We all have blind spots, and, for some of us, one of our blind spots is the inability to acknowledge having blind spots.
In my spiel in the first session explaining to my clients what therapy is going to be like, I sometimes say something like this:
“All therapy, whether individual or couple therapy, is about helping you see and understand things about yourself that you don’t already know.”
I define therapy as helping them investigate their “blind spots”.
When a couple comes for therapy, they are usually feeling stuck. One or both will often report that they have “tried everything, and nothing has worked”. They are looking to us for answers. Of course, we can’t fix their problems for them; we can only show them where they might find new solutions that they have to make work for themselves.
Most of the time, those solutions lie in their blind spots. In the aspects of their behaviour (and thought and emotion) that they aren’t seeing accurately or understanding fully. So, all we have to do is point out the things they’re missing, and it should all be right, right? Of course, nothing is that easy about therapy.
The second part of that spiel I give them in session one goes like this:
“The trouble is that things about yourself you don’t already know… tend to be things about yourself you don’t want to know. So basically, you are sitting here paying me to tell you things you don’t want to know.” This usually gets a laugh, but it’s a good way of warning my clients that therapy will be challenging.
Some people welcome that challenge or are at least used to the idea of their own fallibility and can tolerate the discomfort necessary for growth. However, some people have learned to protect themselves by being “right”, “in charge”, or only ever trusting their own judgement. These people will find it hard to have the humility to engage in therapy.
These clients are often “difficult” and often challenge us, our methods, and our competence. We need to be able to see and have compassion for their defensiveness and find a way to access our empathy for their pain.
They will often struggle to reflect on the experiences in their upbringing that shaped them. They experience a therapist’s implication that they had a less-than-perfect childhood as a criticism of their person. Yet suppose we gently persist in our inquiries. In that case, we will find an explanation for the difficulty accepting their blind spots: the father who was grudging with his approval, the mother who was too overwhelmed to be attuned, the teacher who was shaming, the brother whom they were made to feel “less than”. They will minimise and deflect the importance of these formative experiences. But if we keep linking present behaviour back to early learning, often, they will start to make the connections. “I don’t know if you are aware, John, that when Sila asked if you had made the booking, your whole body went rigid. To me, you looked like a kid who was frightened he was in trouble with Dad again.”
For those for whom any admission of error, fault or failing is a confirmation of their worst fears about themselves (“I’m no good”, “I’m a loser”, “I’m a failure”), it requires a confident, empathic and patient therapist to help them accept that they’re allowed to be human and have blind spots just like the rest of us.
As I say to my clients, “Making mistakes, being reactive or insensitive is part of being human. No one should be judged for that. It becomes an issue of character in how readily you can recognise and take responsibility for your mistakes. When your insecurities and fears drive you, when you are too scared of being a failure to own your mistakes, that’s when you’re letting yourself and those you love down.”
If we are patient and persistent and pace our interventions carefully, even those whose blind spot is about their blind spots can be helped to grow and change.