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Do You Suffer From Mental Myopia?

Or Do You Treat People As Objects? Do You Reduce People To...

Scott Webb
Source: Scott Webb

The National Eye Institute defines myopia as “a common type of refractive error where close objects appear clearly, but distant objects appear blurry.” I can think of no better metaphor for how we all too often treat others in our lives.

By that, I mean that we have a tendency to see people through an all or nothing lens. We allow one major facet of their character to occlude our view from the totality of their humanity.

In other words, our relationships suffer from mental myopia. For instance, what do you think of when you read the name Monica Lewinsky? Or Anthony Weiner? Or Bill Cosby?

Do you only see them in light of their most devastating moments? Or do you also consider who they are as people deserving of basic human dignity?

Now, I’m not one to excuse the unjust or hurtful actions of others. I’m simply using these high-profile personalities to make a point that’s much more personal than celebrity gossip.

When our mental myopia minimizes another human being to just one characteristic (typically negative), we aren’t granting them the same value, dignity, and worth we would want granted to ourselves in the same situation.

Why We Minimize Others

We do this in all types of relationships. Sometimes it’s done intentionally because we simply want to see ourselves as “better than” that other person. Relegating them to just one defining characteristic makes that fairly easy.

But more often than not, we do this unintentionally. We may not even be aware that we’re doing it.

For instance, a husband, unhappy in his marriage, may begin to focus on his wife’s perceived shortcomings. And because he may want out of the marriage, that one thing his wife does on a consistent basis that annoys him to no end may become the one thing he uses to characterize her. In his perception, her worst flaw begins to loom large in his eyes, causing the rest of her humanity to fade into just a blurry background. As he maintains his focus on that one issue, over time he will begin to see his wife as “all bad” because she continues to do that one thing, which he’s certain she does just to constantly irk him (even though he’s never spoken to her about it).

All or Nothing Political Thinking

Unfortunately, mental myopia doesn’t just affect close relationships. As we’re quickly rounding the corner into an election season, you can witness such “all or nothing” thinking in politics. Instead of allowing for a wide spectrum of opinions to exist, we tend to categorize all politicians into one of three camps, regardless of how the politicians might further define themselves even within their own camp.

This carries over into how those from different sides react to each other too. Conservatives may solely define people by their sexuality, and liberals may define people only by their stance on abortion. But both parties suffer from narrowly defining their constituency and often not seeing—and consequently reacting to—the wholeness of their humanity.

How Can We Cure Mental Myopia?

When I catch myself considering someone else through the lens of a fatal flaw, I wish I could grab a bottle of eyedrops that would somehow instantly clear my perception of them. Fighting this epidemic would be so much easier if we had actual medicine that could cure our relational myopia.

Because that doesn’t exist, I recommend these three steps:

1. Question your assumptions about the other person. Ask yourself whether you know accurate information about them outside of the one issue through which you characterize them.

2. Ask yourself whether you’d like to be unfairly characterized for your own fatal flaw. What if your worst characteristic was broadcast across the nation? Would you want to be known as that guy or that woman?

3. Where possible, talk to that person. Get to know them on more than a surface level. Discuss their dreams, fears, hopes, and desires. Learn more about what makes them human. Find similar issues that connect you instead of choosing to focus on what distances you.

Essentially, take a step back from that one frustrating aspect and allow the whole person to come into view. The cure won’t be quick or easy, but with patience and persistence, your mental myopia will clear up—and you might just be amazed at how the world looks then.

To learn more ways to improve your relationships, check out my book The Story We Tell Ourselves.

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