I was with my ex husband 12 years before I left him and I often get asked if it suddenly went wrong somewhere down the line, whether we grew apart or perhaps something happened that meant things changed between us.
The truth is, whilst we inevitably changed as people as we grew a little older, the relationship was wrong from the beginning. The actual beginning. As I look back at that moment in time, there weren’t just red flags around me, there were actual fires. The warning signs were clear; lies, manipulation and an attempt to wield control, yet somewhere in the haze of those fires, I told myself that this was the path that I wanted, and taught myself to believe we could build something together. I committed.
By choosing to ignore the clear signs that were there, I soon became somewhat numb to the bad things. The more bad things that occurred, the more numb I became. I passively challenged things as they occurred along the way, but I didn’t want to take the risk of learning the real truth of what was happening in my world in case that meant I lost the thing that I had at the time. I was afraid and through my fear I learned to ignore the reality of my situation and become wilfully blind.
It’s not just me, it’s likely to be you too
The truth is my friends, none of us are immune to wilful blindness. Whether big or small, personal or professional there are many things that we all choose not to see on a daily basis.
We create little stories around why it’s okay for us to do this one thing, when deep down we know we ‘shouldn’t’. We seek to validate our choices with excuses to make ourselves feel more comfortable with our chosen path. Most of this plays out without us being consciously aware.
Some of this is just the brain’s way of keeping us safe. The brain thinks it is doing its job by minimising pain, but actually in doing so can keep us in a situation that actually harms us more and for a longer period of time.
The brain’s refusal to see the reality of the world around us and its attempt to keep us ‘safe’ can actually just keep us in suspended animation, or even worse, in danger.
What can we do about it
To really get better at being honest with ourselves about the reality of the situations we find ourselves in, we have to start by developing our relationship with ourselves. That’s the only way your true inner voice can ever be heard.
Some people don’t have to fight so hard to hear their inner voice. My younger sister is a total badass, but someone who has had more than her fair share of challenging interactions with the world. This happens because she refuses to “play the game”, her internal barometer is so strong that she calls bullshit when she sees it.
My sister, and others like her, are the folks that we need in the world who are brave enough to call out bad things when they see them happening. Whilst I know other people like my sister, I know many more people who would be more afraid to say something and speak out if they saw wrongdoing. It’s a muscle that I myself have been working on over the years, as the drive to stay ‘safe’ within myself is so damn strong.
Lean into the challenge
Challenge takes bravery, guts and determination. If the life that you have lived so far hasn’t equipped you with what it takes to challenge the status quo around you (whether personal or professional), there is still hope. Like so many things, you can work to get better at it like I have.
I read Margaret Heffernan’s book on Wilful Blindness recently and she buckets the habits we need to get better at into two areas:
#1 Critical thinking
To really think critically, we need to overcome the urge to people please. The way our schools are structured means that we learn the dark art of informed obedience; we are celebrated when we give the “right” answer, but we are marginalised if we challenge or disagree.
Think about the handful of children you were at school with you walked their own path. At the time they were likely subject to bullying, whereas now, they are probably the humans amongst us who feel the most free. We need to start raising and educating individuals who think for themselves and challenge the status quo.
Start small on this stuff, and just begin asking yourself the question; “What am I not seeing here?”.
Just like anything that takes a little practice, the only way you get better at doing it is by doing it. So your courage muscle can be increased by daring to be brave, perhaps just in small ways at first.
Whether it’s something in your own world or in the life of others, each of us owes it to ourselves and the world around us to develop the courage to intervene. One dissenting voice in a meeting can have a huge impact on the overall outcome. To do that we need to alter our thinking and perspective from me (how do I stay safe?) to we (how to we all thrive together?).
A hack in the meantime
Whilst we build these muscles, there’s a hack that you can use. Surround yourself with as many truth seekers as you can find. Find the folks that aren’t afraid to tell you what you don’t want to hear. That’s ultimately the thing that got me unstuck, I met a dear friend who called BS on much of what I told her about by life at that time.
The same works in business too, I like to make sure that I have a good amount of dissenting voices within my team. People who aren’t afraid to tell me what they see, and help me to realise what I don’t.