I was sitting in a session with a therapist named Paul on a well-used couch in the trendy Mission District of San Francisco, staring at the antique toy fire trucks placed along his windowsill and balancing a glass of water in my lap. A friend had suggested that…just maybe…therapy would be a helpful thing for me to do. I was out of work and ending a relationship, and although I trusted that things were going to turn out okay, I was a bit at sea.
Paul listened to a synopsis of my entire life, including a short foray into my Ohio childhood, my marriage at 18 and divorce at 21, and a quick trip through 20 years in Germany, Japan, Canada, and England culminating in the Sausalito, California, café where I thought I was going out for a coffee and ended up getting fired. Then Paul studied me through his tortoise shell-framed glasses and asked, “Do you want to look at your blind spot, or do you want to let these patterns repeat?”
That was it—that was the question that changed everything for me. I spoke from the depths of my being, and with trepidation and an unsuppressed laugh, when I replied, “Yes. Hell, yes.” In that moment, I was ready to hear my therapist’s words.
When you’ve been on the receiving end of random, difficult, or sometimes horrible life events, you develop a bullshit detector for people who blame the victim. This was not that. This was an honest and genuine question pointing out my own participation in my life patterns. I was undefended and ready to learn something new, ready to grow. I trusted that shining a light on my blind spots would be good and productive, although probably painful.
Up until that moment I had taken a random and fateful approach to the happenings and events in my life—shit happens, good stuff happens, and it’s how you navigate it all that matters. I had never thought of my hidden traits in this way before: so pointedly, urgently, and globally. I’d done plenty of work on my emotional life, like setting free self-limiting beliefs and getting in touch with self-compassion and self-trust through mindfulness meditation, but none of this had revealed Paul’s insight that something I wasn’t seeing at all—a blind spot—was driving my behavior. He helped me recognize that what I was missing was just past the edge of my own perceptual horizon. Realizing that this stuff was obvious to someone I’d just met, stuff that had been entirely out of view to me, woke me up. What had I been missing?
What I discovered, with Paul’s gentle nudging, was that my biggest blind spot had to do with accommodating other people’s blind spots. I had “protected” certain important people in my life from the impact of their own unconscious behavior—that is, until I finally couldn’t take it anymore and blurted out their blind spots. That’s where the trouble happened; my unexpected and uncharacteristic speaking of the truth rarely went over well. In fact, it’s how I ended up in that coffee shop in Sausalito, shocked when I was let go from my job.
“Do you want to look at your blind spot, or do you want to let these patterns repeat?” That was it—that was the question that changed everything for me.
Survival of the biased
I know I’m not alone. Why is it that so many of us often suffer for no clear reason? What are the patterns (especially those we can’t perceive) that interrupt our healthy and sane functioning? Why are we all trying so darn hard to defend our ideas, self-images, and opinions even when doing so hurts us and the people around us? What is at stake here?
To sustain our sense of self, get the love we want, and succeed in our vocations, we engineer all kinds of crafty ways to keep our self-image not only intact, but impervious to attack.
It turns out that everything is at stake. We are biologically wired for survival, and as humans we have developed a belief that our survival is contingent upon this thing called “me” at the center of our world. To sustain our sense of self, get the love we want, and succeed in our vocations, we engineer all kinds of crafty ways to keep our self-image not only intact, but impervious to attack. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s natural…except that it’s also not natural because we’re defending an idea instead of something real. To make matters even more interesting, we develop lifelong beliefs that keep us from seeing any of this, including those beliefs. If what we want is to be accepted and loved, and to flourish, this doesn’t work.
I spent a few years teaching a meditation class at San Quentin State Prison. My favorite thing about going there was the kinship I shared with the people inside. As I walked across the prison yard among inmates jogging the track or crouched along the concrete perimeter in the California sun, I felt a sense of heightened alertness, but I was not scared to be there. That’s because I have been on the receiving end of violence and have firsthand experience with its dimensions and contours, which we all carry in some form inside ourselves, whether it’s acted upon or not. And I know I can show up with a fierce heart and compassionate boundaries. Some of these prisoners were the hyperbolic and unfortunate perpetrators of that shadow of hatred and anger, and some were the reflection of a racially divided, punitive system serving the privileged and punishing the innocent.
Most of the folks I worked with—lifers with the possibility of parole—were incarcerated for acting out of a blind spot. Often, the consequences were deadly. Most of the inmates I spoke with shared that the act that brought them to prison happened in mere seconds, with almost no forethought. When I asked a large circle of men to add up the length of their sentences, it totaled hundreds of years. The crimes that got them there? The total was minutes.
Blind spots, as I define them, are unconscious impulses, fueled by emotions and beliefs, that create habit-building patterns in relationship to ourselves and others. For instance, an inmate who can’t quite understand how his self-victimizing behavior keeps landing him behind bars and always blames someone else. Or an insecure person who talks too much and too fast so that everyone he meets thinks, Wow…this dude is trying to prove something. When’s he going to be quiet?
Blind spots are not the things we already know about ourselves that we are working on, like being more patient with our children or more confident in social situations. Blind spots are not abstract ideas. They are ingrained beliefs and attendant emotions that drive us to play out patterns we don’t see, all to avoid the obvious that is right in front of us. Who hasn’t failed at something or been shocked by someone’s behavior and asked themselves, How did I not see this coming?
What you see…and what you get
It was the revelation of my own blind spots that led me to explore and write about them. I’ve been studying the human condition like a scientist, albeit imprecisely, for two decades. I’ve taught meditation and emotional intelligence not only in prisons, but in a variety of places including veterans’ hospitals, the Google campus, United Nations agencies, and on the front lines of conflict in the Middle East. I’ve come to realize that cinderblock prison walls, Silicon Valley corporate walls, and the walls of refugees’ tents have a lot in common. They all hold passionate, vulnerable human beings who want to have their basic needs met, to be loved and accepted by their families and communities, and to share their gifts with the world. They also hold people who are trying to get ahead even when that means trying (at times desperately) to portray and defend a false image of themselves—an image they are blind to—in order to not be attacked, blamed, or judged.
I’ve discovered that each of us has at least a few wacky and creative ways of going about getting these needs met. There is nothing wrong with such strategies per se. But the related behaviors can be created and maintained by blind spots. Blind spots that are obvious to others while we, oblivious, coast through life never finding what we’re looking for and leaving a wake of unmet needs behind us. Nobody is exempt.
What if seeing our blind spots could radically transform the way we live, work, and perceive reality? Have you ever looked at an optical illusion and been startled or scared to discover what your brain does to make sense of what you’re seeing? For instance, you see a gray box even though it’s actually white because of how it’s positioned on a checkered background, or you see a triangle in a diagram where there isn’t one because of strategically placed wedges and angles. Optical illusions point to how easy it is to fill in what we “see” based on memory, the biology of vision, and our brain’s need for coherence, and they reveal how much our minds can trick us. Because we perceive the world with relative accuracy most of the time, we’re surprised when we get duped. We believe that our senses are exact, so it shocks us when we find out that is not the case. It’s the same with uncovering blind spots—and there lies the possibility for life-changing insights to appear.
The “easy way” is harder
One of the best things we can do is pull back the curtain on our unconscious operating systems. Once we’ve seen the inner workings of those systems—examining how we organize and filter information—we are far more likely to catch ourselves when we’re falling into our own innocent little traps. Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky developed some ground-breaking insights into human judgment as it applies to behavioral economics: namely, that people who make decisions and form judgments under uncertainty make systematic mistakes that are common to all humans. Their findings have brought into question the long-held assumption of human rationality, and have had broad impacts across diverse domains, bringing to light ways our cognitive biases cause us to make errors in judgments and decision-making. As we have discovered, we humans tend to think we are rational most of the time. It’s that exact blind spot that is most in our way.
Our blind spots are created through our unwillingness to question the fixed ideas and assumptions that we hold about ourselves, others, and the world around us. Some of the most problematic blind spots, however, are created and supported by the tiniest and most innocent of biases and moments, combining to form ideas and stories that keep confirming themselves and feeling believable.
Mental shortcuts are just such things. They are lightning-quick intuitive judgments that are common to all of us. They often work, but when they don’t, they lead to cognitive biases that obscure our seeing. These can take many forms, three of which I’ll highlight here:
1 Believing ideas because they are readily available to us: availability bias
2 Finding data that confirms what we already believe: confirmation bias
3 Thinking we saw things coming when we didn’t, which makes us think we are better at predicting the future than we are: hindsight bias
Mental shortcuts like these help us simplify things as we navigate the complexities and unknowns of life. But they hinder us when they cause us to gloss over or misperceive complexities that might actually require our attention, and that’s bound to go wrong sometimes. When do mental shortcuts interfere with our ability to experience mindful awareness throughout our day? When do they back up untrue stories about ourselves or the world around us? Can seeing how our biases help us filter the world also help us see where we may have hidden blind spots?
Questioning biases and opening to a larger, more nuanced story doesn’t have to destabilize us. Coming out of denial doesn’t mean we need to act on our feelings. Rather, it can help us make wiser, more informed decisions and be more compassionate and understanding. It takes practice and experience to trust yourself enough to open to what you don’t know, and realize that it’s safe and important to do so. But don’t worry—you’re not going to die if you admit you don’t have a clue! You don’t have to exert effort all the time to check whether you are believing something untrue. Hacking these biases sets you up for a different autopilot: It opens you to the unknown, and in doing so, you move the arrow from blindness to mindfulness. It doesn’t take much more than that!
Gaining awareness of our patterned shortcuts and biases helps us illuminate the places where we go blind. Let’s work with that now.
Recall a decision you are making or have just made, or an opinion you hold, and ask yourself:
1 As I reflect upon this decision or opinion, am I accounting for what I don’t know?
2 Is there a story I’m trying to create to make this decision or belief feel right and true?
3 If I move beyond my surface ideas and biases and through to what I most deeply know to be true, what do I realize?
This third question is important because it speaks to the intuition and knowing that emerge when we see past and through our ideas and biases, and it surfaces what is currently hidden to us. We can use all these questions to open to a larger realm of possibility while perhaps finding a more balanced, spontaneous, and creative answer. However, we need to be at least a little comfy with ambiguity and uncertainty, and let go of trying to be an expert who has everything right. Easier said than done—I get it! Just think of an opinion that you don’t want to let go of. It is so true and right, it makes you feel safe, and it makes your world feel organized. What if you loosened up on that one too? What would happen?
Adapted from The Blind Spot Effect: How to Stop Missing What’s Right in Front of You by Kelly Boys. Copyright © 2018 by Kelly Boys. Published in July 2018 by Sounds True.