Overcoming Emotional Blind Spots
by Jill Raiguel, MFT
(This article first appeared in The Therapist, Journal of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, Sept/Oct, 2014 Issue.)
This article discusses overcoming emotional blind spots that is one of the 20 life skills I have found commonly missing in many of my adult survivor of abuse and children of alcoholic clients. I developed an instrument to measure these skills with Dr. Merle Sprinzen, Harvard-trained former Director of Research at Time-Life, Inc. It has 100 research-based items that measure such skills as:expressing anger appropriately, making friends, having fun, self-nurturing, not overhelping, trusting, being in the body, expressing emotions appropriately and overcoming blind spots. After Columbia University in New York City conducted the reliability and validity tests, I began to administer the Inventory to clients in the 1980's. (1) After that, I lead life skills groups and developed exercises and activities to strengthen those skills. Now 30 years later, the Life Skills curriculum has helped thousands of adult children of alcohol and abuse.
Being the adult child of an alcoholic myself, I had to learn the life skills I missed. As I young adult I didn't know when I was angry; I was an overhelper. I had to work on overcoming my own blind spot. When I first started researching my first book more than 25 years ago, I did not find work on emotional blind spots and how to overcome them. Since then, Stephen Arterburn's Five Blind Spots: Blocking God's Will for You (2) and Dr. Madeline Van Hecke's Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things (3) deal with the subject. Oprah even did a TV show on emotional blind spots. Many people, even those who are very intelligent, have patterns they do not recognize. They do not see what may seem obvious to their friends and family. And that can put them in real danger. This essay discusses blind spots in the adult child of abuse and/or alcohol; then it outlines steps to overcome them.
Defining Blind Spots
But first, what do I mean by blind spot? When a person is driving, that driver knows there is a a blind spot, a place where one cannot see. It's blocked from view. The human eye has a natural blind spot where the retina is. An emotional blind spot does not mean a person literally blind, it means one can't see the obvious things that others see about a person or situation. If a person cannot recognize abuse, that person may have a blind spot. And that can set up that person for tolerating the abusive behavior when he or she should get away from it. This essay explains what blind spots are, how to begin to recognize them, and what to do to overcome them.
In healthy families parents tell it like it is. They may explain things to their children in a simple way, but they tell them what's going on. They practice good ethics and morals, so kids learn what's right and wrong. They are healthy role models for their children to learn what is healthy, acceptable and safe.
Not Seeing the Obvious
Having seen survivors of abuse, alcohol and trauma and dysfunctional families, I have found the vast majority of my adult survivor clients have some areas where they cannot see the obvious. They are not stupid; quite the contrary, they are intelligent, educated, hold responsible jobs. However, in one or two specific areas, they have a blind spot. A man cannot see that his wife is abusive to their children. A woman cannot see she is marrying another alcoholic. With both of these people, a natural cognitive ability, their ability to see and recognize a pattern, has failed them totally. The blindness can be in not seeing their own negative or positive qualities, not seeing a particular relationship pattern, or not seeing qualities in other people.
One client said, "My friend had to point out to me that I have had three abusive boyfriends before I saw the pattern." Another one said, "My boss tells me I'm angry, and that's what gets me in trouble with clients. They don't want to work with me. I just don't see it."
Why People Have Blind Spots
Survivors who have blind spots did not learn to see people and circumstances as they really are. Some abused people inherited their parents' blind spots. A woman marries an abusive husband just as her mother did. Others unconsciously decided not to recognize the obvious because this strategy protected them. If children do not see that their parents are truly cruel, then do not have to feel the pain. The blind spot protects them and serves as a survival strategy.
Some adult survivors have no positive frame of reference. They consider abuse normal because they had nothing to compare it to. For instance, they thought all families fought because they never saw a family that got along.
Frequently, clients come into therapy suspecting they have a blind spot because they have repeated their pattern so many times. Barbara tells about her lack of a positive frame of reference and her blind spot.
Barbara's Blind Spot
When this college graduate came into my office, she began: "My friends all told me that Ray, whom I lived with for two years, was no good and that he had other girlfriends. I didn't believe them. One evening, a friend came over to tell me he was engaged to another woman. I didn't want to see it. She drove me over to the other woman's house so I could see Ray's car in the driveway, and Ray sitting at the kitchen table. It took my actually seeing him there before I could finally get what was going on."
Barbara could not see that while Ray lived with her, he was also engaged to another woman. In fact, he had fathered a child by this other woman while he lived with Barbara.
The reader might think: How could she be so blind? She's not dumb; how did she miss that? Or, how could he hide his other life so well? Ray would tell Barbara he was going on a business trip for three days, but really he was staying with another woman. When Ray and Barbara went out for an evening, he sometimes made as many as fifteen phone calls from fifteen different pay phones. He'd send Barbara to her mother's for a week as a present. Barbara related, "I never suspected he was buying time to be with her."
We might say: Can't she or he see what is happening? Well, no, they cannot. Barbara's father, who was mentally ill while she was growing up, created an inconsistent reality. When she was sad, her father told her she was happy. He sat in the living room holding a shot gun to protect the family from unseen enemies. When her father started watering the kitchen floor to see if the grass would grow in the kitchen, Barbara did not realize her father was mentally ill, she just turned off the faucet. She did not think anything was peculiar. She perceived, as normal, events that most people would call abnormal. Barbara didn't question his behavior or Ray's. At the same time, her father invalidated her perceptions, so she grew up distrusting her own sense of reality. Events or people that were not quite right looked normal to Barbara.
Why and how people develop blind spots warrants more thorough study. However, through my investigations, I have discovered five reasons for blind spots: naiveté, denial, not feeling emotions, lack of healthy distinctions, and double messages.
By naive, I do not mean stupid; I mean a person who does not know a certain behavior exists. When that person does encounter the behavior, he or she cannot see it. Here is an example of naiveté that prevents a person from seeing:
A client said, "My husband told me my best friend was coming on to him at a party. I couldn't believe that my friend would do that. I continued to trust her. Months later I saw her make advances toward another man. I was stunned."
This woman could not conceive of her best friend playing around. Her limited view kept her from seeing her friend's behavior accurately. But when it happened again, she began to see. Often, people begin to see the pattern because two incidents occur close together.
Ideas for the Therapist
Often it is the therapist who educates clients giving them a reality check. You may offer them a new, healthy perception. For example, "Your best friend does sounds like a good friend; she does not have any integrity." That can create an opening for discussion about a new way of looking at a situation.
This person denies the truth about a situation or person. One client reported, "I idealized my mother for years. She was a good mother; I was a bad daughter. And she always reminded me of that. Only recently, I started remembering she was cruel and mean. Now I am also seeing that I let friends be mean and nasty. I not only do not see it, but I don't say anything."
Ideas for the Therapist
With the help of her therapist, this woman began to break up her denial. She took a more honest look at her mother. When that happened, she could recognize her friends' cruelty. Children often idealize abusive parents because dealing with the truth would be shattering. But that denial causes its own problems. Later in life, when a people are stronger enough, they can confront the truth in the supportive environment of therapy.
Own Mother's Blind Spot
My mom always said when we were growing up: I'll never marry an alcoholic. Many of her relatives were alcoholics. Not until I was in college did my mom discover Dad was a hidden alcoholic. She found bottles hidden all over the house. With that evidence she had to face the obvious: she'd married an alcoholic, her worst fear. She was furious, so were my sister and I. But it explained a lot. He was moody. He was so sweet sometimes, but mean other times. Fortunately for all of us, my dad sobered up in 1980.
Ideas for the Therapist
As in my mother's case, sometime the client's circumstances force her to confront a long-standing blind spot. Processing the emotional fall-out of the confrontation can be worked through in therapy. Even though my mom never had therapy, my sister and I encouraged her to express her outrage to my father and to us. That can also be the subject of good therapeutic work.
Not Feeling Emotions
Consistently blocking emotions creates a barrier to seeing accurately. For instance, if a person does not allow himself to feel his own anger, this can prevent him from recognizing anger in himself and in others. Only when this person begins to feel anger can he recognize it in himself and others.
For example, this client said, "I never felt my anger until I was in my twenties. I was a nice girl. I didn't realize I was enraged at my parents. And I did not see when other people were angry. When my husband would put me down, I couldn't see it. My mother would make jokes at my father's expense, but I did not see her viciousness. I could not assess accurately people or situations involving anger. When I did begin to feel my anger, I started seeing it in others."
She has started unraveling a childhood pattern that will allow her to see anger in herself as well as others. This scenario can be applied to other emotions as well: sadness, guilt, fear. When the survivor begins to feel the emotion inside, he can begin to see it in others.
Ideas for the Therapist
Part of counseling is expressing feelings both past and present. You may want to explain to clients why they may have not been able to express feelings when they were children. It wasn't safe and/or parents did not know how to create a climate so their children could learn to express emotions in a healthy way. Then, clients understand that their parents did not have the life skills to teach them.
Lack of Healthy Distinctions
Here, people lack the ability to distinguish abuse, cruelty, or abnormal behavior. Remember, Barbara did not realize anything was wrong with her father who tried to water the kitchen floor expecting grass to grow. Then, as an adult, she did not think anything was peculiar when her boyfriend made fifteen phone calls during their date.
In other cases, children grow up thinking love and abuse must occur together. These children often become adults who expect abuse from people they love. One client reported, "I thought I'd done something wrong, but when I started therapy, my counselor suggested that my dad sounded very disturbed. My dad would beat me while he told me how much he loved me. This was the first time I realized maybe something was wrong with him. But I still think people who love me are going to hurt me." With other survivors who do not have a healthy sense of distinction, their parents never took time to understand them. So, as adults, these people expect to be misunderstood. Such people do not demand to be understood or to be treated well.
Ideas for the Therapist
As a therapist, you might say to clients something like, "Could you consider the possibility that you could have love without abuse?" This can open up a new domain of experience the client never saw possible. For some survivors this can be a huge revelation.
Go away, but come close, and talk to me, but be quiet, are double messages. They create confusion and an uncertain world-view. What is really going on becomes blurred. One man told me, "Dad yelled and punished us unfairly, but Mom and Dad never talked about it. In fact, Mom promoted, Nice people don't yell, and at the same time, Dad is a great guy even though he was horrible to us .I grew up very confused. I think people are terrific, even if they are cruel and mean. It's fuzzy for me. I guess I don't want to see their abusive nature.'
Children from such homes can be confused about the truth. These survivors need to pay close attention to the difference between what people say and what they do.
Ideas for the Therapist
In clients who have been subjected to double messages, you could coach them to look carefully and learn to tell the difference between what people say and what they do. Then you might validate the client's new, healthy insights no matter how painful.
Strategies for Overcoming Blind Spots
I asked people who had overcome blind spots to describe how they learned to see accurately. After examining the stages they went through, I have outlined four steps. Clients may not need to go through all five, but they can help map out a own road to clear seeing. In therapy, the practitioner can help clients recognize their blind spots and reframe the past. That usually brings up old feelings that need to be expressed and released. Then, there is room for new learning, for the therapist to teach new, healthy distinctions.
1. Recognize that you have a blind spot
This is the beginning of seeing, to realize a blind spot. A client may recognize blind spot after reading several examples.
2. Be willing to look honestly at the past and present
This requires the courage to confront the often painful truth about people or situations. It means listening to others who may be trying to tell the truth. It means people may have to admit they were wrong.
3. Feel unexpressed emotions
For example, feel the unexpressed anger, hurt and sorrow regarding the person or situation. Feelings may come up spontaneously while reading this section.
4. Learn new distinctions
This means teaching clients to recognize abuse. One can learn to tell the difference between abuse and non-abuse, healthy and unhealthy, cruel and kind behavior. Clients may have a person in their lives who can help with this. So I have found that clients can learn these four steps, here are some people who recognized their blind spot and trained themselves to see more accurately.
One Man Recognizing His Blindness
A businessman, Hal, who was badly abused as a child, had trouble seeing abusive situations as an adult. In fact, people duped and lied to him. During his years of recovery, he was selected for jury duty. He described how the judge helped him overcome his blind spot.
"The judge instructed the jury on how to detect lying in the witnesses. Look for body language, sincerity, facial expression, and your own gut reaction, he said. During the deliberations, I tested his guidelines using my fellow jurors as sounding boards. More important to me, I had specific ways to assess people and situations in my life. I began to use them rigorously with good success."
Hal recognized he had a blind spot: he could not tell when people were lying. Although painful, he looked honestly at many incidents when people had snookered him. The judge actually taught him new distinctions when he gave the jury instructions. Hal borrowed the judge's more masterful seeing and applied the judge's instructions to his life. He began watching body language, looking for sincerity and facial expression, and trusting his gut reaction.
One Woman Overcoming Her Abuse
Josie had a Masters in Public Administration. She reported how she learned to see: "I just had to have a man, any man. I wasn't concerned about the quality; I married George because I wanted a man. He didn't want us socializing with other couples. He did not like my spending time with my friends. I wasn't allowed in the kitchen because he had his special way of organizing everything, and I messed it up. When I succeeded professionally, he was verbally abusive. He withheld his affection, was mean and manipulative.
"I was naive; I believed everyone was good. In my experience, people are kind to each other. He was very jealous. I couldn't imagine my own husband being so mean; I dismissed it because he still loved me. I concluded, he loves me, so I must be wrong.
"I never felt my anger. Anger was scary to me. Not until I began to feel my anger did I see what was really going on. At a marriage counseling session, the therapist was angry at my husband's over-controlling and taking advantage of me. When I saw her anger, I began to feel entitled to mine. That gave me the permission I needed. When our neighbor's car broke down, the husband just naturally picked her up ... no problem. When my car stalled, my husband complained. I saw how difficult he was; I'd given up my point of view on everything. He didn't work; he really didn't want children as I did.
"I began feeling my rage. I borrowed their point of view; that helped me shift mine."
Josie began counseling knowing she was unhappy, but not knowing she had a blind spot. The counselor helped her to realize that she had not let herself look at certain aspects of her husband. Then she allowed herself to feel her rage. Through counseling and reading she learned new distinctions. She borrowed the support group's seeing so she could begin to see the truth.
Sometimes adult children of alcoholics and survivors of abuse can develop emotional blind spots to cope with their circumstances. Those very blind spots that helped them can cause them difficulties years later setting them up for repeated abuse. They learn to not see the obvious; they can be naive. Some deny the truth while others do not want to feel their emotions. Still others lack healthy distinctions or received double messages. To overcome blind spots, I help clients 1) recognize their problem, 2) look honestly, 3) feel their emotions, and 4) learn new distinctions. (4)
(1) The complete Raiguel Life Skills Inventory (TM) is found in Raiguel's book, Alternative Healing Beyond Recovery for the Genius.
(2) Arterburn, Stephen. Five Blinds Spots: Blocking God's Will in You. Brentwood, Tenn: Worthy Publishing, 2014.
(3) Van Hecke, Madeline. Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. 2007.
(4) Raiguel, Jill. Alternative Healing Beyond Recovery for the Genius. Rancho Margarita, California: Charity Channel, 2014.
Jill Raiguel, a retired Cal Poly Pomona adjunct professor, is a California Marriage and Family Therapist for over 30 years. She earned her Masters at Cal State, Hayward and trained at the Marin Family Institute. She trains professionals nation-wide in her ground-breaking life skills work. Currently she practices at Kohut Psychiatric Medical Group in San Bernardino, California. She is the author of several books and articles. Visit www.jillibean.com or email@example.com. Her new book, Alternative Healing Beyond Recovery for the Genius, available October, 2014.