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:

Michelle 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.

Michelle 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 Michelle’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 Michelle’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. Michelle 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!

Saying sorry

In my 20s I lived in Japan. At that time the Japanese establishment denied the presence of HIV/AIDS in the country, despite many businessmen having unprotected intercourse with sex workers in Thailand and China. The powers-that-be refused to acknowledge that Japanese men could do such a thing, and as it’s an island nation, they fooled themselves into believing that the virus couldn’t possibly be present there.

As a consequence of this collective shame-based denial, the medical services didn’t screen blood for HIV/AIDS. The inevitable happened: thousands of haemophiliacs were given transfusions with infected blood and developed full-blown AIDS. It was a national scandal of epic proportions.

I watched a news feature in which parents of those who’d been infected confronted the Health Minister and other high-ups, whose denial had caused the problem. These middle-aged men in grey suits got down on their knees on national TV and bowed in deep apology, humiliating themselves in front of millions of their countryfolk. They had fucked up and they were subjugating themselves to acknowledge it. And with that, it was done.

When I got back to England, I told my dad and stepmother what had happened. I found the public apology deeply moving, a fitting way to bring the shame in and own it. A humiliation like that was effectively the end of these men’s careers – they could never get another job after that. It felt elegant, profound and complete as it was.

My dad and stepmother didn’t agree. It was outrageous that these men could get away with what they’d done with just an apology! They should be stripped of everything, sued, punished, imprisoned. Something drastic needed to be done!

What they couldn’t see was that something drastic had been done. In a country where honour is a core value, the men who’d committed this act had lost any shred of dignity by apologising publicly. Their apology cost them everything, which was appropriate to the scale of the wrong they’d committed.


 

A while back I had a situation with a lover in which I felt she’d wronged me. She often felt afraid around me, convinced I would get angry if she spoke her mind, and she blamed me for this. I watched with surprise and hurt as she spun a story around it, projecting her fear onto any scrap of my behaviour she could get hold of, making the whole situation my fault.

We’d been here before, and the first time we’d both had a part to play; but the second time around, it really didn’t have much to do with me. I was simply being me, and when she got triggered by my presence, she blamed me for it. And then she dumped me.

I was very upset and deeply hurt. I didn’t deserve that. I broke off all communication and was sure that any kind of relationship between us was over.

A few weeks later, something wondrous happened. We found ourselves on a Tantra retreat together. For the first few days I avoided her; but at the end of a ritual towards the end of the week, she came up to me with bright clear eyes and said, “You were right, I hurt you and I’m sorry.” We stood there looking into each other’s eyes and I could see that she really meant it. I burst into tears.

She had dared to admit that she had done something wrong and was humble enough to apologise for it. We stood together and cried a little while gazing into each other’s eyes. And then it was done. The air was cleared and we quickly became friends again.


 

In order to apologise to someone, we need to master the two-sided coin of pride and shame. Shame is that feeling we hold deep inside that we are not good enough. It’s the sense that we are fundamentally wrong, broken, unloveable, bad, useless etc. It is, to use Brené Brown’s word, the great human gremlin and one of the root causes of much ugly behaviour, both individually and collectively.

Pride is the flip side of the same coin. It’s the bit of us that compensates for ‘not good enough’ with ‘better than others and don’t you dare question it.’ It’s a shield we hide behind when deep down we feel bad about ourselves, a way to deny the shame by flipping it on its head.

… continued …

Giving & receiving feedback

Giving and receiving feedback is very important. In this article I’m going to explore why that is and how we can do skilfully and effectively.

Why is feedback important
First of all, I want to explore why giving and receiving feedback is so important. A key reason, in my opinion, is that other people can see things about us that we can’t: our blind spots and our shadow behaviours. These are the things that we do unconsciously, the aspects of ourselves that we haven’t yet integrated into our conscious awareness. So at the same time they’re the hardest things to see and the ones that potentially cause the most harm and do the most damage.

People close to us can often see those aspects clearly. They see them and they still care about us – in fact, they care about us enough to bother giving us feedback about them. Giving feedback isn’t easy: in fact, it’s really tough. It takes courage and integrity and it’s a vulnerable thing to do. When we give feedback we risk hurting someone’s feelings. We do so because we care about them and feel it’s important to share what we can see. So when someone takes the time to give us feedback, it’s a gift – even if it hurts to receive it. More on that a bit later on.

This leads to the second reason that giving and receiving feedback is so important: it creates a culture of authentic communication in which vulnerability is honoured and respected. Over the last few years we’ve seen a broad array of books, talks and courses exploring the importance of authentic communication and vulnerability – most notably Brené Brown (check out her awesome TED talks on vulnerability and shame) and Kristen Neff. These researchers working in the fields of shame, vulnerability and self-compassion have demonstrated how intimacy grows out of our ability to ‘dare greatly’, to be brave when things get tough, to allow ourselves to be vulnerable rather than playing it safe.

This approach leads us home from the ‘never enough’ rugged individualism that’s making us emotionally and spiritually ill. Giving and receiving feedback is a great tool for opening up a space of authenticity and vulnerability, which in turn leads us back to our humanity and to whole-heartedness in our relationships.

So this is the third, interconnected reason why giving and receiving feedback is so important: it opens up a space of intimacy between us and others. As humans we are ‘hardwired for connection’, but in our current climate it’s hard to achieve real intimacy with other people. Giving and receiving feedback, like other richly uncomfortable interactions, is a powerful way to bring us closer.

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TEDx: Liberate your sexuality and discover who you really are

In October 2015 I was invited to give a talk at TEDx Royal Holloway (under my former name: London Faerie). I spoke on my favourite subject – liberating your sexuality to discover who you really are. Here’s the presentation.

The Narrow Band

Most people spend the majority of their time in some kind of pattern or avoidance behaviour. Living like this can seem less painful and difficult than staying present. And it self-propagates: the longer and more often we do it, the more habitual it becomes.

Since my experience with Lord Iboga in December, I’ve been noticing and tracking my avoidance strategies more. Predictably enough, as I cultivate this awareness in myself I’m presented with clients and participants who are working on this issue. And although this is still very much a work-in-progress, the beginnings of a theory is emerging to support my work with this theme.

The Narrow BandAs I see it, presence – being authentically in touch with what’s alive in us from moment to moment – is a narrow band. All around it are behaviours that are less rich and less alive than presence, and often we fall into one of them. These options feel a bit flat and 2-dimensional compared to the vivid, complex, 3-dimensional feeling of being fully alive. But staying in the narrow band is tricky precisely because there are so many ways we can fall away from it.

When I started thinking about this topic I asked the Sacred Pleasures Facebook group for some input. My question was specifically about strategies for avoiding feeling certain feelings – at the time, that’s what I thought this post would be about.

My original list was:

  • numbing (feeling nothing)
  • laughing / making a joke out of it
  • collapsing / becoming overwhelmed
  • talking too much / focussing on detail
  • picking a fight
  • self-pitying
  • distraction (Facebook etc)
  • self-medicating (smoking, drinking, sugar, marijuana etc)
  • raging
  • self-doubt

to which people added:

  • creating situations where the other feels what you’re not feeling and blaming them for it
  • pleasing
  • procrastinating / over-analysing / not committing
  • controlling
  • using banal / light / cliched language
  • changing the subject
  • shopping
  • having sex
  • giving it all over to ‘the universe’
  • being judgmental / superior / arrogant / playing big
  • playing small
  • initiating a big change or starting a new project while others are only half done
  • dissociating through meditation rather than being embodied
  • feeling guilty
  • getting something physically painful (e.g. tattoo) when you originally felt emotional pain
  • physical over-exertion
  • over-working
  • going into auto-pilot
  • being passive-aggressive

This list, while not comprehensive, is impressive in its scope. It shows a deep recognition of the many ways we avoid the ‘narrow band’ of presence in favour of something less rich but more comfortable.

As I reflected more deeply on the subject, I realised that often these avoidance strategies come in pairs or small groups. So for example playing big often goes with self-doubt: we use the arrogance strategy to avoid the fear that we aren’t good enough; and when we run out of steam or things don’t go our way, we collapse into self-doubt or self-loathing.

Often the strategies we use are close to but not the same as the real feelings we’re working hard to avoid. So in the example I’ve just given, we probably do feel some real inadequacy and fear around what we’re doing. But rather than allowing ourselves to sit with that, to be in it, to feel it to its depths and to learn what it has to offer us, we fall into a shallower, less rich place inside ourselves. Which naturally is also a less scary place too.

There are a couple of key reasons why we develop these avoidance strategies. The most significant, in my opinion, is that showing up means risking being hurt. Often what looks like vulnerability actually isn’t: it’s just part of our patterning. A great example of this is the person who always falls into self-pity and cries easily when things don’t go their way. From the outside it may look like they’re being real and vulnerable, but after we’ve been through the pattern with them for the 20th time, it becomes obvious that they’re still squarely in their comfort zone.

As a wise friend of mine recently pointed out, someone who never expresses anger allowing themselves to feel and show this is actually a very vulnerable thing to do. So in our example above, the crying might be a cover for deeper feelings which are more alive but also scarier. By contrast someone else might fly into rage easily but avoid the delicate feelings of confusion and not-knowing-what-to-do that lay beneath.

For most of us, there are at least two layers of emotion present at a time, and the one we go into habitually is the shallower one. Often it’s one of these two combinations: pain masking anger or anger masking pain. Sometimes it’s a combination of the two – we follow one pattern in certain situations (e.g. at work) and the reverse in others (e.g. in our love life). And for some people one emotion is always the ‘top layer’ and the other one is always what’s hidden.

Take a moment to think about which emotion(s) you go into most easily and which ones are harder for you to access. You can be sure that the place of authentic vulnerability is in feeling and showing the one(s) you can’t reach so easily.

So we have two interconnected ways of noticing how and when we avoid being present. The first is to notice the narrow band where we’re really alive to what’s happening, that place where we’re really showing up with our rich complex web of contradictory feelings; and the second is to recognise that certain emotional responses are easier for us to express than others.

With this in mind we can begin to witness our patterns and avoidance strategies with a bit more awareness. They’re still going to happen, you can be sure of that: patterns take a long time to break and the mind is a crafty bugger! – but when we start to see them more clearly we are not completely ruled by them. If we’re lucky, we might even start to enjoy our little tricks and find it a bit amusing. Humour is a great tonic to taking ourselves too seriously and laughing at our patterns is a great way to help develop self-awareness.

Over time this witnessing can bring about lasting change. At first it may be a conscious process – noticing the strategies and gently guiding yourself back to riskier, more alive ways of being. But gradually this noticing becomes more instant, maybe even automatic: a new and healthier habit replaces the old one and this pair or set of habits loses its power over you.

Naturally enough it isn’t long before another pair or set of habits or avoidance strategies emerges. The beautiful thing about our minds is how skilful and wily they are. They are heavily invested in running the show and don’t really like it when we become aware of their tricks and games. In a way, presence challenges the mind because it can’t be controlled: so as soon as we start bringing enough awareness to one set of patterns to erode it, there’s another set right behind it.

At this point you may be asking why we should bother if it’s just going to be one layer after another of patterns and avoidance strategies. That’s definitely a good question. At times the personal growth journey can seem frustrating and repetitive: layer after layer of work with no end in sight. If you recognise this feeling, don’t worry – you’re not alone! It takes commitment to deconstruct ourselves and discover how little control we have over our thoughts and behaviour.

But here’s the good news. Firstly, developing awareness is like any other practice: it gets easier the more you do it. The first time we train in preparation for that 5k fun run, it hurts like hell. But after a couple of weeks of persistence, what used to be agony is easy and we’re pushing ourselves to run further and faster.

The same is true for awareness. The first few steps are always the most painful and difficult and require patient perseverance. But as we start to see how we make our life flatter and less rich than it can be – and especially when we catch glimpses of how different it feels when we show up for ourselves a bit more – we’re encouraged to keep cultivating awareness and noticing where we’re living in presence and where we’re stuck in our patterns.

And this is the second bit of good news: although it’s more difficult and we risk being hurt in it, presence feels more alive and more whole than living in a patterned way. For those of us, like me, who hate the idea of not being free, it’s amazing to realise how unfree we really are when we are stuck in habits and patterns. By contrast, being present is about the most free we can ever be. It may not be easy but it’s fuller, richer, deeper and more alive than any other way to live.

Lastly, as I described this ‘narrow band’ to a Buddhist friend, he pointed out that it’s exactly the same as the ‘middle way’ described by Gautama Buddha. In Buddhism this is spoken about in terms of craving (things that bring pleasure) and aversion (things that causes pain) – the middle way is the space in between where we’re open to what truly is rather than chasing after the nice stuff and running away from what’s difficult. The narrow band.

However you picture it, the principle remains the same: in every moment there’s a narrow band of experience where you’re alive, free and in touch with life more fully and a bunch of places where that’s less true. By noticing that we’ve moved away from the narrow band we can guide ourselves back to presence – and maybe have a chuckle at ourselves along the way.

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