Me, My Observer-Self, and I

by Suzanne Manser, PhD

I picture my observer-self as somewhere around eight inches diagonally up from my right ear. My observer-self is the part of me that notices what is going on with me. It’s the part of me that noticed that my thoughts drifted to plans for the weekend while I was reading my book-club book. It’s the part of me that wonders why I am suddenly feeling so irritable. It’s the part of me that reminds myself to be compassionate when I feel shame. My observer-self is the part of me that has perspective about me, and perspective turns out to be a very useful thing.

The magic of the observer-self is that you see the present moment in the context of the big picture. Your observer-self has enough distance from your thoughts and feelings to see them for what they are: transient experiences that are pieces of a larger mosaic. From this vantage point, your observer-self can notice that a thought is simply a thought amongst many other thoughts, and not anything you must buy in to. Thoughts come and go all day. You are not your thoughts. From this vantage point, your observer-self can notice a feeling arrive, and some time later, notice it dissipate. Feelings come and go. You are not your feelings.

Pema Chodron puts it beautifully: “You are the sky. Everything else – it’s just the weather.” If you can observe the weather rather than get caught up in it, it is much easier to, well, weather the storms. It gives you a sense of stability to recognize that you are bigger than your thoughts and feelings. You can wait them out. You can change what you are paying attention to. Your observer-self puts you in charge of yourself.

When you see that a thought is just a thought (i.e., not necessarily Truth), you don’t have to do what that thought is telling you to do. For example, you can think that no one could possibly really like you, and you can introduce yourself to people at your new painting class anyway. Similarly, your observer-self reminds you that this intense feeling of sick-to-the-stomach anxiety does not need to dictate whether you ask your boss for a raise. You can feel anxious and ask for the raise. Your observer-self reminds you that the painful thought or feeling is not the only thing you should be paying attention to. From the vantage point of your observer-self, you can also see your goals and values, and the patterns of your thoughts and feelings. This is important information that should be included in decisions about how much you “listen to” any one thought or feeling.

Hanging out with your observer-self strengthens your psychological flexibility. When things don’t go to plan, you are able to adjust more easily. Change in general will not be so hard. How does that work, you ask? When you keep the big picture in mind, you do not need the path to go exactly as expected because you can see other paths, or places where new paths can be forged. You see options. You can clearly see that this moment is not the only moment, that this is not the only chance. This is vital information that gets lost when you are fused with your thoughts and feelings.

For me, the observer-self is one of the core concepts that makes life easier. It helps you distinguish yourself from your thoughts and feelings, and it shows you the lay of the land if you’re paying attention. It is a very handy part of yourself to know.

If you’re interested in developing your observer-self, try these suggestions:

1) Mindfulness meditation is enormously helpful in developing the observer-self. It is a different way of focusing your attention. Imagine yourself sitting on a camping chair in your brain (or perhaps hovering somewhere above it, depending on where your observer-self lives), watching the parade of experiences – thoughts, feelings, physical sensations – that are constantly showing up. You’re just noticing them, watching them go by, instead of engaging with them or judging them. When your mind wanders, bring it back to the chair. Practice this for 3, 5, or 10 minutes a day. Any amount of practice is helpful.

2) Check in with your observer-self throughout the day. Put yourself in the camping chair and notice what’s going on with you. Notice what you’re thinking about. Notice your mood. Notice what your body is doing and how it’s feeling. Notice how you’re reacting to the various pieces of your day. Then notice how it feels to have this bit of distance from your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations.

3) When you recognize that you’re having a challenging thought or feeling, give yourself a pat on the back because you’ve just observed yourself. Then take three giant steps back to look at the big picture. Get perspective on this moment so that you have all the information to help you figure out how you want to handle it.

The observer-self is worth knowing. It gives you the perspective to identify the small stuff as small stuff, even when the stuff wants you to think it is big. It helps you hold your ground when the winds are threatening to take you down. It gives you power, moment by moment, to choose to be the person you want to be.