Activity: Connecting with your Observing Self.
Updated: Mar 14, 2022
Harnessing the Observing Mind and reconnecting with your True Self.
(Part 7 of the Heal with ACT series)
As human beings, we yearn to be seen, cared for and, included as members of a group.
This yearning is healthy, but often times, we let our own selves get in the way of fulfilling this need.
For example, our fears of being judged by others might stop us from opening up fully and honestly to people. We present a false version of ourselves - perhaps a more positive, kinder, higher-achieving version of ourselves that we think others might be attracted to. Yet in the back of our mind, we worry that they might see past this pretense.
At other times, it's our pride that leads to arguments in relationships we cherish most deeply. We play the blame game, even when we know we contributed to the wrongdoing; or we hold back on apologising, even when we know one sincere "I'm sorry" is all it takes to get back to a loving state.
Whether you know it or not, it's the stories we've come to believe about ourselves that are getting in the way of our happiness.
In The Greatest Story-teller on Earth: your mind, we talked about how these self-stories about ourselves can end up causing us pain.
For example, believing in a story of how "you're unloveable" might be stopping you from getting closer to a person you really like. As another example, believing that you are "capable" might lead you to get angry and upset when someone tells you that you are not!
When we come to believe fully in these stories, and lose track of their presence. When that happens, even the most positive of self-stories can lead to pain.
Likewise, our self-stories can easily also get in the way of our relationships.
I mean, can you think of a recent time when you:
Told a little white lie to someone?
Played the victim even when you weren't one?
Exaggerated about yourself?
Made excuses for your mistakes?
Missed out on telling part of a story that didn't make you look good?
Got upset when someone challenged some part of you that you are proud of?
I'm sure you can. I can easily think of many times too.
What's at stake when we do all the above?
If each of us had a video collage displaying every single instance we commit the above, it'll make even the best of us look like terrible human beings!
Yet, it might give you some relief if we were to consider it in the context of self-esteem.
Strong self-esteem has been something we've all been told is good for us - we think it's a worthy goal.
It's usually associated with feeling good about yourself, and perhaps seeing yourself as special, popular, intelligent, capable. People with high self-esteem might be able to admit to past mistakes, and they generally think that they've learned from them and are moving forward in life.
That all sounds nice and good, and to a degree it is, but does self-esteem really stop there? Unfortunately no, as the quest for self-esteem often leads to delusion, as well as reinforcing and creating new self-stories of ourselves.
For example, I used to be an over-achiever in University (yes I know, how Singaporean of me). I always needed to get the best grades in every module I took. In Australia, where I studied, that was a High Distinction, a mark of eighty or more out of a hundred.
Without being aware of it, I started to base my self-esteem on my academic achievements. I came to believe this "I'm an over-achiever story" as part of who I am.
On a personal level, while this story was sometimes good in motivating me to study, it also led to plenty of stress and pressure. Otherwise, it affected me when I didn't get the marks I was hoping for - and often I felt terribly down and out afterwards.
Beyond the personal, there's also an external perspective to this.
Carrying this story of "I'm an over-achiever" affected the way I talked and listened to people. For example, I often felt irritated in group discussions, having the terrible better-than-thou mindset of:
"Why should I listen to you? Are you sure you know your stuff as much as I do?"
At other times, if I decided to speak up during a discussion and someone else would ignore or argue back, how did I react?
I got irritated and felt the need to prove I was right. I shut down other people in the effort to prove this story.
I'm ashamed to admit it, but it's true!
So as it happens, rather than helping us connect better to others and make us feel like we belong, holding tightly to our self-stories and our self-esteem are only doing the exact opposite.
They only end up causing us hurt. They are the real reason why we feel alienated and alone.
If not your stories, then who's the real you?
By now, you're probably well aware of how fusing to our self-stories and believing them to be the real "me" has come at the cost of happiness, self-worth, and inner peace.
Yet, it's much more than that - they also come in the way of our relationships with others.
Let's try out this quick activity below:
Activity 1: "I Am..."
The following are three unfinished sentences. Take a sheet of paper and write them down.
Now complete the first two blanks with one-word answers that represent positive things about yourself. Don't put in mere factual attributes (e.g. I am male, I am tall). Use terms that refer to your prized personal qualities.
For the last one, put in a personal attribute that is negative - one you fear you are and that you're afraid of being.
1) I am _________________.
2) I am _________________.
3) I am _________________.
Let's start with the first two "positive" answers.
As an example, I wrote down:
I am smart.
I am hardworking.
Ask yourself, are these positive statements about yourself:
True all the time?
True everywhere you go?
True with everyone?
Probably not, unless you're lying! Even if they are our prized qualities of ourselves, there are still times when they are not totally true. I can certainly think of times where I've said dumb things or slacked off when I should be working.
Now ask yourself the same question of the "negative" answer.
For me, I put down "I am a failure".
Again, is this totally true? Would people say the same thing if they could watch you 24/7? My guess is, probably not.
Now let's try this out - how many of these statements can you turn into a comparison with others?
For example, if you wrote down something similar to mine, like "I am smart", see if these statements link to the idea that your are smart-ER or kind-ER or MORE hardworking than at some of the people you know.
You probably could, and I hope you see it now.
Our self-stories aren't just about us - our stories are also about how we see ourselves in comparison to others.
It's no wonder why we feel so alone when we argue, get upset, and protect our own ego!
The start of a solution is to notice how we've fused with our stories. I know we've already talked about it before, but let's be patient and try this out. It will take you to the good stuff, I promise.
Activity 2: "I Am... or Not".
Now, let's try to notice how we can change the way we think about our stories - namely, that we don't have to believe in the absolute truth of it.
Continuing with the same activity, revisit all three of your statements and change the full-stop or period at the end of each sentence into a comma.
Then write down these two words: "or not".
I am smart, or not.
I am hardworking, or not.
I am a failure, or not.
Read through each sentence that you've just changed again. Slowly. Take your time and watch what happens.
Do you have a sense that something opened slightly? Like more air is coming into your room and you can breathe a little lighter?
You might also feel that you have more options about how you think about yourself - that it's not as black and white as it once was.
The problem with our stories is that if we buy into that version of ourselves, we close ourselves off to other possibilities. Instead, we can remind ourselves, just like in the above, that there are many more possibilities of ourselves.
At the very least, we are not stuck with who we "think" we are.
So who are you really? Now, this is the fun part.
Activity 3: "I am."
Now take the all three sentences that you've written, and cross out everything you've written after "I am".
Look at those simple two words. Ask yourself - who would you be without any other content? Take a pause and consider the answer.
Look again at those two words that are left on your paper:
Really dig deep - who are you without all that other content? Who are you without all your stories and defenses? Who are you when there's nothing that you need to protect anymore?
Are you still, "you"?
Hopefully your answer to the above question was, yes, I'm still me.
If your answer was "No, it's not me anymore!", then take a moment to notice -who is thinking that thought? Isn't there something deep inside you that is simply able to notice your mental processes?
You might find that this "you" is a very deep sense of you. It feels like it's always been there. It might feel like you've just woken out of a dream or reverie.
This "you" has just gotten lost in all the different stories you carry with you, lost admist all the noisy thoughts, feelings, behaviours and sensations that are come along with those stories.
But yet, realise this, there's still this part of you that's there: just being.
So. Who are you, really?
Hopefully you and I can reach the same conclusion here, with the below three point summary:
If all the self-stories that we carry with us each day can be stripped away
If all the content that we think we are can be removed
But it still leave us with a sense of "me".
Then who is that version of "me"?
Well, there isn't actually a common name for it - you can't call it your "mind". Your mind also includes your thoughts, feelings and even your self-stories, right?
As a reminder, in ACT, we call that part of ourselves who buys into our stories, gets fused with our thoughts, and feels upset when our image, self-esteem and ego gets threatened the Conceptualised Self - i.e. the concept of ourselves that is maintained by our Thinking Mind.
The other sense of self that you noticed is different. Can you kind of describe it?
Here are some qualities that I can think of. See if you agree:
It's able to step away from our thoughts and self-stories.
It doesn't get hurt or get upset.
It doesn't need to pretend.
It's focused on the here and now.
It's not bad or good - it's just there.
It cannot be improved upon - therefore it's already perfect.
It's always there - we just need to tune into it.
So what do we call this self that has always been there from birth to death? That is able to notice the distorted self-stories of our Thinking Mind? That is able to simply observe?
Well, it's the part of ourselves that's linked to our Observing Mind - and in ACT, we call this our True Self.
It is the truest, most authentic version of you. It doesn't need to pretend or lie. We don't even need it to ever change - it's already perfect the way it is.
It's the part of you that is just always there. And it will always be there as long as you are alive. It's something you can count on even when the deepest fears or the worse possible thing happens - because it doesn't get hurt or feel pain.
It just observes.
I hope you found this reconnection with your True Self to be a powerful feeling - it was life-changing for me.
In the next article, I'll be sharing three more exercises we can do to connect to your Observing Mind, and therefore allow you to be your True Self more often.
Thanks for reading and stay tuned!
Thanks for reading Kaya Toast for the Soul. I hope you found this concept of our True Self enlightening - it made me see myself in an entire new light! Well, my True Self of course, not the one that thinks he's so smart. Take care!