Tunnel Vision


Tunnel Vision - The habit or tendency to only see or focus on a single priority while neglecting or ignoring other important priorities.

Narrowcasting Reality

In medical terms, tunnel vision 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, the terms refers to a narrowed or exclusive focus on  a particular 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 and also watching a passer-by “out of the corner of our eye” or scrolling through text messages.

However, given a crisis situation, 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 – it aids survival. It can become dysfunctional however if it becomes a habit or mode of processing information in everyday life, as the result of habitual mental tunnel vision can be the neglect of important priorities.

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

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. In the case of people with Personality Disorders, 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 individual or those close to the individual such as family members or colleagues.  

The reason tunnel vision is a common occurrence among people with Personality Disorders is they sometimes go into “crisis mode” when there is actually no crisis present. This is most easily recognized in people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCP) or Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD). People with these conditions may obsess over one concern - such as cleanliness or neatness - while neglecting other important concerns - such as social skills, personal care or the needs of others.

Most Personality Disorders involve degrees of tunnel vision, 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 and general social conventions.

What it Looks Like

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

How it Feels

It can be frightening to live with or work beside a person who has tunnel vision. Their behavior may seem irrational and unpredictable. In addition, they are likely to be unapologetic about the way they treat other people as they become consumed with concern over their obsession.

Non family members and partners may develop a sense of deep unease, 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.

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 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  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. If it is wrong, deal with it. Be assertive without being confrontational.

What TO Do

  • Protect yourself. Remove yourself and your children from any situation where anybody treats you badly.
  • 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” your 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.