September 17, 2018—We’ve all done it; we have all recommended that a church member, client, or patient take advice that we ourselves find hard to follow. We advise them to establish healthy boundaries with family members, to maintain self-care plans, to develop healthy relationships, to attune to one’s own spirituality, to find healthy ways to manage anxiety, to be clear with our values and principles, etc. Yet, we struggle doing this ourselves. What’s worse is when we do not even see that we are stuck, hooked by, and/or do something that we would so strongly advise against. Murray Bowen, M.D. referred to this phenomenon as observational blindness.
The Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo is an example of how the researchers became entrenched with the test subjects and processes to the point that they failed to see the abuse and dehumanization taking place in front of their eyes. Bowen also observed that the staff at the National Institute of Mental Health were unknowingly being affected by their work with the families there. Even the Apostle Paul is quoted as saying that he does that which he does not want to do.
Andrea Maloney Schara states in Your Mindful Compass, “We are all vulnerable to being blinded by our investment in our own way of doing things. We are caught up in the moment and want something, so we may no longer be able to override our ‘instincts’ to proceed, even though we know our actions may not be moral, honorable or simply the right thing to do” (p. 125). At times, these actions even contradict our principles and values. So, how do we know that we are being blinded? Indicators we may be experiencing observational blindness:
The first step in addressing our observational blindness is to become self-aware that we are blind. In the Standford Prison Experiment a guest researcher, who was also dating Zimbardo at the time, spoke out against what she witnessed. Zimbardo “woke up”, realized what was occurring, and stopped the experiment. Bowen began working on his own family of origin and encouraged his staff to do the same. Their ability to do this helped them to have a greater non-anxious presence with their patients, which in turn helped their patients. We do not know what happened with Paul’s blindspot, but we know that he was aware of it and sought to function differently.
To discover one’s blindspots and start functioning differently, Bowen and Ed Friedman recommend learning to (1) be objective in one’s nuclear family, family of origin, and extended family for several generations; (2) lead from a non-anxious presence; and (3) develop one’s differentiation of self. We can also utilize coaching, therapy, peer group learning, reading, journaling, and research projects as ways to become more observant of ourselves and how we function at/in/with home, work, church, friendships, organizations, etc. Then maybe, just maybe, we can take our own advice!
Reference: Maloney Schara, Andrea. (2013). Your mindful compass: Breakthrough strategies for navigating life/work relationships in any social jungle. Lexington, KY: Andrea Schara.
The Rev. Vanessa Ellison MSW, MDiv, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in Richmond, Virginia. She currently works as a therapist at Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) University Counseling Services and at Richmond Therapy Center. She first learned about Bowen Theory while attending Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, learned how to apply it clinically while working on a master’s degree at VCU’s School of Social Work, and has attended workshops at the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family in DC. She began participating in the LIM workshops in 2006 and joined the LIM Faculty in 2018.
Leadership in Ministry is part of the Center for Lifelong Learning’s Pastoral Excellence Program, with workshops in Atlanta, Boston, Portland OR, Lynchburg VA, and Kansas City MO.