If you’ve been researching the roles that children are forced into in dysfunctional families, you may have come across the terms “invisible child”, “the lost child”, or “invisible child syndrome”. Although this is a recognized trauma that some children are forced into, aside from the term, there really isn’t any other information available online. If you go to forums for survivors of dysfunctional families you will see that they are mostly dominated by the stories of the grown family “scape goats” or “identified patients”. Even the occasional “golden child” will chime in, but the invisible child is nowhere to be seen. Even now we are invisible.
I am an adult invisible child. I am a survivor of a dysfunctional family. Growing up I experienced domestic violence, divorce, a parent incarcerated, emotional neglect, emotional abuse, medical neglect, physical neglect, bullying at school, and severe family violence that included an episode where I was pinned down and stabbed in the chest with a knife. There are other things I experienced that are too personal to write in a public blog. As an adult I have been diagnosed with PTSD. I’m not looking for sympathy or a strong reaction from others. But I do hope that this post can help other invisible children that are quietly searching the internet for others like them.
My parents were two individuals that simply could not regulate their emotions. Everything was dramatic, everything was an explosion. We were “that house” in the neighborhood with the cops showing up all the time. The primary emotion directed towards their children was not love but annoyance. “These fucking kids!!” If I even just walked into a room where my mother was in she’d groan in disgust. She couldn’t stand to be near me. I learned how to move silently. Even now as an adult I get accused of sneaking up on people.
I definitely learned not to ever go to my parents / siblings for comfort or sympathy. Any time I tried to tell my mother about something that was going on she would become enraged and scream back at me “Oh poor little victim girl!” I learned that the best thing to do was to just literally stand there and take it while someone was abusing me. I would just stand there in silence with a blank expression on my face until the abuser was finished and then quietly walk away. Unfortunately this response has followed me into adulthood.
My other siblings responded to the craziness by acting out and taking out their frustrations on me. I remember one sibling right after she had finished doing something especially cruel said “I don’t know why I keep doing this! I don’t mean to be mean!” Even though she felt guilty, she didn’t stop. I on the other-hand didn’t feel I could afford to make waves. I had to be the perfect child. I had to get good grades in school and not bother anyone.
Being an Invisible Child means living in a world without justice, where “no good deed goes unpunished”, where you are expected to tolerate everyone’s “bad day” while constant perfect behavior is expected from you. What else could I do but blame myself? Clearly there was just something about me that rubbed people the wrong way. My only hope was to try to stay off the radar and go completely unnoticed. If only this was a strategy that actually worked!
Invisible Children are like magnets to abusers and exploiters because they know you wont complain and that you’ll just sit there and take it. I also 100% believe that constantly having to “suck it up” is what led to my autoimmune diseases.
As an adult I know that I’ve had boyfriends who have cheated on me. The odd thing about it is that I’m completely unaffected by it. I feel weird writing about it because I know that being cheated on is something that deeply affects and consumes people. Strangely I am completely “meh” about it. I never felt the need to confront him, try to research the other woman, or even tell another soul about it. I simply moved on without any fanfare. What did strike me as odd was that every time I ended these relationships the guy would beg me not to leave. I would simply hang up the phone, completely confused why he would still want to be with me when he had clearly found someone else.
Confronting people is definitely something you learn NOT to do as an invisible child. Your boyfriend is cheating on you? Of course he found someone better. Your coworker is sabotaging your work? Just work twice as hard to try to make up for the sabotage. You just got mugged? Don’t even bother calling the police. No one will help you. No one feels sympathy for you. In fact, people are happy this is happening to you.
As an adult I felt that in general people only wanted two things from me: They either wanted me to STFU or they would feed off of me like an emotional vampire.
The type of men I would date were the type that when they were in a room they were the center of attention. They would regale with entertaining stories or dominate with strongly held opinions. They loved dating someone like me that wouldn’t steal their spotlight and would never argue with them. I later came to realize though that these aren’t even true relationships. There was no love, no loyalty. It was more about appearances. They just wanted to look cool in front of their friends.
Never one to have a lot of friends, the few friends I did have also seemed to love having me as a friend. I had zero expectations. They could ignore me for months and then flip the script and blow-up my phone with their latest emergency. And I would never complain or push back. I was their unpaid social worker.
In the workplace I never decline an assignment and I never missed a deadline. Weekends, holidays, nothing’s off the table. I’ll work all night if I have to. I’m consistently told by supervisors that I’m the best worker in the company. I especially receive praise for never complaining. And yet, as great as I am I have never once in my career received a raise or a promotion. I’m also convinced I must interview terribly. Interviewing well requires you to talk yourself up, something that I cannot do without being filled with anxiety.
Growing up in my family primed me for these later encounters. Every unpleasant interaction with a random stranger reinforced the message: This is how people are. This is how you are. I’m a loser and should be happy for whatever I get. Never complain. Suck it up. Don’t say anything. Don’t bother people with your presence.
I became hyper independent and hyper responsible. I don’t ask for help and I definitely don’t ask for my needs to be met. Having to rely on someone for something is incredibly frustrating for me. Revealing myself in any way, as I am doing in this blog post, fills me with regret and I find that I can’t stop thinking about it for days. I’ve heard this referred to as a “vulnerability hangover” by Brene Brown. But I’ve also heard her say that “Vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage”.
Over the years my interactions with my family have become more and more limited. I love them but I don’t know how to be around them. So I’ve shrunk myself to the point of barely being a ghost in the family. My family says they want to have a relationship with me and we’re at the point where they know there’s stuff they can’t get away with anymore. My mother will even express love for me these days, but she will only love me if I act like the invisible child. They simply will not allow anything else from me. But I don’t want to be the invisible child anymore.
These days I’m healthier than I’ve ever been. Lots of therapy, obviously. I’ve quit the exploitive job and self-centered friendships. I ended up marrying another invisible child. I’m working on being less invisible. Hence the purpose of this blog and my Youtube channel. There is still the constant fear that having this blog or my Youtube channel will somehow lead to a huge disaster where everyone finds out who I really am and I am somehow ruined for life. I’m constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. After all, how dare I have interests of my own? How dare I be into Tarot and spirituality? How dare I have a voice?
I know that there are people reading this who are rolling their eyes at me. I know that. They don’t think people should speak up about abuse. They think that we’re basically big babies who just need to get over it. They’re disgusted that I have embraced a victim role or a victim mentality. I actually haven’t.
As an invisible child, I’ve found that I’m 100% immune to scams, flattery, and bullshit. It’s almost like a weird super power. I’ve been performing without a net my whole life. I’ve handled things you wouldn’t believe. I feel proud of myself even if no one else does.
And yet I know that there will be backlash for speaking my truth. Something I’ve realized though in my healing journey is that it’s really not my fault. There are people who cannot manage to get through their day without craping on someone else. They see a quiet person and they think “Bingo!” They know you wont make a fuss and they’ll get away with it, so they’ll choose you every time. This is their favorite game. This is how they feel good about themselves. They’ll never apologize or one day look back on this and feel bad about it. I hate to say “never” because I also believe that people can grow and change, but I’ve also learned that you have to be realistic. At some point you have to choose to respect yourself and walk away.
The truth is, no one can force you to act like an abusive jerk. Truly, think about it. Imagine whatever scenario you need to as a thought experiment. If there’s someone at work or wherever that you find annoying, you just avoid them. Bullies do the opposite, they seek you out. They want you to interact with them. And that proves that you’re not the problem, because if you were they would just ignore you or avoid you. They bully you because that’s what they like to do. It’s how they regulate their mood, entertain themselves, and get attention.
These are the same people who will argue that they “have a right to be angry!” What I’ve learned about people who say that is that what they really mean is that they believe that they have a right to yell and rage and be scary and abusive. It’s okay that they acted like a jerk because X happened and it made them mad. What else were they supposed to do?
People hate invisible children because we’re proof that there is no excuse. We’re proof that you can receive all the abuse in the world and still come out a kind and compassionate person. That is the most triggering thing to people who have hurt other people. We don’t even hate them. We just wish that they would realize what they’re doing and get better.
There’s a general belief out there that the most dysfunctional people go to therapy, but any therapist will tell you that that’s untrue. I realized that there are people living such dysfunctional lives that there’s no way they could admit to this stuff in front of a therapist. And then there’s people who are so dysfunctional and have done such cruel things that they can’t even admit it to themselves.
There’s a reason why they act like it would kill them if they showed you any compassion. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to live with yourself knowing you brutalized a person just because they were there? It’s such an uncomfortable thought that the only way they can make themselves feel better is to double down on you being the problem.
I heard recently that “sensitive’s the new strong”. It takes zero strength of will to blow up at someone. It takes zero strength of character to lose your shit. But it takes an almost inhuman amount of strength to stand there and take it. And not only stand there and take it, but also to later look back on the incident and to actually feel sympathy for the abuser and to hope they get better.
Sometimes I encounter adult invisible children who at some point got tired of it. They decided they needed to right the ship, but they over-corrected and ended up in the opposite extreme. They decided that they will be damned if they are to be silent or invisible ever again. But they also find that relationships fizzle out and they can’t stand to be at any job more than a few short years. The problem is that you’re still trying to figure out what society wants from you. It will never work because it will never work.
There’s a reason why no matter what you try “it’s never good enough”. It will never be good enough because no one wants you to feel like you’re good enough. Honestly, I could go on a long rant about how our economy is literally built on the idea that you’re just one more purchase away from solving all your problems. If we all started feeling good enough our economy would literally collapse. But for the invisible child especially, you were raised to give so much and to expect so little in return. Now as an adult, there are people in your life that profit from you feeling like you don’t deserve anything. At some level they know that if that were to change the party would be over. Yes, I’m talking about your family, but I’m also talking about your boss at work, romantic partner, friends, potentially even your primary care doctor that doesn’t want to be bothered to fill out the paperwork so that you can be referred to an autoimmune specialist. I’m talking about anyone whose life is made easier by you not having any self worth.
So how do you stand up for yourself without going in the opposite extreme? How do you change your life without losing the parts of yourself that you do like? Trying to find the “real me” under layers of trauma responses has been incredibly challenging but also incredibly worth while.
The biggest thing and the hardest thing for me was to simply stop playing the game. Trying to find self-worth through approval from other people and society will never happen. I also moved out to the country so I could get away from loud angry people. I needed to get away from my family’s influence so I could find out who I really am. After some time apart, the fog lifted and I realized a lot of things about myself without much effort.
I realized that it’s okay to be a quiet person, although I’ve also decided that my true self is not as quiet as I’ve been. I’ve also decided that when meeting a group of people it’s okay to say “this isn’t my group” or “these aren’t my kind of people” rather than to try to mold myself into something that would be more appealing to these people. I’ve also learned that if people don’t want to be your friend it doesn’t mean that they hate you. It’s much more likely that they just don’t have room in their life to add another friend right now or they just feel that there isn’t enough in common to carry the friendship forward. I’ve met a lot of people that I like but I still don’t want to put into the effort to form a friendship for those same reasons. It’s pretty rare that I meet someone and I hate them. I think having this thought that everybody hates you probably causes subtle self-sabotaging behaviors that puts-off potential new friends.
Another thing I’ve been working on is speaking up in the moment. When someone says something passive aggressive, demeaning, what-have-you, my automatic response is to get quiet and then walk away. However, with some time to think about it, I have been going back to these people and talking with them about it. It’s better than nothing, but it’s really better to confront someone in-the-moment and to keep talking about it until it’s resolved. I’m hypothesizing that when people say stuff like this to you, it’s basically a little test. When you “allow” it by saying nothing, you communicate that it’s okay to mistreat you.
Most importantly, this is a journey. You can’t snap your fingers and start living authentically. It took me a long time to figure out who I even really was. I’m probably still in the process of figuring it out. Right now, this feels right but in a few years I may think differently. There’s a tendency to look back and cringe and beat yourself up, but I’ve realized that that is really showing a lack of understanding in the developmental process. My parents showed zero understanding in child development and really expected us to be able to function like independent adults from age 6 onwards. Obviously that’s ridiculous, but it’s also ridiculous to expect yourself to just know how to function smoothly as an adult without a trial-and-error process of trying stuff out.
Sometimes I feel embarrassed that I was so nerdy and into anime when I was in my early twenties and wished I was more like the way I am now back then. But honestly, it’s normal and age-appropriate to act like that at that age. I really have to drop the whole notion that it’s embarrassing to have hobbies or be into stuff. I don’t think it’s wrong for other people to be into stuff, why do I put that on me?
Anywho, it’s a learning process. Something that becomes clearer the older you get is that no one has it all figured out and everyone has some kind of trauma or demon they’re wrestling with. The people who seem like they have it all together are probably just pretending and that whole “having to keep up a facade” thing IS the demon they’re wrestling with. I find that the more compassion I can find for other people, the more compassion I can feel for myself. It turns out I’m not the only one struggling.
Love yourself. Forgive yourself. I see you. I believe you. I’m proud of you.