• We all have blind spots, areas in our lives where we lack awareness

  • Would you be brave enough to shine a light on yours? Emma Reed Turrell explores how therapy can be just the place to do so

  • We have available counsellors and therapists on Welldoing – find them here

When people come to therapy, there’s usually a piece of the puzzle that they’re missing. They’re anxious or depressed but they can’t put their finger on why. A conversation with a friend or relative has really thrown them, and they can’t figure out why it bothered them so much. They keep coming up against the same issue at work, or they find themselves having the same arguments at home, and they’re at a loss as to what to do about it.

My job as a therapist is to help them notice what they haven’t spotted yet, to find out what else might be going on and what patterns are at play, and to look for the common denominators in the dilemmas they face. To help them answer the question ‘What am I missing?’ and make sense of their situation in a way that means they know what needs to change. 

My goal is to increase their awareness and their insight so that they can reassess their options and make more conscious decisions that will get them closer to the results they want – whether that’s to build healthier personal relationships, be more successful at work or become the parent they want to be to their children. 

Therapists do this by asking different questions, ones that they might not have asked themselves, and by examining the edges of their world for information that lies outside their direct line of sight. I’m looking for the thoughts, feelings and beliefs in their peripheral vision that may be the cause of their repeating challenges but have so far gone unseen. These areas of patchy awareness are their ‘blind spots’ – assumptions and shortcuts that drive their daily lives but are based on fiction not fact, or on the past rather than the present. Once we know what we’re missing, we can see the bigger picture and work out what to do.

Although it might sound like a daunting concept, we all have blind spots in our awareness. It’s a design feature of the human brain to bypass slow processes of cognition, speeding up our responses by coming up with a best guess or a prediction based  on our previous experiences.

Without all the facts, we can’t see the complete picture and we’ll jump to conclusions from a glimpse – a stick can be mistaken for a snake, or we’ll assume that there’s no smoke without fire – and when it comes to relationships, we can be equally quick to perceive someone’s actions as something they aren’t. Whether it’s drawn from shorthand or out of ignorance, our reactions can lose objectivity and become disproportionate. When my daughter suffers a bee sting during a handstand, in the wrong place at the wrong time, it could mean that she avoids doing gymnastics for the rest of the summer, and subsequently the rest of her life. Her fight-or-flight system flares when it’s time for PE and she must talk herself down to perform her cartwheels. My son has only to look at a car to feel travel sick. These are the automatic reactions of a nervous system that uses prediction to protect us.

Our nervous systems make unconscious inferences all the time, never conceding, ‘Look, I’m only guessing here.’ But we’ll have more than a fear of bees or car journeys to contend with when these primitive processes are left in charge of core beliefs  and life-changing decisions. Just as your brain will predict the  path of an object, so will it predict the path of a conversation, a relationship or a career, if we let it. In a bid to minimise surprise, your brain will screen out material that might be contradictory or unpleasant and direct you down a tunnel of assumption and snap judgement. When your vision is blurred by blind spots, you might not see someone for who they really are, or you might fast forward new scenarios to the familiar but unhappy conclusion you expect.

Take the example of a new job. Your brain can tie together snippets of information about a person you’ve just met and, using generalisations, present you with a best guess and a forecast for the future. Helpful when you’re assessing a new environment, but what if the mannerisms you see in your boss remind you of a  critical parent or a bully from school? You might find yourself putting two and two together and making five. Your brain fires off a prediction of attack that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the resulting anxiety prevents you from being effective in  your job. You quit or get fired, but it wasn’t your boss making life  difficult, it was your blind spot.

I see the results of blind spots in my psychotherapy practice everyday. The husband who gaslights his wife and capitalises upon her susceptibility to illusory thoughts. The worker paralysed by imposter syndrome, founded in a fixed but false sense of incompetence. The couple caught in a toxic relationship, prioritising familiarity over fulfilment. 

Clients often come to therapy when the picture their brain presents is causing them problems, leading them to make the same mistakes or to uphold a critical view of themselves that is holding them back. They feel held back by  anxiety or flattened by depression, perpetually in the wrong relationships or frustrated at work. These are the people who feel lost  or trapped, unable to see a way out by themselves when the  escape route is hidden by a blind spot.

For most people, the impact of their blind spots thankfully isn’t as pronounced or extreme as these examples, which is perhaps why you're reading this, as a starting point before seeking therapy to find an answer to something that has been niggling you?

Emma Reed Turrell is the author of What Am I Missing?

Further reading

This might be why that person gets under your skin

The benefits of being curious about who you are

The psychology of freedom

What story are you telling yourself?

How getting to know your 'ideal self' can reduce anxiety