Beth Wonson & Company

Weekly Podcast & Blog

Empowering Executives, Emerging Leaders, Teams, & Individuals For Over 20 Years

I’m tempted to indulge in willful blindness


Willful blindness is a term that originates from legislation passed in the 19th century and is based on the concept of personal responsibility, and more specifically “if you could have known, and should have known, something that instead you strove not to see.” Author Margaret Heffernan reminds us in her book by the same name—Willful Blindness—that this behavior is a choice. It is also the path of least resistance, which in my interpretation creates the thinking errors and blind spots we use to construct barriers to empowerment and fulfillment. My mind is eager to indulge in willful blindness, as we’ve just learned that our very dear dog, Rosie, has cancer with a short life expectancy—we’re talking weeks. My mind wants to delve into grief and hopelessness; my willful blindness statements are “It’s hopeless. I’m helpless. There is nothing I can do.”

Care and comfort is what the vet says. Care and comfort is easily provided for sweet Rosie because she asks for little aside from love, nourishment, a swim in the pool, and some private space (Rose is a bit of loner, preferring to hang back and watch the action from the cover of a low hedge or her bed).

This sweet yellow lab has been an integral part of my partner’s life for 11 years. She is sidekick, confidant, jester, child, and parent. Consistent and steady, Rosie is the kind of being that has a quiet presence and doesn’t take up much energetic space, but her absence will create a gigantic void.

So while the care and comfort of Rosie, who appears to be in no pain, is pretty simple, our care and comfort is the challenge. 

There are so many times in life when we are faced with powerlessness. Not all of them are as monumental as the impending loss of a beloved companion, but many leave us believing we have no options, that we are powerless.

I was surprised to find myself latching onto an eating regime that a friend sent us that shows promise at life extension in some dogs diagnosed with the same type of cancer. The willful blindness in me, the rational side of my brain that prefers a narrow focus on known facts, lists all the reasons why this regime may not make a difference for Rosie. It may also be hopeless. But I have learned that when I feel powerless, trying something helps! 

My current situation reminds me of many client situations (yes, it does—imagine that?), situations where people feel powerless and without options. It reminds me of times when my clients’ willful blindness prevents them from being powerful! 

When asked to share their perspective, most clients begin with the litany of things they can’t change. The unhappiest of employees narrowly focus all their attention on the person or issue they perceive makes them unhappy. Others repeat old stories of why they got the bum deal in life. And still others dwell on the myths they bought into or the patterns of behavior they adopted but haven’t chosen to let go of. When asked where they are taking action to create change, they look at me with a blank stare and try to go back to the original story.

Why? Our tendency is to engage in a thinking pattern that Margaret Heffernan describes as focusing so tightly and narrowly that we leave out more and more options; this is willful blindness. We focus on what is most familiar and we leave out new ways of thinking that could create energy toward moving us forward. 

Why? Because that’s how we’ve trained our brains. Our brains want to go down the road most familiar to us so we dismiss a new way or plan of action because initially it just feels too hard!

It is in this space that I challenge my clients to facilitate their own change. What if instead of a narrow focus on perceived roadblocks they instead choose to focus on their own care and comfort? And what if they then notice what changes? 

With Rosie’s situation, I’ve chosen to prepare her a diet of raw foods and supplements, not because I’m focused on a full recovery (although I’d sure welcome that) but because I love researching and learning. I love experimenting. I love the colors and textures of fresh, organic ingredients. I wonder at the medicinal powers of minerals and herbs. And I love the nurturing feeling of chopping, measuring, and creating healthy foods. I’m providing myself with care and comfort, as well as a whole lot of love.

The big shift I’ve noticed is that as I move from being adrift and feeling powerless to doing what I love to do out of love for her and for us, Rosie girl stands next to me in the kitchen. She has shifted from hanging off by herself to being super curious and physically closer to me. I’ve discovered that she loves chopped apples, and she will eagerly eat the kale, spinach, apple slaw. She seems a bit brighter and connected with the new hustle and bustle in the kitchen. 

Was it the shift in my energy? Was it my caring for myself within my plan to care for her? Is it me talking to her with a brighter voice as I explain what I’m doing each step of the way? “Look at these beautiful organic carrots, Rosebud! Want a bite?”

I feel more empowered and lighter. I feel a lift. I feel that the diagnosis, which hasn’t changed, is no longer controlling me. My partner has also shifted. Her grief is deep, but she too feels more empowered. She is researching things she’s never explored like black walnut powder, asiac tea, and MSM liquid. I hear her in the yard telling the pool caretaker, also a dog lover, about the raw foods and then she runs in saying, “Myrna’s heard of this, and she believes in this stuff too!”

Our conversations have shifted from the diagnosis and fear to healthy foods. And of course the feelings of grief and sadness aren’t gone, nor would we want them to be—there is, however, a significant shift in energy towards care and comfort.

Care and comfort is the way we stir up the energy of change, even in the most dire of situations.

My mission in my work is to help people move past perceived limitations. Willful blindness is one of the ways we feed the story of powerlessness. Self-care and comfort is the way we stir up the energy of change, even in the most dire of situations. 

Hefferman says, “We make ourselves powerless when we choose not to know. But we give ourselves hope when we insist on looking. The very fact that willful blindness is willed, that it is a product of a rich mix of experience, knowledge, thinking, neurons, and neuroses, is what gives us the capacity to change it. Like Lear, we can learn to see better, not just because our brain changes but because we do. As all wisdom does, seeing starts with simple questions: What could I know, should I know, that I don’t know? Just what am I missing here?”  I add, what can I do differently? As life coach and author Martha Beck says, “When you don’t know what to do, just try something and see what happens.”

I’ve suspect that some people are feeling a bit of pity for me hopelessly grinding herbs and chopping up kale to ward off a cancer that has the most minimal of odds of being dissolved, but what is in their blind spot is that I’m changing my powerlessness, creating a deeper connection and widening my focus. I’m stirring up kale slaw and new energy!

Where in your life today might you be experiencing willful blindness? Where might your focus be a little too narrow? What might be hiding in the blind spot, just waiting for you stir it up?

Call or email me to set up a spot coaching session, and let’s see what might be ready to be uncovered.