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 …

Saying sorry (cont.)

It’s very hard, maybe impossible, to say sorry and mean it from the place of pride/shame, because to say sorry requires us to be humble and vulnerable. We have to admit that we did something wrong and stand there naked while the person we’ve wronged receives our apology. We have to risk them rejecting our apology, maybe even rejecting us. It’s a big act of courage to say sorry and mean it. It’s scary and it requires enough shame-resilience to know that we’re OK, that we’re bigger than the bad thing we did.

If secretly, under all the layers, we feel that we are not OK, then most likely our pride will kick in and we won’t be able to say sorry. We’ll turn it around, refusing to accept full responsibility for what we’ve done. We might say:

  • What I did is not as bad as you think it is
  • I acted that way because you provoked me
  • I did my best
  • I didn’t mean to hurt you
  • You started it

or any number of other things that suggest that we’re not fully behind our apology. This is pride operating – and beneath it lurks shame. If we were to admit our fault it would lead us down a shame spiral to “I’m not good enough” – so our pride kicks in to save us from the humiliation of this and we lash out to protect ourselves.

Now I’m not saying that every situation is simple and there’s always a clear right and wrong. In fact, in most situations involving two people or more, there are wrongs and hurts on both sides. But have you ever seen a successful resolution that doesn’t start with at least one side taking full responsibility for their part of the problem? An unmitigated apology creates space for real, vulnerable, open-hearted dialogue. It’s the first step on the road to communication and understanding, especially in a conflict or argument. And that’s precisely what makes this all so bloody difficult!

When I saw those Japanese suits on their knees on national TV, I understood what a sacrifice it is to say sorry and mean it. That was an extreme example, for sure, and it’s stuck in my head for over twenty years because it was so strong. It had to be extreme because of the shame/pride that caused them to lie to themselves (and the whole country) in the first place. It was an massive apology for an epic fuck-up.

Interestingly, when I shared this article with my lover (to check she was comfortable with me writing about what had passed between us) she added these enriching and valuable thoughts to the discussion:

For me, sorry is something I have to feel fully in order to say, and if I’m feeling humiliated at the prospect of apologising, then I find I can’t also feel the apology fully. At the moment, I’m noticing that wherever fear of humiliation comes up, it’s showing me where I have more processing to do around self-worth: similarly, once that fear has been resolved, then I know I’m ready to apologise if that’s what the situation calls for. However, once I do reach that point, it just feels natural to say, and I don’t feel worried about rejection, because I know that if I come to it with a full heart then I will have done the right thing on my part. So I agree with your perspective on the links between apologising, shame and self-worth, but perhaps have a different take on things when it comes to the aspect of sacrifice or it being difficult.

This in a way takes my argument to its logical conclusion: to apologise deeply you must have a lot of shame-resilience. In her case, she needs to be fully ready to give an apology without fear before doing it. I know that for me, sometimes there is still a trace of fear of humiliation hanging around — but nonetheless, I have overcome my pride/shame enough to be ready to say sorry.

For most of us, most of the time, we don’t have to let things go as far as the Japanese suits did. By developing shame-resilience, which means looking honestly at what we’ve done without thinking we’re wrong at our very core, we can recognise where we might have hurt someone else and apologise for it. And when we do, the situation changes significantly. It may not fix things immediately, but it has a huge positive impact on the situation. It’s a really important thing to do and I salute you for your courage if and when you do it.


 

The trouble with a lot of spiritual work is that it doesn’t measurably help people become better versions of themselves. For me, what really matters about The Work is that it fosters kindness, humility, authenticity, graciousness and awareness. The rest means precious little to me. I don’t really care how great your visions are, how much you can connect with the universal spirit of Love and how much beauty you feel in your heart. If you still behave in egoic ways and you can’t see it; if you still hurt others through lack of awareness; and above all, if you still don’t have the humility to know when you’ve done something wrong and apologise for it, then what’s the point of all the work you’ve been doing?

Sorry is a tiny word with a huge impact. To say it and mean it, we have to recognise both what we did wrong and that we are not fundamentally wrong. We have to believe that we’re a decent person who fucked up, rather than believing that we are a fucked-up person pretending to be decent. It’s risky, vulnerable, raw and real. And vitally important for healthy relationships.

Because sorry really matters.

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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Giving & receiving feedback (pt 2)

On giving feedback
I’ve learnt a lot about giving feedback over the last few years. I’ve learnt it the hard way: through being a clumsy arse and giving it badly, through hurting people’s feelings many times. I’ve been told over and over again that my feedback didn’t land because I didn’t give it right. And I’ve also been told when it did, when I found the ‘just so’ point and gave it in a way that could be received and taken on board.

My clients have taught me a lot about giving feedback. By definition most of them come to me because they want my support and input. They appreciate the feedback, it’s part of what they pay me for. At the same time, it’s important that I deliver it skilfully and with love. I’ve learnt a lot about what works and what doesn’t from my precious clients – from cleaning up messy situations as well as the times that they’ve had breakthroughs because I ‘hit the spot’.

So here’s some of the stuff I’ve learnt that I hope will be useful to you too.


 

Timing
Timing is very important when giving feedback, especially when it’s something the person might find difficult to hear. In fact there’s a close correlation between how difficult the feedback might be to hear and how carefully you should consider the timing.

So if, for example, I want to give someone a compliment and I know they find receiving compliments easy, I won’t think too hard about the timing. I do of course still want us to both be present for the conversation, as giving praise is important and I want it to land just as much as more challenging feedback. I’ll still ask if it’s OK to give – more on that in a moment – and I’ll still pick my moment. But I won’t worry too much because I know that they’re going to receive the feedback easily and it’s going to land without too much discomfort.

By contrast, if I want to tell someone that something they’ve been doing is crossing one of my boundaries, or that people are speaking badly about them, I’m going to pick my moment carefully. I want to know that they’re in a calm, receptive state of mind and that they don’t have too much else on their plate. (This is ideal though not always possible.) So I’ll look for the right moment, or create that moment between us, to enable me to offer the feedback.

I sometimes lay the ground by telling them in advance that I have some potentially-challenging feedback and that I’d like us to make space for it. This is a bit of a mixed strategy, though, as it can cause the person to get themselves worked up and panicky about the feedback and be less receptive and open when the moment actually comes. However, from personal experience I find it better to be forewarned that ‘we’re going to have a potentially difficult conversation’ than simply have it dropped on me.

(And believe me, as the giver of feedback I’ve messed this one up plenty of times!)

Exactly how you handle the timing and how much you ‘prepare’ the person for feedback depends on your relationship and what you think works best for the other person. Each relationship is different and there are no clear rules about the best approach – but in my opinion care and thought needs to be given to this.


 

Asking permission
Another key element to giving feedback successfully is to ask before launching in. The question is so simple and so potent: May I offer you some feedback? This immediately shines a light of respect and consent on the conversation you’re about to have. It says “I care about you” before you’ve even started. What a great way to start – especially if the feedback you’re about to give is challenging!

It also allows the person to say no to receiving your feedback, which is their right. There are many different reasons why someone might not want feedback (either right now or at all): because now is not the right moment; because they don’t have the resources to take it on board; because they aren’t open to your feedback; because they find feedback really challenging and need to prepare themselves; and so on. Whatever the reason (and they don’t have to share it), it’s important to respect someone’s no if they don’t wish to receive your feedback, however difficult that might be for you as the one wishing to give it. It’s like any activity where you enter someone else’s psychic, emotional or physical space: no means no.

In practice I’ve found it to be rare for people to say no when asked respectfully if they want feedback. Why? Because honestly, most folks really want to hear feedback from someone who cares about them, even if it’s difficult. Especially if it’s difficult, actually: because isn’t it better to hear that from someone who cares about you than someone who doesn’t (or worse – not at all)?

In asking this question I sometimes qualify it a bit. For example:

“I’d like to give you some positive feedback – are you open to that?”
“I have some slightly difficult feedback to share with you – is this a good time for it?”
“I’ve been hearing things about you and I want to give you some feedback on it – how do you feel about me doing that?”

Like the timing, the exact words you choose depend on the relationship you have, what you know about the person and so on. For example, I immediately get nervous if people say things like “can I give you some feedback?” – or worse, “can I have a word with you?” I always assume that I’ve done something wrong and I’m about to get berated for it. So adding something that gives me a little sense of the nature of the feedback (positive, negative, challenging etc) is always welcomed.

If the feedback is difficult, there’s no real way round the fact that the conversation will be vulnerable. The thing to remember is, it’ll be vulnerable for both of you. As the giver of difficult feedback, in a culture where we are taught that this is rude, you’ll undoubtedly be nervous and uncomfortable beforehand. This can often lead to you being jerky, blunt, harsh, mumbly or clumsy in your delivery. Remember to be very kind to yourself and know that you’re doing something both brave and difficult. And ultimately, you’re giving the other person a gift: the gift of your feedback.

Because it’s true that we often feel funny, especially right before we start, I recommend practicing the question you’re going to ask and honing the exact words you’re going to use beforehand. This sounds super naff, I know, but I think it makes a massive difference. As a former theatre director I know that great delivery starts once the lines are learnt by heart. If you have said the line enough times that the words themselves don’t trip you up, you can really focus on keeping your heart open and saying them with as much love and compassion as possible when the moment comes. Won’t this be the kindest way to deliver something difficult to someone you care about?

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