“I see you.”
Three magnificent little words.
Yet they’re powerful enough to heal us because, as human beings, we all have an innate need to be seen.
Even if we don’t admit it, most of us have a sincere wish for someone to accurately and kindly witness what’s happening inside of us:
- what we really feel
- what we fear
- what we want and need
- what we love and cherish
- what we secretly wish
- what we experience in our bodies and with our senses
- how we feel when we’re totally free inside
- who we are at our deepest core
When we don’t feel seen, especially for long stretches of time, we end up hiding precious parts of ourselves. We start feeling alienated, disconnected, and lonely. We don’t participate in the world, and yet we yearn to belong.
How It Feels to Be Truly Seen
Working as a healing practitioner for the past thirty years, I’ve taught many people about being seen. It’s one of the cornerstones of my approach. Every day, I act as a seer of extraordinary people, many of whom, like me, have insatiably curious minds, open and sensitive nervous systems, and unusual ways of processing the world. I currently teach more than one hundred people—from all walks of life and from all over the planet—how to discover and make friends with who they really are inside. Ultimately, that learning includes being able to clearly and compassionately see ourselves, regardless of whether people in our environment recognize us or not. But for most of us, we start the process of this realization with a trusted companion in a safe holding environment.
During my own inner-work journey, I’ve been fortunate to sit with many master teachers from different parts of the world. Each one has contributed to my development, but I received insight about being seen, from one particular person—a woman nearing the end of her life in a Tibetan settlement in South India. Even though I spent only a short time with her, and even though she was blind, mostly deaf, and spoke only Tibetan, we shared some profound moments when she relived memories and released emotions as I sat beside her with my hands gently placed on her back. The next day, wanting to give me something but having no money or possessions, she vigorously and repeatedly rubbed her face and then put her hands on mine. Puzzled, with her palms still resting on my cheeks, I asked my teacher, who was translating for us, what she was doing. “She wants to rub off every bit of goodness from her life and give it you,” he replied. I had no words. I felt completely loved and seen by this remarkable woman.
When someone sees you as fully as the Tibetan woman saw me, you relax. You feel your body melt. You sink into your tissues, muscles, and bones. Your heartbeat and your breath slow down. Your nervous system unwinds. Your voice softens and sometimes gets lower. You experience deep peace.
Learning to See Ourselves = More Relationship Success
I teach many things to clients to help them connect more successfully with other people. Surprisingly, these practices focus on our inner relationship first. In other words, they are inside-out tools.
Most people want to focus on healing key relationships in their lives. We are relational creatures, and it’s our nature to have closeness with others.
But relationship moments, or the lack of them, can also frustrate us, especially if we tend to be more introverted or if our relationships have unfinished business that causes us stress.
It’s helpful to understand how relationships impact us, which we can grasp more deeply by studying human development in general, as well as psychological terms such as mirroring and healthy narcissism. I recommend works by Carl Rogers, Louise Kaplan, Alice Miller, and Annemarie Roeper. (I’ve listed some favorites at the end of this article.)
But most importantly, if we’re ready to do some unconventional learning, we have the chance to explore something that we never learned in school or from our families. We can directly and experientially discover the one relationship that can fundamentally offer us the steadfast warmth and companionship we seek—the relationship with ourselves.
A Safe Inner Sanctuary for Healing
I call this “inner harbor” work. It’s an unusual way of spending time with ourselves without judgment. We create an inner safety zone where, at any time, we can have short little visits with ourselves where judgments, negative thoughts, old beliefs, and automatic historical movies quiet down.
It’s a friendly space where we can see what’s happening for ourselves and become comfortable with that experience first—before we choose to speak or take any action. We realize that we’re OK with whatever we’re feeling right now. We don’t need to defend or modify it. We give our experience space and have no need to act it out. We simply hang out with it and want to know more about it in the way we’d relate to someone we care about. Ultimately, our experience will shift, and that shift will happen more naturally and easily because our own kind attention is there with it.
By becoming more aware of ourselves in this intimate way, we see our innocence and sincerity, and we give ourselves permission to feel privacy, compassion, and curiosity. This inner aloneness can feel vulnerable and awkward at first, because we may imagine that other people can see what we’re doing with ourselves and will judge us. But in fact, we’re totally safe and secure. Unless we invite someone in and share what’s happening for us, no one knows.
Developing an inner harbor matters because it means that we can start healing right now, without waiting for anyone to see us or give us anything. We’re not dependent on anyone else understanding us, ideally in a calm and loving manner. We give that to ourselves right now. That is tremendous freedom, especially when we’re in a conflict with someone and believe we need something from them to feel peaceful again.
This doesn’t mean we care less about the other person or we want to reject them. It’s a moment of our own inner expansion and existence. We’re simply here now. Because we can give ourselves positive attention, we’re actually more able to connect with the other person in the present moment. In short, we can see the other person because we already see ourselves.
There’s a game you can play with the people in your life. It’s a sharing game that begins with this prompt, “Something I want you to see about me right now is …” Each person fills in the blank, ideally after they’ve paid a gentle visit to themselves. It takes time to learn to self-reveal; having light-hearted ways to practice revealing helps us gain confidence. The delicate act of simply seeing the other person or having them simply see us can deepen our relationship and help heal old wounds. We can learn together slowly, dipping one toe at a time into the pond of change.
Kaplan, Louise. Oneness and Separateness: From Infant to Individual. New York: Touchstone Books, Simon and Schuster, 1978.
Miller, Alice. The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self, Revised Edition. New York: Basic Books, 2007.
Roeper, Annemarie. The “I” of the Beholder: A Guided Journey to the Essence of a Child. Arizona: Great Potential Press, 2007.
Rogers, Carl. “Carl Rogers on Empathy,” filmed in 1974. YouTube video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMi7uY83z-U&t=18s.