self; not just revealed under the pressure of every imaginable test, but the self of everyday life.

Do not say, “If I’d been in that situation I would have behaved this way!” Imagined bravery and principle offer comforting self-delusions employed by those who pay nothing for a ticket to a game they never played.

The keeper of a quiet life, alone in a studio apartment next to a floor mate with the identical window view, does not share his neighbor’s every idea and emotion. His sensibilities, intellect, and history create divergence from his counterpart’s meeting with the passing time.

Even when nothing is happening, his internal confrontation with himself is not yours, not knowable to you.

The hurdle to comprehension is high, in part, because most of humanity is not psychologically-minded, a few therapists included. If we are to come close to a workable relationship with our buddy, spouse, parent, or child, — together with our patients — we must work and rework. The job is like that of an eye-glass grinder, refining the shape through which we take on the world of the other. And, if those we meet are rare types, we hope they perceive our dilemma and gamble more self-revelation than ever before; self-exposure coupled with the display of the tender, still hurting places beneath their raised guard and penetrable skin.

The potential reward is to be known as best we can, despite the isolating entrapment by our sausage casing enclosures and inevitable insecurities. Praying, too, the one who said “It will be fun,” recognizes our less than enthusiastic answer is not so peculiar. Out of such mutual effort we might, on occasion, walk through life hand-in-hand; imperfectly fit as we are, knowing with confidence the other is expending — not just money, attention, patience or passion — but the ceaseless labor to improve the lens with which to see us.

And to see himself.

Might this be one definition of a devoted and talented therapist? A friend? An ideal beloved?

Maybe all three.

10 thoughts on “To Hide or Be Seen: That Is the Question

  1. Wonderful, but I particularly loved the end, everything from ‘out of such mutual effort’ onwards… well put, so true, so difficult particularly when you don’t realise that’s the goal….over the last year I’ve been incredibly saddened by the cracks in a close friendship more than twenty years old. Cracks on account of weaknesses we never knew were there until they revealed themselves through circumstance. And one of the things that saddened me most was my friend’ s refusal not just to look at her own reactions and the lens through which she was seeing herself, but also her refusal to believe my own statement of what my words had meant, and instead insisted on believing her own interpretation. And in order to do that, she effectively had to refuse to try and see me more clearly through her lens, and insisted on seeing her own distortions. Expending the labour you speak of is a decision, one that needs to be enacted all the time. But so many people don’t realise there is even a decision to be made….how does one deal with that? Expending the labour is a labour of love, it is love. Which is why I don’t hesitate to use that word in the context of therapy, I think it fits……better stop as I am feeling way too emotional! Thank you for moving me …. ( ironically enough my phone autocorrected ‘moving’ to ‘loving’….!)


    • all the little parts

      I’ve had that same experience. Utter refusal to see what I was actually saying resulting in her abandoning the relationship and then saying I abandoned her. This from someone who had been in therapy most of her adult life. I gave up. Let her think what she likes. I feel I did not abandon her and if she’d heard my need for boundaries and accepted that then she’d have seen that too. It doesn’t erk me as much when it comes from someone who has never been in therapy and therefore does not understand they are seeing things through a distorted lens but her reaction pissed me off entirely because she has and it makes me wonder what exactly her therapists have been doing with her relationally. But I guess I also understand it since I have abandonment issues too and know how rejecting and triggering others boundaries can be. In knowing that someone is distorting what we’re saying we still have to accept it and this I found hardest of all. I wanted to shake her and say WAKE UP YOU’RE THROWING AWAY A GREAT FRIENDSHIP JUST BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT HEARING ME!! It’s no fun at all when you know someone’s distortions are kicking off the drama triangle used in TA and putting you in bad guy position while they are in victim mode. But in the end I had to accept her distortions were unlikely to change by playing into being the bad guy and doing that, she was firmly entrenched in her idea that I was abandoning her so I would remain (and still do) in that position when all I did was try to enforce boundaries that I needed. So I walked away.

      I say all this firmly knowing that I’m seeing the situation through my lens of distortion but because she ran away I now cannot correct any distortion.

      It’s funny… all you can really do is be aware of any distortions, check in with the other, check their understanding and experience and try to remain neutral and open. If you do that, you have to accept that you and they may still be stuck in your various distortions. Which is sad but unavoidable.


    • I’m sorry for your loss of someone dear. You ask how does one deal with it? Probably the way you have — to make an appeal, hope for the best, and grieve if your hope is not fulfilled. If it were otherwise, I’d probably have a friend or two more myself.


  2. I was telling a friend, because I had a little unexpected cash on hand, I was going to treat myself to some new custom designed stationery. “What!”, he choked. “That’s the last thing I would buy.” I enjoy “walking through life” with this guy. Differences make it interesting.


    • Indeed, Joan. The dilemma is that the very differences that make it interesting also challenge communication and understanding on both sides.


  3. Your post reminded me that each one of us sees the world through our own life experiences and our limited knowledge and comprehension of the world. Yet we all share the same humanity. It sounds like mental health professional training techniques could go a long way in helping us to connect with each other.


  4. Interesting and thought provoking, as usual. Above all, “know thyself”, everything else is the gravy.


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