Seeing Your Emotional Blind Spots

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 recent economic downturn, 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.

Getting 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:

  1. What am I afraid to know?
  2. What’s the one thing I least want to accept?
  3. 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.

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. I 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.

Handling Feedback

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. After my first revelation of how I can be very dominant, I felt incredibly clumsy. 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.

25 replies
  1. Diane Dabcevich
    Diane Dabcevich says:

    Hi Martha,

    I saw you on Oprah’s life series, I found you and your information magical to my awareness as I watched and listened to your segment on Oprahs web series. I plan to
    spend more time reading and seeking your information, i.e.
    Your new book, Finding your way in a wild new world, for
    starters. I love the idea of zero attachment zero anxiety
    Believe me I am fraught with emotional baggage.

    Scottsdale, AZ 85250

    • leah
      leah says:

      Dear Diane:

      You have to read Following You Own North Star & Steering By Starlight! Both books helped me immensely to stop listening to the the voices in my head telling me that I had to continue being a high school English teacher. I mean I love grammar, but I hate teenagers!

      Get Reading!

      Love, Leah from Houston

  2. jen
    jen says:

    i appreciate this but i also think the ‘creating your own luck’ part is so much more complex. children with cancer do not create their own ‘bad’ luck. i feel this “the secret” philosophy is responsible for a lot of people feeling pretty lousy about their genetic or other uncontrollable circumstances.

  3. Lindsey Fox
    Lindsey Fox says:

    Hi Martha, I saw you on Oprah’s life series too and was inspired by your story of not telling a lie for one year. I’ve decided to try it too, and I’m scared but excited to see how my life changes as a result. Thank you!!

  4. Denise Green
    Denise Green says:

    Hi Martha,
    I recently wrote a post, facing the thing that scares you, and I am definitely going to point people to this piece. As per usual, you’ve found a light way to deal with a deep topic and offer some practical tips. Thank you.

  5. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    Good information for me today! I’ve made many of those discoveries about picking the same men, creating my own luck… I began to see the pattern! My struggle now is with feedback – solicited and unsolicited. I was getting feedback from the jaded perspective of the dysfunction I was associating with. Thanks be to guru’s like you, Marianne Williamson, Wayne Dyer, it’s improving. The best day of my life is the one I woke and I discovered how much I do/can invited into my life.

  6. Lorna
    Lorna says:

    Synchronicity working. I am dealing with these issues and this article was eye opening. I really liked the part about how to tell if someone’s feedback is valid or from their own dysfunctional perspective. I tried this today and asked for feedback from a close friend and she gave me valuable feedback positive and negative. Then she asked me for mine about her. I will ask for more feedback as I think it will help me personally and professionally.

  7. CM
    CM says:

    Hi Martha,

    This article is completely relevant to me right now!

    Just last week, I wrote two guys whom I had dated for a while in the past (and with whom I had had pretty open communication, plus there were no hard feelings after the relationships was over) to ask them if I could contact them to ask them a few brief questions about how I generally come across to people (especially single men) who don’t know me well.

    I came out and asked them this because I think there must be one or two aspects of my personality or behavior that I am not entirely aware of which are giving some kind of inaccurate impression that I really can’t make sense of.

    I didn’t hear back from either guy, and I expect that neither one will ever contact me again — because most people just don’t want to get into such conversations! I knew that I was taking a risk by asking for their opinions/help.

    I have always been pretty self-aware and striven to be more self-aware and learn how I am perceived by others (even as a teen). Not because I am egotistical or vain, but because I am a social scientist and observer at heart.

    Unfortunately, in my experience, when people are asked to give feedback (and are asked in a calm, respectful, information-seeking, trusting way), I find that most people actually do not want to tell you what they notice about you that you don’t seem to know about yourself, do not want to seem to be criticizing you, do not want to have the responsibility for being the one to inform you of various characteristics or blind spots.

    Maybe your loved ones and acquaintances are very open and honest and brave, but I’ve not found many people in the last 4 decades of my life who want to go into this kind of topic — not even my closest family members.

    Therefore, much of it has to be by deduction — but one has to be careful, because one can misunderstand what people are reacting to.

    I also have heard the answer, “I really don’t know” when I have asked trusted people, “Why do I seem to appear to be X, Y, or Z to various folks, especially people who don’t know me well?” If they don’t know, I certainly don’t know, but surely the repeated pattern of having certain assumptions made about me has a basis somewhere? Is there something so terrible about me that the people I asked for help feel they can’t tell me? I am not sure. It has seemed as if they were telling the truth when they said that they didn’t really know.

    I’ve also realized that I can’t change and don’t want to change some of the things that turn some people off about me. Sometimes even positive characteristics get a strange reception by other people because of their own stereotypes, expectations, and self-doubts.

    Sometimes, what certain groups of people find objectionable or unattractive about you are the very things that other groups of people would appreciate and strive to be like themselves. I think we need to make sure our experience of the world is wide enough that we gain exposure to different sorts of people so that we can learn this. It’s only in my 40s that the fairy tale of the Ugly Duckling began to make a whole lot of sense to the adult me.

    • Jui
      Jui says:

      Hi CM –
      It has been a while since you left this comment and I doubt you will see it, but I will try in case…
      I think the answer to your blind spot lies in the fact that no-one will tell you your blind spot.

      I know nothing about you, so am basing this on general perceptions from people. Sometimes people who are very self-aware and have everything all figured out are very broken inside/sensitive and figuring it out is a way to manage and control the emotions. So those people can look like they know it all and have analyzed it all so people don’t think they could say anything new…ALSO friends know that underneath the self-aware personality is a very sensitive to criticism person, so are unwilling to say anything.
      No idea…but that is a shot in the dark.

      • Nami
        Nami says:

        I have a friend who is so totally like that and I have been seeing this side of him for a while now, without realizing it was his 'blind spot.'

    • Donna
      Donna says:

      As I read your comments CM, I couldn’t help thinking, “Here is a person whose friends and acquaintance figure has it all worked out,” so that if they did want to add anything it might not necessarily seem ‘safe.’ Of course, that later is their stuff, but there might be a reason that they tend to go there with you and do not open up about your possible blind spots. With this in mind, is one of our blind spots that you come off as having it all together, when, in fact, most of us don’t…not really? Even those of us who know and appreciate this work. This is similar to what Jui had to say, but I thought it might be useful to you to hear it put another way. Hope it helps.

  8. Nuala
    Nuala says:

    Interestingly somebody I trust and love told me a blind spot today that has been useful. When I read the above article, what do’people’ say about you in order to find my blindspots, I had to remind myself ‘people’ is not ‘everybody’ ‘everybody’ being as Martha has said before usually no more than 5 people, in my case my family of origin. Sometimes you have to find a new ‘everybody’ to find your real identity and purpose.

    Thanks again

  9. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    Interesting reactions from the people in my life who received my forwarded email of this article.

    Not surprisingly, many completely rejected the idea of sharing opinions because it would “hurt feelings”. Others side stepped it by labeling it as nonsense. Some even got mad that I asked!

    I’m lucky to have one friend who was willing to share her thoughts about my blind spots and curious to hear my thoughts about hers. It was an enlightening and fulfilling experience for both of us and it made me aware that I want more people like her in my life.

    Thanks, Martha.

  10. Janice
    Janice says:

    The line, “I don’t know why Hector is so violent, I’ve smacked him for it a thousand times” is really amazing.

  11. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    I’ve been in therapy half my life and yet for some reason this idea scares me to death. I am not afraid I’ll find out something horrible, in fact I guess I have already faced many blind spots and come away better for it. I love your work, and wonder why this makes me so anxious. Quite a dialectical. Guess its good to be in DBT, huh?
    Namaste, Melissa

    • Chancery Stone
      Chancery Stone says:

      Your comment made me laugh, Jim. Much as I enjoy and appreciate Martha's take on things, you do have a definite point! As ever, life, and people, are just not that simple.


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