On Seeing Our Blindspots

This is a post about how we think, not what we think.

We all have blindspots. We’re blind to the obvious and we’re blind to our blindness. It’s easier to see other people’s blindspots, but we have to find ways of identifying and confronting our own blindness.

That means we have to question ourselves, cast doubt once in a while on our own basic assumptions, and find ways to listen charitably to people who differ from us. This isn’t emotionally rewarding in the short term. In fact, it’s pretty risky relationally to seek to find the good in “them” because we risk being rejected as a traitor to “our” side.

Belonging to a moral militia makes us feel safer, but in the long term it just makes our anxiety worse.

Below is a partial list of how our thinking and speaking can go wrong. It’s not exactly a list of logical fallacies, though they are related. Called cognitive distortions, these are broken patterns in our interpreting that deeply connect to emotional health. Not that a strong emotional reaction is automatically the result of poor thinking; on the contrary, sometimes a strong emotional reaction—even a negative one—is quite legitimate. But there are patterns of thinking and communicating that make it much more difficult to discern when that is the case.

I find this to be a helpful diagnostic list, especially with all the posts and links flying around on social media. Again, it’s easier to see when “they” do it, but the point of sharing this is to suggest that both our inner peace and our relationships with others will improve if we can recognize these patterns in ourselves and change them—regardless of anyone else’s desire or commitment to change. And then maybe we can also find the courage to call out these patterns wherever we belong to an “us” that is getting worked up about “them” and their flaws.

Common Cognitive Distortions

1. Inability to disconfirm. We reject any evidence or arguments that might contradict our negative thoughts. Consequently, our thought cannot be refuted. “That’s not the real issue. There are deeper problems. There are other factors.”

2. Motivated reasoning. We spontaneously generate arguments for conclusions we want to support.

3. Discounting positives. We claim that the positive things we or others do are trivial. “That’s what wives are supposed to do—so it doesn’t count when she’s nice to me,” or “Those successes were easy, so they don’t matter.”

4. Negative filtering. We focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. “Look at all of the people who don’t like me.”

5. Overgeneralizing. We perceive a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident. “This generally happens to me. I seem to fail at a lot of things.”

6. Dichotomous thinking. We view events or people in all-or-nothing terms. “I get rejected by everyone,” or “It was a complete waste of time.”

7. Labeling. We assign global negative traits to ourselves and others. “I’m undesirable,” or “He’s a rotten person.”

8. Mind reading. We assume that we know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. “He thinks I’m a loser.”

9. Fortune-telling. We predict the future negatively: things will get worse, or there is danger ahead. “I’ll fail that exam,” or “I won’t get the job.”

10. Catastrophizing. We believe that what has happened or will happen will be so awful and unbearable that we won’t be able to stand it. “It would be terrible if I failed.”

11. Blaming. We focus on the other person as the source of our negative feelings, and we refuse to take responsibility for changing ourselves. “She’s to blame for the way I feel now,” or “My parents caused all my problems.”

12. Emotional reasoning. We let our feelings guide our interpretation of reality. “I feel depressed; therefore, my marriage is not working out.”

This list is adapted from Robert L. Leahy, Stephen J. F. Holland, and Lata K. McGinn’s Treatment Plans and Interventions for Depression and Anxiety Disorders (2012). I first encountered the material in an article from The Atlantic a couple years ago.