Blind spots

Everyone has blind spots. If we’re earnest about our personal growth and want to know ourselves deeply, learning about our blind spots is a critical part of The Work.

So what is a blind spot? It’s a behaviour or pattern of behaviour that we can’t quite see: something we keep doing but don’t recognise in ourselves. Typically it’s something that creates problems or tensions in our relationships or with the world around us.

A couple of examples:

Sarah sees herself as empowered and independent, yet she finds herself the victim of controlling behaviour from her partners. Over and over again she gets entangled in tricky situations in which she’s struggling for power in the relationship, finally busting out with a declaration of independence and moving onto the next partner, who turns out to be as controlling as the last.

Peter wants connection and intimacy but finds it hard to maintain long-term friendships and partnerships. When he’s stressed or anxious he becomes hostile, aggressive and argumentative, causing the people close to him to retreat. He goes through a cycle of alienating people and then apologising, begging them to come back and having to ‘make things up’ with them. People are scared of his temper.

Sarah and Peter are not unusually damaged people, they’re just exhibiting common patterns of behaviour driven by their blind spots. In this article I’ll take a look at how blind spots work and how we can become aware of them.

Blind spots distort our perception
By their nature, our blind spots distort our perception of ourselves and others. When we look into these dark parts of our personality, our perception bends around the thing we can’t see, creating stories to fit with our self-image. Blind spots are like black holes, they bend and warp our perception because we can’t see into them.

Our blind spots usually occur around our vulnerabilities. We want to be tough and strong, but often underneath our feeling of strength we are beset by doubts and fears. In Sarah’s case, her image of herself as empowered and independent stops her seeing her fear of abandonment and all that it brings to her relationships. She dives deep with each man and then creates a web of co-dependency that starts to feel restrictive and constraining. Because she doesn’t want to admit her fears (even to herself), she blames her partners for controlling her and creates drama.

Peter is afraid to admit that he needs others. When he feels helpless he reacts aggressively to cover his fears. He can’t see that he’s creating the tension that pushes people away. Rather than acknowledging the lonely and needy feelings, he distorts them into a tough self-image that causes him to be inaccessible and difficult to relate to. When he’s angry, he uses things people said about themselves to hurt them; as a result, people find themselves not opening up to him because they might end up regretting it later.

If you spot it, you’ve got it

Our ego works hard to protect us from seeing our blind spots. At the same time our psyche, which strives for integration, is busy trying to show us what we can’t quite see. One of the ways it does this is neatly captured in the maxim “If you spot it, you’ve got it”: what we dislike in others’ behaviour is often something we should look at in ourselves.

This can come in two different ways: either we externalise the behaviour as something other people do to us, or we are critical of behaviours that others do which we are also doing.

In Sarah’s case, she sees herself being victimised when in fact she’s co-creating situations where she is trapped and disempowered. This very common pattern, arising from a blind spot, leads to her blaming others for something she’s doing to herself.

With Peter, he’s convinced that people aren’t letting him in or letting him close, when in fact it’s exactly the opposite – he’s not opening up and sharing his vulnerability, which makes it hard for people to get close to him. He sees hostility and aggression everywhere around him, but only occasionally glimpses it in himself. He plays down his own outbursts with phrases like “Well, I didn’t mean anything by it” or “I lost my rag but I apologised”. In doing this he fails to see the systematic and cumulative effect of his actions on the people around him.

Other people can see it, even if you can’t

One of the most disturbing things about blind spots is that other people can often see them clearly. It’s really difficult to accept this because we like to think we know ourselves well. But in fact other people can often see us better than we see ourselves, especially around our blind spots.

One of the things that points to a blind spot is hearing people describe us in a way that isn’t aligned with how we describe ourselves. Often the language they use will be a bit coded, because on some level people are aware that we have a blind spot.

So people might call Peter “quite intense” or “a bit erratic” when he’s in earshot; and behind his back, they might say that “he’s got a scary temper” or “he flies off the handle easily”. Because people are afraid to offend and also know (on some level) that he can’t see what they can see, their language is more mild to his face than behind his back. This is especially true when the blind spot is anger or aggression, or some other behaviour that’s scary to be around.

If we keep hearing ourselves described in ways that we don’t recognise, it’s a warning sign to look for blind spots. Our egos want to deny it vehemently and turn our attention back to our distorted self-image; but with patient and compassionate self-awareness, we can start to see how others experience us, which in a way is more important than how we experience ourselves.

Asking for feedback
Blind spots are, by their nature, difficult to look at. Doing so is like trying to see something that’s attached to a hat – as we turn our heads to look, the thing we’re trying to see goes out of view.

Just as in the metaphor, a useful way to look at our blind spots is through a mirror: in this case, the mirror of other people. Since others can often see our blind spots more easily than us, receiving feedback is a great way to bring awareness to our blind spots.

Giving and receiving feedback is hard. It requires patience, care and compassion. For the one giving feedback, it’s important to remember that a blind spot is, by its nature, hard for the other to see. For the one receiving it, it can be a shock to hear that others see us in a way that doesn’t match how we see ourselves.

If you’re inviting feedback, a good question to ask is “Is there something you see in me that you feel I don’t see in myself?” It’s a brave, vulnerable thing to ask and is often met with a positive response. By opening ourselves to feedback in this way, we’re more likely to inspire compassionate feedback from the person we’re asking.

I wrote previously about giving and receiving feedback, and the ideas in that article are particularly relevant when exploring blind spots. I also really like Martha Beck’s advice to ask people you’ve just met as well as those you know well. We train the people around us to see us in the way we see ourselves. While they might not take all of this on board, some of it seeps in anyway. By contrast, people we’ve just met often have a clearer view of us because they haven’t had time to learn how we see ourselves. They also might be a bit more direct because they’ve got less to lose if they hurt our feelings.

Spotting your patterns
In our two examples, the blind spots are systemic patterns of behaviour that show up in relationship after relationship. If we’re really honest with ourselves, we can often spot these patterns. A good question to ask is “What is it that I’m not seeing in these situations?” Your conscious mind might not have the answer, but you can be sure that some other part of your psyche can provide some useful information.

Since the ego is keen to protect us from spotting our patterns, even when they’re glaringly obvious, it’s useful to do something that uses the right-brain or whole brain to respond to this question. Examples of this are automatic drawing or writing, in which we simply let our pen or pencil flow and see what comes out. Another approach might be to ask the question and then take a walk, noticing what thoughts recur – with particular attention to the fleeting, difficult or uncomfortable ones. We can also notice our dreams, which are full of clues about our unconscious fears and insecurities; and even the songs we hum repeatedly, as sometimes the lyrics give us the clue we’re looking for.

Lastly, there’s the delightful old-fashioned Freudian slip: a word or phrase we say, write or type by mistake that gives us a clue about what we’re missing. Sarah might be trying to say “I often feel empowered when I’m with a partner who loves me”, but instead she comes out with “I often feel disempowered when I’m with a partner who loves me.” She said the wrong word ‘by mistake’, but this is a clue to something she’s not quite admitting to herself.

Be vulnerable with others and compassionate to yourself
Blind spots are there to protect you from something that hurts. For most of us, these distorted ideas of ourselves arose in childhood, in response to things our parents did that we couldn’t handle. In Peter’s case, his mother was always in his space, not respecting his boundaries and telling him what he should do, what he should think and how he should behave. As a result, he developed a strong response to any kind of dependence or closeness, instead preferring to present himself as tough and not needy.

Because our blind spots are a form of self-protection, becoming aware of them involves dismantling this emotional armour piece by piece. This is particularly true when it’s a deep systemic pattern that’s we’ve been playing out for years. As a result, the process of embracing our blind spots is deeply vulnerable and requires a lot of self-compassion.

Vulnerability doesn’t mean being fragile or weak, it means expressing what’s difficult to acknowledge – what we don’t want to see. (I wrote more about this here.) As we begin opening up and acknowledging our blind spots to ourselves and others, we need to be tender and compassionate with it. The act of naming what we’re starting to see in ourselves in a real and vulnerable way is a huge step in the right direction. Since we can’t usually get to the bottom of our blind spots by ourselves, a gentle dialogue around it often takes us there quicker.

Above all, it’s worth remembering that the people around us love us in spite of our blind spots. They can usually see them very well and they can see that we can’t see them ourselves. And they’re still here! When we start admitting some of these behaviours that have been hidden from our view, we get a surprising amount of love and support from others to help us see them clearly and without judgement.

We kind of expect them to say something like “I can’t believe you couldn’t see that when it’s so obvious!”; but more often they say something closer to “It’s great that you’re starting to learn that about yourself, is there anything I can do to support you with that?” (The exact words might be different but this is the feeling they convey.)

In order to welcome that kind of support, we need to dare to be vulnerable with our blind spots. So in the case of Peter, if he starts getting angry and aggressive when people give him feedback, he can be absolutely sure they won’t do it again – especially since the feedback is about his aggression. If however he’s able to receive the challenging feedback with an open heart and a simple “Thank you”, then he’ll encourage people around him to be braver in sharing around his blind spots.

Everyone has them
When we first encounter a blind spot – especially a significant one – we tend to get overwhelmed with what a bad, stupid, unaware person we’ve been all this time. Fuck! How could I have got this so wrong? I’m a horrible person!

An important thing to remember is that everyone has blind spots. If you forget this, think about someone you love and one of the ways in which they don’t yet fully see themselves. My guess is that you’ll find a blind spot within half a minute. And then remember that this is someone you love and that you accept their blind spot as part of who they are right now, even if at times that makes it difficult to be in a relationship with them.

Remembering that others have blind spots and that doesn’t make them unloveable is a good way to remind ourselves that we are just the same. Blind spots are deeply human and there’s no need to despair when we discover one of ours. (Or two, or three!)

Once we begin to embrace our blind spots, it opens up a space for greater self-awareness, more vulnerability and more connection with others. It’s a huge gift to ourselves and to the people around us, a powerful way to support and accelerate our personal growth. It takes courage and compassion to stalk our blind spots, and it’s really worth it. So if you’re on this journey, as I have been and continue to be, I wish you good luck and godspeed!


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