You keep dating the same jerks. You think you're fat and you're not. You have—ta-da—a blind spot. Martha Beck leads you on a vision quest.
"Oh, my gosh," I said, "I'm huge!"
I was looking at an image of myself, though not in a mirror or photograph. I'd just finished running a computer graph that summarized input from a class of psychology students. Each person was represented as a circle, with the size of the circle showing how dominant the group perceived that individual to be. I was, indubitably, immense. Although I was only the teaching assistant, my circle was at least four times bigger than anyone else's—including the professor's.
It took me several minutes to start raking up the shambles of my preconceptions. Apparently, the way others saw me was nothing like the way I saw myself. Growing up as the seventh of eight opinionated, vociferous siblings, and spending my adult life in academic settings where wordplay was sharper and more aggressive than swordplay, I'd always felt timid and inconspicuous. To compensate, I put all the energy I could into everything I said. The resulting impression was that, as one student put it, "if someone asked you to light a cigarette, you'd haul out a flamethrower."
Most of us have such psychological "blind spots," aspects of our personalities that are obvious to everyone but ourselves. There's the mother who complains, "I don't know why little Horace is so violent—I've smacked him for it a thousand times." Or your gorgeous friend who believes she has all the seductive allure of a dung beetle. Or the coworker who complains that, mysteriously, every single person he's ever worked for develops the identical delusion that he's shiftless and incompetent. As we roll our eyes at such obliviousness, some of us might think, What about me? Do I have blind spots, and if so, what are they?
You can find the answers if you care to—or more accurately, if you dare to. This is the roughest mission you can undertake: a direct seek-and-destroy attack on your own pockets of denial. Denial is far trickier than simple ignorance. It isn't the inability to perceive information but the astonishing ability to perceive information while automatically refusing to allow it into consciousness. Our minds don't perform this magical trick without reason. We only "go blind" to information that is so troubling, so frightening, or so opposed to what we believe that to absorb it would shatter our view of ourselves and the world. On the other hand, becoming fully conscious of our perceptions—simply feeling what we feel and knowing what we know—is the very definition of awakening. It creates a virtually indestructible foundation for lasting relationships, successful endeavors, and inner peace. Hunting down your blind spots is a bumpy adventure, but it can lead to sublime destinations.
Identifying your own blind spots is an exercise in paradox, because if you're aware of a problem, it doesn't count. It's like tracking the wind: You can't observe the thing itself, only its effects. The tracks that a blind spot leaves are repetitive experiences that seem inexplicable, the things that make you exclaim, Why does this always happen to me? For example:
1. You keep having the same relationship with different people. All of Macy's friends are "takers," emotional parasites who drain her and give nothing back. Steve's three ex-wives all had extramarital affairs. No one in Corrine's life—her children, her coworkers, her mother—ever responds to her feelings.
These people don't know that they carefully choose friends and lovers who match certain psychological profiles or that their behavior elicits similar reactions from almost everyone they encounter. It would take you about five minutes with Macy to see that she's so self-effacing she actually resists normal friendships, gravitating only toward takers. Steve's friends will tell you he falls for women who remind him of his mother, an enthusiastic practitioner of promiscuous sex. Corrine is so reserved that even the most intuitive people can't read her moods. All three have gone through life blaming their relationship patterns on other people's shortcomings.
2. Your luck never changes. Over years of life-coaching, I've become more and more convinced that we create our own "luck." I'm not saying that there's no such thing as blind fate, but I am saying that choice is far more powerful than chance in determining the pattern of our failures and successes over time.
Many of my clients have lost jobs in the economic downturn that followed 9/11, but those who were previously doing well in their careers are finding ways to learn from their experience and bounce back. Those who complained of relentless bad luck before being laid off have slid further downhill. A client I'll call Shirley recently complained, "When my sister was fired, I thought we'd bond because we both had the same bad luck. But then she started her own business, so it turns out that for her getting fired was good luck. Just like always, she gets all the breaks." As I punted Shirley to a psychotherapist, I wondered if they train Seeing Eye dogs for people with her kind of blindness. If so, Shirley will almost certainly develop a dog allergy.
3. People consistently describe you in a way that doesn't fit your self-image. If tracking patterns in love and luck isn't enough to reveal your blind spots, there's another way to go after them. You just have to notice what people tell you about yourself—the things you have always cleverly ignored or routinely discounted. Complete the following sentences as accurately as you can, and you might be closing in on a truth you haven't fully acknowledged.
"People are always telling me that I'm..."
"I get a lot of compliments about..."
"When my friends or family members are angry with me, they say that..."
"People often thank me for..."
If you heartily agree with all the information that pops up in response to these phrases, you've simply reinforced an accurate self-concept by recalling times when others have validated your perceptions. But if any of the descriptions seem strange, incongruous, or flat-out false, consider the possibility that your image of yourself may not be accurate—and almost certainly doesn't correspond to what other people perceive. By the way, you may well discover that you're blind to your positive characteristics as well as negative ones. Some people (especially women) may be so biased against being arrogant that they overlook or dismiss their own best qualities.
Next: How to get rid of your blind spots
If the evidence suggests that you have blind spots, you can try to eliminate them with a simple mindfulness exercise. You already know what's in your blind spot; it's just that looking at it makes you extremely uncomfortable. Only by being very gentle with yourself will you become able to tolerate more awareness. So as kindly as you can, ask yourself the following questions:
What am I afraid to know?
What's the one thing I least want to accept?
What do I sense without knowing?
Whatever comes into your mind, do nothing about it. Not yet. If you feel even a hint of some new realization, you've taken a huge step. More insights will arrive soon, and the kinder you are to yourself over time, the more likely you are to experience major breakthroughs.
A friend I'll call Laura had struggled for years with persistent anxiety caused, she said, by something she felt was "poking at" her consciousness. After she took up meditation, Laura gradually became more self-aware until one day the Big One finally hit her like an earthquake on the San Andreas Fault. "I was feeling very peaceful, and suddenly I noticed that I was gay. I truly hadn't thought this before, which is odd when you consider that I was in a relationship with a woman. I assumed that if you were a lesbian, you knew it from the get-go. I knew I loved her—I'd simply never let myself think about what that implied. I called my girlfriend and said, 'Julie, I'm gay!' She paused, then said, 'Well, now you tell me.'"
Laura is an intelligent woman, and her experience shows just how slowly and tentatively the mind accepts frightening knowledge, no matter how obvious.
Hunting for your own blind spots, like trying to examine the back of your own head, is much less efficient than soliciting feedback from others. This process combines the attractions of strip-dancing and skydiving, making you feel completely exposed yet energized by the sense that you could be catastrophically injured. Ever since I saw that first printout from my group psychology class, I've known how valuable honest feedback can be, how much precious time it can save in my struggle to awaken. I still have to force myself to go looking for it, but when I do I almost always benefit.
Try this: For a week, ask for blind-spot feedback from one person a day, never asking the same person twice. Just say it: "Is there anything about me that I don't seem to see but is obvious to you?" You'll probably want to start with your nearest and dearest, but don't stop there. Surprisingly, a group of relative strangers is often the best mirror you can find. I've worked with many groups of people who, just minutes after meeting, could offer one another powerful insights. Like the emperor in his new clothes, we often believe that our illusions are confirmed by the silence of people who are simply too polite to mention the obvious. Breaking the courtesy barrier by asking for the truth can change your life faster than anything else I've ever experienced.
Any feedback is scary. The kind that addresses topics so uncomfortable you've stuffed them into a blind spot can be almost intolerable. That's why, before you even ask for an honest appraisal, you have to have a strategy in place for processing it.
1. Just say thanks. When others discuss your blind spots, you may have a violent emotional reaction. Remember: All of the upheaval is a product of your own mind. You do not have to dissuade or contradict the other person in order to feel calm. Instead of launching into an argument, just say thanks. Then imagine yourself tucking away the other person's comments in a box. You can take them out later, examine them, decide whether or not they're useful.
2. Dismiss useless feedback. There's real feedback, and then there's the slop that's merely a reflection of the speaker's dysfunction. Fortunately, you can tell these things apart because they feel very different. Useless feedback is nonspecific and vague, and has no action implication. It demotivates, locking us in confusion and shame. Useful feedback is specific and focused. It can sting like the dickens, but it leads to a clear course of action; when you hear it you feel a tiny lightbulb going on upstairs.
"No one could ever love you" is useless feedback. "You project a lot of hostility, and it scares people" gives you information that you need to make healthy changes. It's safe to assume that useless feedback is coming from people who are themselves shame-bound and blind. The best thing to do with it is dismiss it and focus on the information your gut tells you is valuable.
3. Absorb the truth. Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote about a man who, virtually blind from early childhood, had an operation that restored his sight when he was middle-aged. Though the man's eyes now took in visual information, his brain wasn't used to making sense of it. He couldn't differentiate between a man and a gorilla until he touched a nearby statue of a gorilla; then the difference became immediately clear.
This confused state is similar to what you'll feel when you've accepted feedback about what lies in your blind spots. You're not used to this new set of eyes, this novel image of self. I remember feeling incredibly clumsy just after the revelation that I can be very dominant. I felt a little as if I were talking while listening to headphones: I couldn't correctly gauge how I was coming across to others. Slowly, asking repeatedly for feedback, I began to see my own behavior more clearly. My false image of self gave way to a more accurate model, and I learned to avoid accidentally stomping on people with my conversational style.
Deliberately, methodically eliminating your blind spots simply intensifies the natural process we all endure as life teaches us its rough-and-tumble lessons. If you undertake this accelerated journey, you will learn much more in much less time (albeit with a few more scrapes and bruises) and achieve a deeper level of self-knowledge than you otherwise would have.
Just observing the truth about yourself without judgment or spin will begin to change you. It's well-nigh impossible to see yourself more and more clearly while continuing to act without integrity, or in contradiction to your life's real purpose. Eventually you may come to see what Marianne Williamson meant when she said, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us." To see your truest nature is to recognize that you have a capacity for goodness far greater than you ever dreamed, with all the awesome responsibility that entails. It's a difficult proposition, but in the end the view makes it all worthwhile.
Martha Beck is the author of Finding Your Own North Star (Three Rivers) and Expecting Adam (Berkley).