Do You Know Your Emotional Blind Spots?
- 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).
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