Our Thinking and Observing Selves
Do you know the difference?
Have you ever had a thought that just wouldn’t leave you alone? Or an earworm that just wouldn’t let go? What did you do? And how did it eventually depart?
When we find ourselves facing unwanted thoughts (or music), we often try the strong-arm approach. Like a giant wrestler, we strive to pin our unwanted thought down. But the more we try, the wilier and less compliant our thoughts become, finding ways to surface anew. In the process, we find ourselves exhausted. Suppressing a thought can take a LOT of work!
We may also tend to overpower it with opposing thoughts and logic. For example, when facing the thought, “I’m a loser,” we may tend to respond, “No, I’m not! I’m a successful …” and then proceed with the evidence. “Of course I’m successful… I’ve completed three projects within the last month...” But again, the results are often the same. We find ourselves beat down, as if we’d been involved in a literal shouting match with our negative thoughts. They remain present, and in addition to feeling tired, we may feel a sense of discouragement or even disempowerment.
Therefore, acceptance is often the preferred response. Instead of haranguing ourselves or our thoughts, we gently let them be. We acknowledge their presence, and then return to whatever it is that we were engaged with previously. (For suggestions on how to do this, see “4 Strategies to Defang Your Inner Critic”.) In doing so, we tap into our observing self, the part of ourselves that just notices things without comment or judgment.
This is different than our thinking self, which engages with whatever story is present in our mind, often serving to exaggerate its importance. It is our thinking self that makes “mountains out of molehills”. At times, this self is necessary. After all, when situated in a burning building, if we merely observe the flames surrounding us, we will be consumed by fire. However, if we think, “I’m gonna die if I don’t get out of here!”, we take necessary action and remove ourselves from harm’s way.
We are, however, overly trained in relying on our thinking self. This gives our thoughts an unintended stickiness. Like a gravitational vortex, we return to them again and again. Our observing self, meanwhile, remains a flaccid muscle. (And at this point, if you find yourself exclaiming, “Ugh! He used the word flaccid!”, you have found yourself hooked by your thinking self.) Therefore, we lack the skills necessary to unhook ourselves from our thoughts even when we most want to. This adds to the stress and anxiety we experience in daily life.
Breathwork, meditation, yoga, and other awareness excercises can all serve as excellent methods in training to use our observing self more often. When engaging in Box Breathing, for example, we can just notice our breath and the movement and sensations within our body as we breathe. Once we find our minds wandering with some thought, such as, “When will this end?” or, “I wonder what is for dinner tonight?”, we just gently notice the thought, and bring our attention back to the breath. Some find it helpful to mentally say “thinking” when they notice their thinking self engaging.
In such a way, we can train our minds to think when this brings benefit, and to merely observe when it doesn’t. One great arena for this is a noisy office setting. Often, our thinking self will chime in with “Won’t they all just shut up!” Or, we may seize up to control our rage. Either way, we remain distracted, not by the noise itself, but by our response to it. Acknowledging and accepting the noise will free up mental space for us to focus on more important things, like being the successful employee we truly are.
If you find benefit in these ideas and techniques from ACT, you may enjoy joining our book club, Stress Less for the Holidays. Over a period of 8 weeks, we will practice a variety of skills to help us de-stress as we navigate the challenges of the holiday season.