Martha Beck
Photo: Thinkstock
"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