'Emotional blind spot' is one of those nebulous terms that has been popping up in wellness circles and conversations for decades, with Oprah beaming the idea into the public consciousness back in 2002. In my buy-all-the-self-help-books phase, I eagerly consumed literature on the topic, ranging from the lighthearted to the questionable. I thought the idea had since been thrown onto the wellbeing back burner, morphing into more generalised ideas of mindfulness, reflection and self-awareness. It surprised me, then, to see a spatter of new articles popping up on the topic of late. Apparently it is still interesting 20 years on, with a noticeable spike in Google searches and the term predicted to mark an all-time high in January 2022. As the jokey 'emotional damage' meme takes over the internet, I can’t help but wonder if emotional blind spots might be next. But is there any serviceable truth to the concept today? And either way, why does the concept of emotional blind spots (still) resonate with me so much?
What are emotional blind spots?
Blind spots can be pretty much anything and the concept is defined variously. Some talk of a discrepancy or 'gap' between how we are perceived and how we think we are perceived. An unconscious moment that can reach out from within us and affect those around us, seemingly bypassing our ability to touch, stop or see it. Examples may include entering into the same problematic relationships over and over again, being unable to recognise your successes or being unaware of how you're coming across in meetings.
"An emotional blind spot is a bit like those spots we can't see when driving a car – a patch of road that we can’t see even when we look all around us and check our mirrors," says Surrey-based psychotherapist and Counselling Directory member Georgina Ross. "These spots can often be 'seen' by others rather than ourselves."
Through the pages of books like 2007's Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things, I’ve gone on personal journeys in search of my own blind spots and come out just as blinkered. Maybe the solo approach is where I’ve been going wrong. "Almost all people have emotional blind spots because we don’t know they are there so until we become aware of them, or they are pointed out to us, there often isn’t anything we can do about them," says Georgina. It's tricky to locate a blind spot yourself – if you could, they wouldn’t be blind spots at all.
So why, right now, when there are a million things to be worrying about, is the idea of emotional blind spots scratching an unscratchable itch in my brain? "I have found that the pandemic has led to more people seeking support and wanting to make changes in certain aspects of their lives," says Georgina, noting that the idea has cropped up often with clients of late. "Perhaps this is because they are becoming more aware that they are experiencing one or more blind spots and need some support on how to unravel them so that they can work on processing them."
Georgina believes setting out to recognise these blockers can have a huge (and positive) impact on your life going forward. "Once recognised, it ceases to become something you are not aware of, or don’t realise about yourself. Depending on what your emotional blind spot is, you may notice positive changes in your relationships, friendships, work life or home life."
How to recognise emotional blind spots
A good way of recognising a blind spot is simply to ask. "Sometimes friends, family members, work colleagues or people we know may comment or mention something that they have noticed about us that we are surprised about as it is a way that you would not have described yourself," says Georgina. "If more than one person mentions the same thing, there may be a potential blind spot here that you were not aware of before."
This doesn’t mean it will be easy to hear about your emotional blind spots. "By the time others are describing you – to you – the figure they’re describing may bear only vague resemblance to the 'you' you know. We flinch, we squint, we shake our heads. We don’t recognise ourselves," write Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen in their 2014 book, Thanks for the Feedback.
I gave it a shot, indulged, and asked four friends whom I trust what they think my emotional blind spots are. Two came back with the same answer: I require a lot of praise, acclamation and thanks for everything I do, with one friend going so far as to call it "unlimited reassurance". This resonated with me and is certainly something I was blind to before. It will now be front of mind when I ask my partner for the third time if the lunch I prepared tastes okay.
But is going in search of our blind spots really such a good idea in the first place? Maybe it's something rooted in trauma, which we've pushed down, masked with self-medication, distraction, everyday life. "I 100% have emotional blind spots," says Sam, 29, from London. "I know they're in there somewhere but I'm not ready to face looking into them yet."
Perhaps we avoid them because we don't know what to do with them once they are uncovered. Laura, 25, from Guildford has worked hard to identify her own blind spots and has sat uncomfortably with the results, without finding the processing techniques that work for her. "My biggest [emotional blind spot] is shuttering everyone close to me out when I'm not feeling mentally well, because I am a person who absolutely avoids talking about how I really feel," she says. "I just go completely quiet, which can be days, weeks, months, just as a coping mechanism so I can avoid even dealing."
As usual, all roads lead to therapy and talking about it. "Once you recognise where you're headed, counselling can be a safe and confidential space to talk through this, working through any issues that come up with a trusted professional," suggests Georgina. "If your emotionally masked area is something you want to change, trying to become more consciously aware of it may really help here. If you have held it with you for a while, you may need to work hard to change it. Being aware of it and recognising it will usually have a huge impact on overcoming it."
Emotional blind spots appear, as expected, to be another route into the complex world of mindfulness, which takes dedication and hard work to master. But it's the specificity of blind spots that appeals to me as a mindfulness device. You can tackle the identification of one 'spot' at a time, rather than the blanket advice of 'just be more mindful', which isn't always helpful. Blind spots suggest a privation – something to be uncovered, sensed, rediscovered. Locating them is just the beginning and us intrepid selfhood detectives should proceed with caution. Blind spots reflect the weird underbelly of our minds and acknowledging those strange rocks we don’t want to turn over should only be done when we are able to safely process what's underneath.