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Tunnel Vision

Definition:

Tunnel Vision - A tendency to focus on a single concern, while neglecting or ignoring other important priorities.

Description:

In medicine, tunnel vision is a medical condition which causes loss of peripheral vision. It is as though the object being looked at is seen through a dark tunnel or tube. In psychological terms, tunnel vision refers to a narrow or exclusive focus on an emotion.

The ability to efficiently and effectively multi-task is one of the great wonders of the human mind. For example, in a typical conversation most of us can breathe, speak, think, reason, move and listen simultaneously without much effort. In addition to all that, we may be processing information on tone of voice, facial expressions, a background aroma watching a passer-by "out of the corner of our eye" etc.

But put us into a crisis situation and we have a remarkable ability to instinctively dispense with trivial or superfluous data and focus on the immediate threat. We experience an immediate adrenaline surge, our heart rate and breathing quicken and our hair may stand on end as we go into "fight or flight" mode. People who experience or witness catastrophic events sometimes can remember certain details with extreme clarity years later, for example the expression on a gunman's face,while being unable to recall more benign details, such as the color of the gunman's shirt.

The benefits of being able to focus our attention so narrowly during a crisis are obvious. This aids in our survival. Such a narrow focus can become dysfunctional, however, if it becomes a habit or a way of processing information during less critical moments. Priorities which are important, but not urgent, may get systematically neglected.

In his best-selling book, "The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People", author Stephen Covey describes four quadrants of priorities. He argues that people tend to spend too much time in Quadrant 3 (urgent but unimportant priorities) when they really should spend more effort on Quadrant 2 (not urgent but important priorities).

  Urgent Not Urgent
Important Quadrant 1 - Crises, Pressing Problems, Firefighting, Deadlines Quadrant 2 - Prevention, Relationship Building, Recognizing Opportunities, Planning, Recreation
Not Important Quadrant 3 - Interruptions, Phone, Mail & E-mail Reports, Meetings, Popular activities Quadrant 4 - Trivia, Busy work, Mail, Email, Internet, Time wasters, Pleasant activities

As Stephen Covey illustrates, all of us experience tunnel vision in different ways and at different times. We all tend to neglect the important in favor of the urgent. However, it is a matter of degree. Tunnel vision becomes dysfunctional whenever a pervasive pattern of obsession with a single concern or group of concerns begins to affect or threaten the safety, health, maintenance, education and support of the person who suffers from the personality disorder or others in their care or immediate sphere of influence.

Tunnel Vision is a common occurrence among people who suffer from personality disorders. This is because people who suffer from personality disorders sometimes inappropriately go into "crisis mode" when there is no crisis present. This is most easily recognized in people who suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCPD) or Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) who may obsess over one concern, which may seem trivial to others - such as cleanliness or neatness, while neglecting other important concerns - such as social skills, personal care or the needs of others. However, tunnel vision is a characteristic of most personality disorders, as priorities associated with such concerns as fear of abandonment, fear of social gatherings, fear of disease, fear of worthlessness, fear of the supernatural etc. become obsessions, leading to a neglect of more mundane, yet important priorities such as nutrition, sleep, education, employment, social activities, hygiene etc.

Some Examples of Tunnel Vision:

  • A parent who is so afraid of their child getting sick that they don't allow them to play with friends
  • A spouse who spends the monthly budget on a personal item so they can feel good about themselves.
  • A spouse who has an affair to overcome feelings of being unattractive.
  • A colleague who sabotages a project because they are afraid others will get more credit than them.
  • A person who ends a friendship because the other person violates their unspoken boundary.
  • A single mother who is so consumed with a relationship that she does not regularly feed the children.
  • A man who becomes violent whenever he feels disrespected.

What it feels like:

It can be frightening to live with or work beside a person who has tunnel vision. Their behavior may seem irrational and unpredictable. However, they are likely to be unapologetic about the way they treat other people as they become consumed with concern over their obsession. Non personality disordered family members and partners may develop a sense of fear, never feeling secure that their own concerns and needs will be taken care of. They may cycle between becoming submissive and angry toward the person who they consider responsible for creating chaos in their world and neglecting their needs. They may become engaged in circular discussions as they try to talk sense into the person with the obsession. As they begin to feel more and more powerless they may resort to bad behavior of their own, including threats, ultimatums, violence, deception and retribution.

People with tunnel vision will often become irritable and angry at partners, family members, colleagues and friends who do not share their concerns. They may have a hard time understanding why those closest to them pay no attention or expend little effort to help them in their time of need. To them, it is like they have been abandoned by their loved ones to face a crisis alone. They may become incredulous at other people's complaints and anger over their behaviors, when it appears so obvious to them what must be done.

Coping with Tunnel Vision - What NOT to Do:

  • Don't assume that everyone thinks or sees the world the way you do. People with personality disorders often live in a world of terrifying emotions and desperate feelings of need.
  • Don't assume that the way you are being treated has anything to do with you - or how you behave.
  • Don't get into circular discussions or logical arguments with a person who has tunnel vision. State the truth (as you see it) once and once only.
  • Don't resort to bad behavior yourself. Don't use threats, violence, ultimatums or revenge.
  • Don't engage in circular conversations or thought policing. Everyone has the right to think and feel their own way.
  • Don't ignore a real threat or stay in a situation where you or your children may be hurt.
  • Don't accept abuse as normal or acceptable; just to "go with the flow". If it is wrong, deal with it. Be assertive without being confrontational.

Coping with Tunnel Vision - What TO Do

  • Protect yourself. Remove yourself and your children from any situation where anybody treats you badly. Refer to our Emergency Page for more info.
  • Protect your resources if necessary. Close joint checking accounts, protect valuables and property.
  • Speak the truth if necessary. Say it once and then don't say it again. Agree to disagree if necessary.
  • Get support. Talk to people who understand and can help you "check out" you own thinking. Find validating and healthy friendships and relationships where people will appreciate your own needs and help you prioritize.
  • Offer validation if appropriate, without compromising your own safety. Allow the other person to have and to express their own feelings and concerns, which may be different from yours.

For More Information & Support...

If you suspect you may have a family member or loved-one who suffers from a personality disorder, we encourage you to learn all you can and surround yourself with support as you learn how to cope.

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