When I was a teenager and a young woman, indeed until I married in my mid-thirties, I had delusions of insignificance. In those days I viewed my impact on others as like that of a ghost.
Perhaps you remember the movie Ghost (Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze), in which the dead (Swazye) require enormous effort and concentration in order to have even the smallest impact on the physical world and to attract the attention of the living.
I believed that to have friends, to have people care about me, required enormous, constant effort on my part. The idea that people would like me, just because I was me never crossed my mind. I had friends, but I believed that was only because I worked so hard at being a good friend.
Friendship was hard enough, but the idea that I might be noticed by men and loved for myself was utterly beyond my world view. I was convinced of my inherent unlovableness. I imagined that if I were to try hard enough, if I baked enough cookies and brownies, wrote enough poems, spent enough time listening to his stories and jokes, gave him enough flowers and unique presents, painted his portrait, devoted enough direct attention to him, then like Patrick Swayze in the movie, I might move the penny just enough to penetrate his awareness. Then if I could penetrate his awareness, I might, with sufficient effort, gain some small measure of affection. However, I was realistic, after all I was not “the kind of girl men fall in love with” – a mantra I repeated often to myself.
Because I thought of myself as a ghost, who could only make an impression on others with great effort, I was unable to conceive of my actions as having any impact on others. Since I believed that it took concerted concentration for me to even begin to dent the awareness of others – especially men – the thought that action or inaction by me could wound someone else never floated into the realm of possibility.
In college when I dated two men who were roommates, it never occurred to me that they would even notice, much less be hurt in any way by my actions. When I made out with one young man one weekend, and his close friend the next, it was to me as if my actions were invisible, cloaked by my ghostliness, occurring in separate, discrete, universes. Even if it had occurred to me that either young man noticed my behavior, it would not have occurred to me that there could be any hurt feelings. After all, how could some one who was a ghost impact on another’s feelings.
My deeply held conviction of unlovableness made it necessary for me to be oblivious to any signs of real affection from young men. Some men I was able to tune out altogether (and learn of their affections years later). Those were the lucky ones. The unlucky young men were the ones in I was interested in, the ones who perhaps might have been interested in return, but for whom, I set ever higher and higher obstacles or tests of their affections.
I would think “if he holds my hand” then perhaps he cares. Then he would hold my hand, and it would not be enough. So I would think “if he kisses me” then perhaps he cares. So he would kiss me and it was not enough. The tests would be come more and more unreasonable, so that it would not take long before whoever he was, he would fail, and I would be reaffirmed in my unlovableness. The saddest part is that there were one or two young men who must have cared a great deal, because they kept coming back, kept passing then failing my "tests" over years, and kept getting hurt.
My ghostly existence was finally penetrated in my mid-thirties by some one who was able to convince me of my lovableness by marrying me, and by a wonderful group of friends who were my friends even though I didn’t do any of the work I thought was necessary to create friends, and by a very wise and insightful therapist.
Twenty-five years later I’m still trying to understand what made me into a ghost girl, and to guard against falling into old habits of imagining my actions do not affect others. Delusions of insignificance can be attractive and reassuring. If we are insignificant it we do not have to be careful of the feelings of others, or of our impact on the world.
Painting, acrylic on canvas "The Oberlin Condition" by S. Greer, copyright 1973.