Practice The Observing Self: Countering Automatic Thoughts And Actions

The concept of stimulus and response has been written about many times in self-help books. Perhaps most famously, Stephen Covey talked about leaving a break between stimulus and response and using our self-awareness to respond in the right way. This has always stuck with me since I first read it in the nineties. However, being able to do it in the moment is not easy as we are overwhelmed with automatic thoughts and feelings, not to mention behaviour. We are more likely to realise some form of consciousness a short time later. What it takes is practice and understanding.

We are often in a battle for our attention. The Thinking Mind is one part that analyses, thinks, makes judgment and makes decisions about our next steps. It also contains aspects of our childhood protection measures that jump in quickly to have an effect. This is our conceptualised self that tells us stories, builds up drama and tries to pull us towards avoidance. Other features of the  “thinking self” are logic, planning and our  “monkey mind” full of mental chatter that keeps up occupied with feelings and thoughts. Worse though, this part of our mind is often concentrated on the past and the future. Obviously a complication if one wants to stay in the present.

In contrast, the Observing Self is constantly in the present and able to take in all the information from the present moment. It is based on self-awareness and self-knowledge and is innately non-judgmental. It does not think, it merely observes. To illustrate this with an example, have you ever encountered a magnificent sunset (or other natural wonder) and for a moment your mind goes quiet? There are no thoughts. You’re just silently observing and appreciating this amazing event. That’s your Observing Self in action, silently noticing. But the silence doesn’t last long. Within seconds, the Thinking Self pops up: “Oh look at the lovely colors … I wish I had my camera … it reminds me of my trip to…” as you get more and more caught up in your thoughts and you start to disconnect from the sunset. In Western Society, we tend to believe that the Thinking Self is the pinnacle of human development, and accordingly, our education system focuses on rational & analytical thinking, logic, enhancing memory, planning… etc.

There is nothing wrong with this as such, but the other aspect of our mind, the Observing Self tends to be neglected in the process. If we don’t utilize our Observing Self, we tend to have limited self-awareness, self-reflection and self-knowledge. Both aspects of mind are equally necessary for a productive, meaningful and fulfilled life. Through the practice of mindfulness exercises, we can learn to access our Observing Self, which is otherwise largely obscured by our chattering thoughts and emotions.

Your Observing Self can replace thoughts such as “I am a loser” to the thought that “I am having the thought that I am a loser”. This type of thinking helps us be more objective and identify less with the disturbing thoughts from our skewed perceptions. We observe ourselves thinking a certain way rather than just thinking that way. We mentally note our toxic thoughts rather than embrace them as true.

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In a process called Cognitive Fusion (attachment to thoughts), automatic thoughts are seen as being fused to the mind and end up distorting perceptions. Cognitive defusion (being in the Observer Self) says we can see thoughts and feelings for what they are, just that.

Finding The Observer Self:

  1. Set Intention. The Observer Self is a mindful practice and it needs to be practiced daily. It starts with setting the intention to change the way you think and see the world and an awareness of our Thinking Mind and Conceptualised Self that helps us avoid and stay stuck. We can be attached to this part of our mind because it is easier to do so. Write an intention to do this every day and the reasons why.

  • Understand Mindfulness. Mindfulness keeps us in the present moment but crucially every mindful thought changes the chemicals in our brain, just as any negative thought does the same. Being mindful of a feeling or thought is a big step towards observing what is going on in your mind. A nice exercise to do is to see your mind as a deep blue sky and your thoughts as clouds floating through. Even if those clouds are dark or angry, the sky is unchanged underneath.

  • Use Your Breath. Breathing helps you step into the observer role by focussing on the breath moving in and out of the body as you inhale and exhale slowly. Doing this will allow you to focus on breath and not get lost in the stories created by the Thinking Mind. Here is my favourite breathing technique: Wim Hof.

  • Question Thoughts. In Observer Self, we can start to question our thoughts before they become stories. Take it out of your mind and question if it is true. It might be your thought but you don’t have to believe it. We are taught many things about ourselves as we develop and grow. Observing these thoughts as single thoughts will help us to see what impact they have, whether they are helpful or unhelpful.

  • Observe Feelings and Actions. When we can isolate a thought, we can also observe how it makes us feel and behave and what is our default method of dealing with it. We can observe where in our body we feel this thought and tell ourselves that these emotions are not us but just feelings we are having.

  • Welcome the Unknown. Recently, I wrote about the Fork in the Road exercise, where we can choose to believe the Conceptualised Self or the Inner Dictator and avoid to embrace another road where we can choose our way and responses. Taking the fork where we stay conscious but where we are willing to face our fears is harder but more rewarding.

  • Practice it all in Meditation. Maintain the above in a regular daily meditation practice for relaxation and peace. Here is a good guided meditation to help you get started. 15 minute Meditation. Good luck!

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Dr. Nicholas Jenner

Dr. Nicholas Jenner is a counseling psychotherapist in online private practice working with individuals, couples and groups, dealing with codependency issues, severe depression, bipolar, personality disorders, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders and other mental health issues. He has been practicing online for many years and recognized early that online therapy was a convenient method for people to meet their therapist. Working outside the box, he goes that extra mile to make sure clients have access to help between sessions, something that is greatly appreciated. He also gives part of his spare time up to mentor psychology students in a university setting.

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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Marty

    Great article

    I can see how I have handled my complex Ptsd, working on integrating and letting go.

    The codependency part of this equation I think is what’s left.

    Reading this post describes exactly what my childhood experience was like.

    Our need for approval is stealthy with its if energy surrounding that needs.

    I always describe it as true self versus the dysfunctional ego we abused kids create.

    Thanks for your wisdom Doc

  2. An excellent post as always Dr Jenner.

    The information here is absolutely crucial. I have much work to do.

    My therapy continues… but from afar now…

    Thank you for your help…🙏🏻