What is willful blindness?

I remember when I first moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, standing in minus 43 degree weather at the bus stop with tears streaming down my face wondering how it was that I could have moved to this god forsaken city! Every year it was the same old story. Winter would come…I would get furious and yet I would still put on my flimsy Toronto parka, boots with no lining and a tattered, cotton crocheted scarf. For years, I lived in the fantasy that Winnipeg was merely a short stop on my way to some other destination and that it was just a matter of time before I would find work in another city. It took 6 to 7 years of living here before I finally went out and bought myself a top of the line North Face parka and Sorel boots. Boy was I shocked to discover that in fact with such clothing, Manitoba winters were more than tolerable! As I worked as a therapist with people over the years, I learned that I was not alone in my masterful ability to go blind to what I did not want to see. Unlike denial which sneaks up on you out of your unconscious, willful blindness is a very deliberate knowing and then choosing not to know. As one of my clients so beautifully put it: ” I looked out the window, saw something I did not want to see and then closed the curtains.”

Cynthia put on nearly 60 pounds in about a 14 month period. Though most of her wardrobe no longer fit, she wore the few items that she could, refused to buy any new clothing and was so divorced from her body that she hardly was aware of the extra weight that she carried. Every now and again, she would catch a glimpse of herself in a mirror and she would be shocked at her own reflection but it was not long before she simply blocked the image from her mind and proceeded to pretend that everything was just the way it had always been.

Norman knew that his wife was likely having an affair. She would call to say that she had to stay late at the office once again. He would look after giving the kids dinner and putting them to bed and would talk with friends about how committed his wife was to her career. It was just too painful for him to face the fact that his marriage had ended years ago. He simply could not let go of the dream of the intact family that he had always wanted. His own upbringing had been riddled with domestic violence and substance abuse and all he ever wanted was to have a real family of his own where life was safe and normal.

Sam had applied for dentistry four times already. He was preparing to do so for a fifth time when he came to see me. This was the case, even though he knew that he did not have a high enough GPA to be accepted into the program. He simply could not imagine what it would mean if he did not become a dentist. His father and his father’s father had been successful dentists. Everybody in the family expected the same of him and without that as a possibility, the future was a blank slate, impossible to face.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if choosing not to see meant that our problems would disappear. Unfortunately, this is rarely if ever the case and this is why any good psychologist will try to help you face reality before the sky falls on your head. One woman I worked with told me at the end of our work together that there was a German expression for what she had experienced in therapy which probably could best be translated into English as the following: “The skin has been peeled from my eyes.” This expression remained so vivid for me that I never forgot it!

1 Comment

  • Merika Skirko

    I love this article on the strongest defence mechanism that exists, denial. We can just pretend that things aren’t so, like ostriches buried in the sand. Your personal and clinical examples are testaments to the power of unconsciousness. I had the same experience when I moved to Edmonton and watched my breath freeze, and thought for several months that a wrinkle I had developed was just from the way I slept on my pillow. It took a while to realize that it was permanent.

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