Blind Spots In The Mind Lens
“I can’t think of anything I don’t know.” I don’t say that to be grandiose. Instead I am referring to one of the greatest weaknesses of the human mind. We often have a great deal of trouble accurately and fully knowing ourselves. These blind spots can form the center of our psychological troubles. Our minds are really extraordinary and yet imperfect. We see the world and relate to others through the lens of our minds. Sometimes that lens allows us to have clear vision and at other times the minds lens creates distortions; exaggerating some aspects of our experience and minimizing or obscuring others aspects. As I see it, psychotherapy promotes an exploration of the lens. The goal is to live and feel our lives in a direct and complete way, with minimal blind spots or distortions. Though clinical psychology studies these issues and lays out a way of addressing them, sometimes poets are best at describing the subtle. Rainer Marie Rilke said:
I want to unfold
I don’t want to stay folded anywhere Because where I am folded, there
I am a lie
The Solution Is The Problem
People enter therapy for all sorts of reasons. One common element, however, is the feeling of being emotionally stuck, thinking about their concerns in the same ways, coming up with the same ineffective solutions. Like it or not, we are all creatures of habit. In this sense our personality is one all encompassing habit. The recipe for creating and sustaining a personality is complicated. It includes our accumulated understanding or misunderstanding our experiences growing up, the quality and nature of relationships, positive experiences and traumatic ones. Add a full heaping cup of inborn temperament, and an equal measure of recent life trials and tribulations. Abracadabra — a personality. Our personality is our adaptation to all these influences. It’s a solution to what it has been like to grow up and live in the world.
Unfortunately, there are too many times when our personality is inflexible. We develop a way of attempting to resolve our struggles and too often that solution itself becomes part of the problem. Consider the procrastinator who avoids anxiety and stress but ends up worsening the problem or the loving spouse that avoids conflicts but then feels emotionally distant and disconnected. Think about a person who grew up feeling very criticized. Later in life they protect themselves by being excessively critical of others or conversely become too self-critical. If we look around or think about ourselves we can often find many examples of where the naturally occurring solution to a life struggle results in more difficulties.
Psychotherapy, as I see it, needs to focus on these patterns and help the person to observe them and make conscious changes. This yields lasting change.
Toward a Psychology of Wellbeing
I have been a psychologist for more than 35 years now, so it’s almost a reflex for me to look at the world and think about it in terms psychology. Increasingly, however, when listening and talking with my clients, I find that my outlook is based on a philosophy of what makes up well-being. These components of well being reflect my values about what helps a person to feel like they are living a good life. The order cited below does not represent priority or greater importance. In fact, at any given point in life, one of these components may be more salient than the others to an individual’s psychological struggles.
Interpersonal Balance: This component of well-being is the broadest of the categories. Humans are by nature highly interpersonal animals. We are raised in families or small groups. We typically live, work, and spend leisure time with others. Some people are by nature, or due to life experience, very social; some are not. Some restore themselves with time alone and others achieve the same end by spending time with others. We all need to be able to find our own balance on this component and learn to adjust to changing life circumstances. We get divorced, lose loved ones, move our home, or start a new school or job. Close relationships sometimes press us to adjust to a balance that is not comfortable for at first; but they also provide the opportunity for richer lives.
Vitality: Just as humans are naturally interpersonal, we strive to feel physically “vital”. I have come to think of vitality as a feeling, just like anger, sadness, and joy. We just don’t name it as often as we do the typical feelings. We like the experience of having a little fuel in the tank. The feeling might be felt as confidence, inner strength, resilience, or fortitude. I believe that many people love to exercise, do yoga, or go for a walk in part because they are naturally drawn to that experience of vitality. Other people find a sense of vitality in less physical ways such as creative or engaging work, or relationships where they feel valued.
Many people come into the office with struggles regarding vitality. Illness can rob their strength or ability. Depression saps physical and emotional energy, or leaves them unable to feel vital. Longstanding sedentary habits sometimes leave people unaware of the sense of physical vitality that they are missing. Others have trouble finding the experience of personal vitality because they have not had much life experience with it altogether.
Humans are by nature industrious. We feel best when we have meaningful work. Unemployment leaves people struggling with a broad range of concerns, among them a loss of vitality.
Creativity: I believe it is part of human nature to be creative. Experiencing creativity helps us to feel good and complete. I define creativity very broadly. Of course there are the typical artistic sources. People who have developed artistic talents, whether art, music, literature, or theater, sometimes feel almost obsessed with their art form. But the essential experience of creativity can occur in so many common daily ways as well. Having a good idea about how to handle a problem at work can be and can feel creative. A parent might think of a good way to approach a problem or conflict with a child. An adolescent might have a good idea for a Halloween costume, write a clever text message to a friend, or come up with a unique idea for a term paper. It is helpful to look for and find ways to be creative and consciously strive for creative living.
Novelty: As much as humans love routine and the familiar, we also need to find a way to balance this with novelty, which carries with it the possibility of great joy. We can find it in our daily lives, work, relationships, and leisure. For instance, the other day I watched a small child joyfully running up the wheel chair ramp, pleased to reach her destination without stairs. That’s the love of novelty in a simple and pure form.
However, the need for novelty in life carries the possibility danger.
For example, people who enjoy a stable marriage may nevertheless find themselves drawn to someone who is unlike their spouse. They never really intended to end their marriage and find themselves struggling to restore it. To avoid this (or just an unsatisfying marriage), couples must sometimes break out of their routine to find and share novelty. Finding the right balance is sometimes tricky.
Gratitude: This is huge. Don’t overlook gratitude. It’s the glue that holds our wellbeing together. Without gratitude the value of relationships and events is lost. Without gratitude good things happen and we miss them altogether.
Depression, anxiety and interpersonal conflict vastly diminish our sense of gratitude. At such times, we focus on what’s missing rather than what we have. Regrets and anxieties pull our consciousness out of the current moment, leaving us unaware of what is positive. Conversely, when we live fully aware of the moment we can tune in to the things in our lives that are good and meaningful.
I recently spoke to an elderly woman in her 90’s. Her thinking is not so clear any more. Her husband of more than 65 years had died not too long ago. Over the past year or two, she had to stop driving, cooking, taking care of finances, and maintaining her home. Her physical health is on the decline. However, she smiled broadly and said something on the order of,
“I’m really okay now.
I have children and caretakers that help me to live in my own home.
I feel good today. I’m very lucky.”
How could this be? This old woman was living in the “now” and experiencing the full force of gratitude. Too often we become excessively focused on what we want, used to have, or long for. Our materialistic culture doesn’t help. Compound this with the awful struggles of going through rough times due to loss, separation, financial stress, illness, depression or interpersonal conflict. At such times we need to work deliberately at finding ways to experience gratitude.
Spiritual Balance: I initially hesitated about putting this on the list of components of wellbeing, unsure of how universal this need might be. For many, this issue is directly related to religious practice and doctrine. Like the other components, I define this very broadly and the goal is to find balance.
One of the common ways this issue surfaces in daily secular life is when a person is constantly trying very hard to control more in life than is actually possible. Much of the time we have a lot of influence over our lives. There certainly are many choices. Within a range, we have the freedom to choose friends, partners, where to live, and what sort of work to seek. On the other hand, we frequently end up with very little say over our circumstances. Many important events in life are things we had little to do with and or did not see coming.
We have to find a way to carry out our intentions; and yet we also need to know when to simply surrender to what is. Too much intention and we spend our lives perpetually driven, anxious or excessively vigilant. Too much submission and we never reach our goals, suffer unexpected negative consequences of our actions and risk feeling anxious, depressed or emotionally lost.
Courage: I’m not talking about risk taking bravado. I’m referring to something more subtle and sometimes elusive. Life does not always require courage. When it is called for, however, we must face and understand our fears, anxiety, ingrained emotional habits and even prior emotional trauma. Sometimes courage takes the form of working at a job that we feel is an emotional or practical stretch. Elsewhere we need to muster the strength to figure out how to deal with a relationship problem. A parent might need to gather their courage in figuring out how to respond optimally to a crisis with a child. At other points it could involve the personal strength required to face the fear induced by a tragic event. At some point in our life we need to adapt to serious illness in a family member, close friend or ourselves. We must push ourselves to move through the experience and it’s inevitable adjustments. We need to gain a clear sense of what other emotional issues are being touched on and come to terms with the practical constraints that threatens to disrupt our lives. That takes courage.
Married for many decades, a person was dealing with all the completely expected turmoil of his spouse’s serious illness; extended hospital stays, glitches in the treatment plan, treatment decisions and an uncertain prognosis. After an understandable period of obsessional worry, difficulty sleeping and impaired concentration he sorted out an approach. “It finally became very obvious to me. I need to be strong for my wife…It’s what I need to do to be a good husband”. Not easy but necessary. That’s courage.
Service to others: We humans are interdependent in innumerable ways. We rely on others to provide the many necessities for life. This is especially true in modern western society. It is therefore only natural that helping other people is an integral part of life. Some are fortunate and don’t need much help. Less fortunate people may substantially rely on care from others in order to live out their lives. Help, whether by financial charity or practical service, provides the giver with a sort of satisfaction that is not possible by other means. Service to others can take so many forms. It can be a huge life commitment to help others or neatly embedded into typical daily life. It might be a parent or other adult being kind, gentle or helpful to a child, partner or neighbor. It might take the form of a personal thanks to the store clerk, restaurant wait staff and other simple daily interactions. Service to others is possible on any typical day.
Understanding: Psychotherapy, whether for couples or individuals, regularly touches on at least one of the above factors. If clients leave a session understanding themselves more completely, they are in a better position to make choices that enrich their lives and support the quality and depth of their relationships. Knowing what makes us tick contributes to informed decisions about how to live, which relationships to pursue, and how to respond to life’s stresses and conflicts.
What did I leave off the list? Plenty. Every person’s life is complex and unique. Innumerable influences and issues play a role in our sense of wellbeing. Nevertheless, these are a few core factors that have significant influence on how good we feel.