Good drivers know that every car has blindspots—areas where you can’t see what’s going on because some part of the vehicle gets in the way. As a result, becoming a good driver means developing the habit of checking your passenger-side mirror before you change lanes.
Turns out, people have blindspots too—especially when it comes to our emotions…
An emotional blindspot is a psychological vulnerability that keeps you suffering because you’re not aware of.
Unfortunately, nobody is required to take a class on what emotions are and how they work before we start living. Which means we go through life with emotional blindspots we’re not aware of and no way to compensate for them.
These emotional blindspots can lead to everything from mood difficulties like anxiety and depression to interpersonal conflict and unhealthy habits like overeating and substance abuse.
Luckily, it’s possible to become aware of your emotional blindspots and work to overcome them. In fact, this is exactly what I do in my work as a psychologist and therapist.
What follows are 5 of the most common emotional blindspots people suffer from.
1. Intellectualizing your emotions
If you ask a 6-year-old how they feel after a friend says something mean to them, they’ll probably tell you they feel sad or mad.
If you ask a 40-year-old how they feel after a friend says something mean to them, you’ll probably hear very different descriptors: pissed off, upset, or depressed.
Now, take a minute and ask yourself, what’s the difference between those two sets of descriptors for how you feel?
The 6-year-old is describing how they feel with actual emotions. The 40-year-old, on the other hand, is not:
- Pissed off is not an emotion. It’s a metaphor.
- Upset is not an emotion. It’s an idea.
- Depressed is not an emotion. It’s a category that (theoretically) describes a constellation of symptoms for a specific mental health disorder.
What’s going on here? As adults, why do we stop using plain language to describe how we feel emotionally? Why do we intellectualize our emotions—describing how we feel with sophisticated-sounding but vague language?
One of the most common emotional blindspots is the tendency to intellectualize our emotions:
Intellectualized emotions are a primitive defense mechanism to avoid painful feelings.
Think about it: If you feel genuinely sad and disappointed with a friend after they stood you up, telling yourself that you feel bugged or upset is less specific—and therefore less painful—than facing up to the fact that you feel legitimately sad or angry.
And while it’s understandable that you want to avoid uncomfortable feelings, this pattern can have major side-effects in the long-run.
Avoiding your feelings by intellectualizing them keeps you trapped in a cycle of poor self-awareness.
Luckily, overcoming this emotional blindspot of intellectualizing your emotions is quite simple. The next time you feel bad emotionally, ask yourself this question:
How would a 6-year-old describe what I’m feeling right now?
2. Trying to control your emotions
Our language is full of phrases like control your emotions, manage your moods, coping with painful feelings, etc.
This is understandable since nobody wants to feel bad emotionally. And we all like the idea that, when we do feel bad, we can find a way to make ourselves feel better. The only trouble is…
You can’t directly control your emotions.
I mean, if only we could, right?!
- If only you could just turn up the happiness dial anytime you felt sad.
- If only you could hit the “Calm” button anytime you felt angry.
- If only you could adjust the confidence lever anytime you felt anxious or afraid.
Unfortunately, we all want to be able to control our emotions so badly that we end up trying anyway:
- The minute you feel sad, you start telling yourself why it’s not really that bad in an attempt to cheer yourself up.
- The instant you feel anxious, you criticize yourself for being weak—as if you could punish yourself into feeling confident!
- The second you feel angry, you get angry at yourself for losing your cool and acting like a child because (you suppose) shaming yourself will maybe make the anger go away.
Of course, none of these emotional control strategies ever work. And almost always, they backfire. And for a very simple reason:
When you insist on getting rid of your emotions, you teach your brain that they are enemies.
This leads to a vicious cycle of ever-compounding painful moods and emotions:
- Feeling anxious about feeling sad
- Feeling sad about feeling ashamed
- Feeling ashamed at feeling angry
The way out of this vicious cycle is simple, though not always easy:
Stop trying to control your emotions directly and accept them for what they are—often painful but never dangerous or bad.
It’s only once you’re willing to live with your difficult emotions that you can channel your energy into more productive means of feeling good—by changing things in your life you do have control over:
- How you behave and act
- The situations you put yourself in
- Where you choose to focus your attention
- The people you allow into your life
- The habits you do or do not stick to
Emotions can only be “controlled” indirectly. And you’ll only have the energy to do it if you stop attacking yourself for feeling bad and learn to accept your feelings exactly as they are.
3. Judging your emotions
This emotional blindspot follows directly from the previous one:
If you can’t control your emotions, it doesn’t make any sense to judge yourself for them.
It’s a general principle of ethics, as far as I can tell, that for something to be morally wrong you have to have control over it. No one gets put in prison, for example, because they felt really angry. You only end up in the big house if you do something wrong.
As a society, we don’t judge people for things they can’t control. And yet, we do it to ourselves all the time…
- We feel angry, tell ourselves that it’s not okay to feel angry, then end up feeling guilty on top of our anger.
- We feel sad, tell ourselves that feeling sad for too long is a sign of weakness, then feel angry at ourselves on top of feeling sad.
As a therapist, let me tell you something:
The fastest way to end up in a therapist’s office is to start being judgmental about your own emotions.
For one thing, it doesn’t work. Getting judgmental with yourself for feeling anxious isn’t going to make you any less anxious. In fact, it’s only going to make it worse: Now you feel anxious about feeling anxious!
It’s hard enough feeling bad without feeling bad about feeling bad.
You’d be surprised how quickly most painful emotions subside on their own when you stop compounding them with extra judgments and painful emotions.
4. Running away from your emotions
It’s human nature to want to avoid things that hurt.
If you’ve ever accidentally touched a hot pan on the stove, you know your body instinctively pulls back your hands to escape the pain. Expect, that’s not what’s really going on…
See, when you pull your hand back off the hot pan, it seems like you’re avoiding the pain of burning your finger. But what you’re really avoiding is the tissue damage that would come from leaving your finger on something hot. The pain is just the messenger.
Pain itself isn’t dangerous, it’s just information that happens to feel bad. Which brings us to what may be the most important distinction is all of mental health and wellbeing:
Just because something feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.
This is true for emotional pain just as much as it is for physical pain.
For example: You’re driving down the road in your car and the little orange low-fuel light blinks on. Immediately, you feel a little jolt of anxiety.
So here’s the question: Is your anxiety bad?
Anxiety, like all difficult emotions, feels bad but it isn’t actually a danger. It’s just information.
The anxiety you feel when your low fuel light goes off is your brain’s way of telling you: “Better get gas soon. Don’t want to end up stranded on the side of the freeway in the middle of the night again.”
Now, let me ask you another question: Would it make sense to put a piece of tape over your low fuel light in order to avoid the pain of anxiety?
Of course not! That’d be a really good way to end up out of gas on the side of the freeway in the middle of the night.
This example summarizes the problem with running away from painful feelings:
When you spend all your time escaping emotional pain, you don’t have any time left to address the real issue behind it.
If you want to avoid the emotional blindspot of running away from your emotions, get in the habit of reminding yourself that your emotions are not dangerous or bad no matter how painful they are.
It’s like the old saying goes: Don’t shoot the messenger!
5. Choosing emotions over values
I think most of us understand that a lot of truly valuable goals in our life require struggle:
- In order to save up enough money for a comfortable retirement, you have to be willing to feel the disappointment of putting 10% of your paycheck into savings instead of taking that trip to Cancun.
- If you want to be the fastest sprinter at the race, you have to be willing to endure the pain of doing workouts in practice.
- If you want to learn to play the piano, you must be willing to endure the boredom and difficulty that goes along with practicing your scales.
Many of the best things in life require the willingness to feel bad.
But as we all know, this is harder than it looks.
Our genetic code and subsequent instincts are the result of evolving in a time and place where following our feelings was usually a good idea. In a world where food is incredibly scarce, for example, it makes sense to immediately eat whatever you come across, especially if it’s calorically dense.
But many of us now live in a world where calories are the opposite of scare—they’re abundant! And the trouble is, evolution hasn’t had time to catch up and adjust our innate preferences.
As a result, if we want to thrive in our modern world, we have to learn how to override many of our initial instincts and desires, including many of our emotions.
Unfortunately, this idea of overriding your emotions flies in the face of a lot of our cultural messaging. We’re constantly told, for example, to “follow your heart,” “find your passion,” and—my personal favorite—“go with your gut.”
This last metaphor just oozes with irony… Because if you think about it, your gut is literally full of shit.
Emotions give you bad information just as often as they give you good information.
The trick is to be neither dismissive of nor naively accepting of your emotions.
All You Need to Know
If you’ve been struggling emotionally for a long time, there’s a good chance it’s because you have one or more emotional blindspots. If you can learn to identify them and compensate for them, you’ll find yourself far happier as a result:
Stop intellectualizing your emotions.
Stop trying to control your emotions.
Stop judging your emotions.
Stop running away from your emotions.
Stop choosing emotions over values.