The car almost blindsides me.
I’m exiting the interstate on the way to my office, having just passed through one of two adjacent toll lanes which are merging back into one lane, when someone who sped through their lane enters my blind spot. His horn alerts me to the danger. Disaster averted.
Six hours later, during our weekly staff meeting, it’s my turn to share about the ebbs and flows of my career: why I got interested in psychology and why those interests have shifted and evolved. I’m explaining the experiences that shaped each of my significant career decisions, when someone asks for the why behind the why. The common denominator. The theme. I struggle to come up with an answer.
Then, another six hours later, I’m on my way home, passing through the toll booths again, merging back onto the interstate, when I remember my near miss from earlier in the day. Blind spots.
That’s my why behind every other why.
I became enthralled with psychology when I first learned in a high school psychology class about multiple personality disorder (as it was called at the time). Essentially, one of the ways we all cope with emotional pain is to segregate it from our consciousness. To tuck it away into some forgotten place within us. To keep it outside of our story and our sense of self. In extreme cases, the individual develops multiple personalities, each tasked with keeping a part of the pain hidden from the other parts. It’s a rare and tragic affliction, and it is defined by dramatic blind spots.
I was blown away. We don’t just keep secrets from other people, we keep them from ourselves. This was fascinating to me. We have an unconscious part of our mind where we store intolerable or inconvenient truths. What? Really? What is stored in my unconscious? There are things we know about our life that we don’t know that we know. I was hooked.
I wanted to learn everything there was to learn about human blind spots.
In undergrad, I went on to discover that our blind spots, while intended to be the solution to our pain, create even bigger problems for us. It turns out, pain isn’t a bad thing and it can’t wreak havoc on our lives unless we’re unaware of it. For instance, the car that came into my blind spot wasn’t a bad car, but it would have been a disastrous car had I continued to drive as if it wasn’t there. Yet, that’s how most of us live all the time, ignoring the things in our blinds spots and crashing into them over and over again, then wondering why we have a penchant for wrecking things.
Most of the suffering in life isn’t the result of our pain but of our tendency to pretend as if our pain doesn’t exist. Wait, really? We can dramatically improve our lives without doing anything to the world around us, but by simply unhiding the world within us. That! I want to help people do that!
So, I went to graduate school, where I began to learn about some of the most common secrets we keep from ourselves. Amongst them: the reality that if you didn’t reinforce your parent’s self-image, you’d never get the love you so desperately desired. The rage you sensed beneath the surface of everyone, and what you needed to do to make sure it didn’t come out toward you. Hell and damnation taught in Sunday school, like a kernel of trauma planted deep inside of you. The you that you needed to become—and the things you decided you needed to do—in order to survive.
I learned about it all and wiped my brow with relief. Thank goodness I’ve never had to deal with anything like that! Thank goodness I’m the professional and not the patient!
Then, the depression hit: my blind spots’ way of honking at me: “Hey dude, we can’t carry the load of your life much longer, we need a little attention here.” Then, my marriage started to suffer from all my finger pointing. Then, career burnout. Then, massive parenting fails. And on and on.
Eventually, you have to stop learning about blind spots and start looking at them.
So, I became the patient. Ten years ago this month, my therapist was thirty minutes late picking me up from an otherwise empty waiting room, and he had the wisdom to ask what it felt like to wait for him. I said, “Well, it doesn’t make any sense because I was alone, but I felt sort of embarrassed.” He nodded as if this made all the sense in the world, then asked:
“Do you think another word for that might be shame?”
Boom. One of the biggest and most common blind spots of all: shame—the sense that I am not worthy of love and belonging, exactly the way I am. The motherlode of pain. The doorway into almost every other blind spot.
Indeed, shame is eventually the doorway into the biggest blind spot of all. Not a painful one, though. A beautiful one. A worthy one. The soul you were given. The unquestionably loveable thing at the center of you. The part of you that you forgot about long ago, when all the other blind spots began to pile up. It turns out, if we do the work of digging through some of our other blind spots, we discover at the bottom of them our biggest and most beautiful blind spot of all: our truest, worthiest, most loveable self, buried right there within us all along.
What a lovely surprise.
My new book True Companions is about three kinds of blind spots in relationships: loneliness, defensiveness, and distractibility. Find out more by clicking here.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.