Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


When Vision Becomes Tunnel Vision

“We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are.” - Anais Nin

Having a vision is a powerful tool. It means that you are honoring your goals, aspiring towards them, and taking risks to expand your horizons. But sometimes our visions for ourselves subtly turn into tunnel vision. We can't see anything that contradicts our intentions and desires. We get selective perception, which limits our ability to remain open and to see things clearly. Instead of being present to our reality, we put the blinders on and barrel ahead towards our hopes and dreams.

There is a shadow side to almost every positive thing we can do for ourselves, including having a vision. All spiritual and psychological tools can be used in a "willful" way. For example, sometimes self-care is actually about taking care of ourselves: unplugging from too much work and plugging into more balance and harmony. But sometimes, under the guise of self-care, we are really just checking out: denying what's happening and how scary it feels to show up for it. So, how do we know the difference?

One red flag is the tension that usually crops up when we are stuck in the tunnel. It takes a lot of effort to keep the blinders on. For me, the tension often shows up in the form of a headache. For others, there might be similar physical cues such as stomach or backaches, getting sick, or feeling lethargic. Some people find themselves to be more irritable or short tempered. When we aren't looking at the big picture of our reality, our emotional bandwidth tends to shrink. This happens because everything becomes limited in the tunnel, not just our vision. I don't know about you, but when I'm stuck in a tunnel, I can get a little cranky. What are your personal cues that suggest you might be denying aspects of your reality?

Of course, there are reasons that we aren't looking at the big picture. Many of them boil down to fear. "What if I leave this relationship and I'm alone forever?" "What if I open this piece of mail and find out that I owe more money then I have in the bank?" "What if I take this day-job and I never get to work professionally in the job of my dreams?" Our response to these fears can be "No thanks, I'll stay here in the tunnel, where it feels safe." And then we clamp down, even harder.

If you are still with me on this tunnel metaphor, here is where it gets good. I grew up in Colorado where there are some amazing tunnels going straight through the mountains. Perhaps you have driven through one yourself, or you can imagine it right now. As you are driving, you move from a cold and dark, fear-filled tin can, out into a picture postcard. Let that experience be your teacher and your inspiration. When we move through small and contained ideas of what we think we want, what we think will make us happy, and what we think will keep us safe, we are brought to extraordinary and expansive beauty. It's truly breathtaking. Removing the blinders is like seeing in color for the first time. Tunnel vision is rigid and constraining, while remaining open is fluid and liberating.

Ultimately, moving out of the tunnel is about finding clarity, even if it feels terrifying. At least it is true. And reality begets more reality, and the opportunity to make it the best reality you can. I'm not saying that you have to give up on the dream, but you do have to face what is actually going on instead of living in a fantasy. Keep showing up for the life you are envisioning, but do it by starting from where you actually are.

I'd love to hear how have you have moved through your own tunnels in life. How did you get stuck, and what enabled you to move through? What did you discover when you surrendered your vision? I know that oftentimes people find a "picture postcard" that they never would have if they held on to that tin can they used to believe was the shiniest and most precious thing they ever could have wished for.

Ingrid Mathieu, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist and author of Recovering Spirituality: Achieving Emotional Sobriety in Your Spiritual Practice.

Follow her on Twitter or Facebook for daily inspiration on achieving emotional sobriety.

More from Ingrid Clayton Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today