The other night I took my 11-year-old daughter to see Uncle Vanya, a Checkov play set up by a small theatre company here in Melbourne. It was a bit of a long shot, depressed Russian drama for a lively tweenie. To her credit, she not only endured the piece, but also enjoyed being at the theatre – her interest for acting seems to go beyond the comic scenes she loves putting up at school.
I found myself pretty gloomy after the show, entrenched by desperation, hopelessness, and no meaning in life. Not one character occurred to me as having any sense of harmony, of being where they wanted to be. They had either thrown their lives away and resented it all, were bored, or lived in an illusion about their own importance or moral grandiosity.
I asked my daughter the morning after which of the characters she liked the most. “The Nanny”, she said, without having to think twice. The Nanny! Of course! The Nanny is the only person in the play who actually seems to be in a good place. She offers love, caring, and consolation – unconditional positive regard – to anyone around, attends to her duties while everyone else succumbs to the chaotic dissolution of theirs, and is firmly rooted in her religious beliefs.
Photo: Fanni Sarkadi
But didn’t I just say there was no one in the play who seemed to have a sense of harmony? How come I didn’t see that Nanny as clearly as my daughter did? In fact, I was so busy identifying myself with the frustration of these intelligent people not finding a way to make something meaningful of their lives that I simply did not see the Nanny. She was in my blind spot.
As professionals, one of the most important things we need to do is get to know our own blind spots. Usually, things that get hidden by the blind spot are painful experiences that we cannot bear to be confronted with and therefore conveniently hide from ourselves. In professional practice not bearing to see things can be detrimental for the people we are supposed to help.
I once had a medical student in my class for professional development whose blind spot we discovered at one of our sessions. The students had to tape their conversations with patients and we then analysed them together with the group. This student’s patient was in hospital for high blood pressure, a condition known to be aggravated by alcohol consumption. The patient had made several comments on “booze”, on “friends having a good time” – empathic opportunities for the student to inquire about alcohol. But he didn’t. When I asked what was going on, the student got very emotional. After a while he said he just couldn’t “go there”, asking questions about alcohol. His father had been an alcoholic.
In clinics the other day, the team saw a child with a number of behavioural issues. It was hard to get a grip of what was going on, it sounded a lot like ADHD, but the teacher had indicated many emotional problems, such as anxiety and low self-esteem, while the mother did not describe such problems. This is quite unusual, as on measures of child behaviour parents are generally more sensitive to children’s emotional problems than teachers are, while teachers are flawless in identifying externalising problems.
During the testing it became clear that the child was clever and had no attention, memory, or hyperactivity problems. He did, however, have problems warming to the situation, was not very excited by the small rewards presented to him, and was rather gloomy and quiet throughout the morning. The diagnosis suggested was general anxiety disorder, affecting all aspects of his life.
Why did this clever and emotionally available mother not see that her son was anxious and depressed more than anything else? Because it was in her blind spot. She had grown up with a severely depressed parent herself and could not bear to see the same thing happening in her son.
So what’s with me and the Nanny in Uncle Vanya? What keeps me from seeing her uncomplicated contentedness amidst the complicated and struggling intellectuals? If I find an answer I will get to know yet another of my blind spots and that might save me some future troubles.
Meanwhile, make sure to attend to your own blind spots!