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What Is ‘The Observing Self’ And Why Is It Such A Powerful Therapy Tool?

How to separate your client from their problem

Therapy Shutter
Help your clients use their 'observing self' to gain a fresh perspective

“I think I did that because I was feeling so hurt.”

“If I could tell my teenage self one thing, it would be this.”

“Anxiety overwhelms me when I see him, which is why I get so flustered – my brain stops working!” 

We human beings have a unique ability that rarely gets talked about (in Western culture anyway).

It’s the ability to observe and react to our own behaviours as if they were the actions of someone else. In other words, to engage the ‘observing self’.

And as therapists and counsellors we can encourage our clients to utilize their observing self, because it enables them to ‘step out’ of problematic trance states and gain a fresh perspective.

The observing self makes us human

The observing self is perhaps the seat of what it is to be human. As far as we can tell, no other creature has the capacity to reflect on reality and its own place within that reality; if other creatures do have something similar, it is to a much lesser degree.

This ability is a function of the prefrontal neo-cortex, which we can regard as the ‘conductor’ of the brain’s ‘orchestra’ or the ‘leader’ of the brain ‘nation’.

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From this capacity flows the potential to become more than just our immediate and current self in our immediate and current circumstances.

Many classic psychotherapeutic techniques (such as ‘The Rewind’) specifically encourage the use of the observing self. The extent to which we can engage this faculty corresponds to how well we can transcend the situations in which we find ourselves, understand the workings of our own minds, and minimize damaging emotions so we have clarity and calm.

Here are three ways you can use a client’s observing self to help them feel better

1. Grade emotion, motivation, or pain

Whenever we grade (scale) a problem’s intensity, it is as if a part of us is watching the problem from the outside. We are partly outside the problem pattern and have removed it from our ‘core’ self. This breaks the grip of the problem behaviour.

If I feel anxious and decide that ’10’ is the most terrified I could possibly feel and ‘1’ is the most relaxed, I might then scale my anxiety at that moment as ‘7’. The very fact of doing this requires me to use my observing self. This is one reason we use scaling with our clients.

2. Raise a laugh

When we laugh at a situation (or at ourselves), then, for that time, we engage the observing self. When people get labelled (or label themselves) as ‘depressive’, ‘anxious’, or ‘alcoholic’, the opposite happens. The core of the person becomes identified with their behaviour. In a sense, perspective is lost and their identity becomes meshed with their ‘condition’.

Of course, humour needs to be encouraged at the right time and in the right way. But you can tell that the capacity to engage the observing self is getting stronger when you see someone start to show flashes of humour in relation to their situation.

3. Use metaphor and analogy

If you are lost in a thick forest, all you know is that you are submerged in a sea of trees.

But imagine what it would be like if you could be lifted above the trees for a moment. You might look down and see that you are actually very close to a path. After being set gently down again, you’d be so much better able to find your way out of this mass of trees.

This metaphor neatly demonstrates both how metaphor can activate the observing self and how engaging the observing self can help people take a more detached view of their circumstances, putting themselves in a better position to escape a problem state or situation. Describing the pattern of a person’s problem via a story or analogy lets them see it ‘from the outside’.

There are many ways to help people detach psychologically from their emotional patterns. I would even go so far as to say that not just individuals but whole nations and cultures need to be able to view themselves from the outside so as to have a crack at becoming as healthy as possible.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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