In this episode Jackie talks about the skill of developing an inner observer as a way of increasing personal awareness and slowing down our automatic response process. Developing an inner observer helps us increase our emotional intelligence and make sense of behavior.
TRANSCRIPT: How to Observe Thoughts and Feelings
Hi everyone, welcome to Thanks for Sharing. I’m your host, Jackie Pack. Today’s episode we are going to talk about the inner observer. So a common question that I get from people, both clients and then just people I come in contact with outside of work, is how are thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related? So simply put, a situation arises, sometimes we call this the event or a trigger or a triggering event, so a situation arises and we have feelings about this. Now when I’m talking about this with clients, I will usually say oftentimes we use the terms feelings and emotions interchangeably, and I want to start thinking about feelings as kind of a physiological response, so something happens in my body. I may or may not be aware of it, so my heart rate my increase, I might kind of get kind of a churning in my gut, I might feel anxious in my chest or my breathing my go more shallow, so a situation arises, we have these feelings, physiological responses to this, and then this is closely followed by thoughts about the situation, and those thoughts trigger emotions, so maybe I’m embarrassed, or maybe I’m nervous, or maybe I’m afraid, or I’m sad, or the numerous emotions that we can have, and then based on those thoughts and emotions, we engage in the behavior, which in turn impacts the situation, either positively or negatively, and the cycle continues. So if we want to change or redirect this cycle, I’ll often say, where do you think it’s possible, where do we start to have some choice or an ability to impact this situation differently than just allowing this cycle to continue? Well, we can’t really control the triggers, and we can’t control events. If I’m talking with a partner who’s experienced betrayal trauma, this is one of the things we have to talk about often is because they do get triggered, and those triggers are legitimate, and they can’t necessarily be… we’ve got to work on lessening the sensitivity to the trigger because they live in a world and we’re not really going to change the world so that these triggers aren’t there. Anything can trigger us, and so… and we’re going to notice things, so the goal is not to eliminate triggers, so we can’t really have control or an impact on that, and we can’t really control physiological responses. I can’t choose to not have my heart rate increase. Now if that happens, I can notice that and I can take some deep breaths and get my heart rate back down, but I can’t say to my body, don’t do that in the first place. I can’t keep my eyes from dilating, my pupils from dilating. I can’t control maybe that gurgling gut feeling that I get or the hair on the back of my neck that stands up. That’s not something that I can control.
So the next step in this process is thought. Can I interrupt the thoughts that follow the events and the physiological response? Yes. Yes, I can. So this is where I can start to impact this situation, but how do I do that? Well, for most people, we aren’t really even aware that this process is happening until maybe the emotions of it or the behavior of it, so our awareness of something is happening long after the ability for us to intercede in this and kind of make it go in the direction we want it to has already passed. And it seems this process seems to kind of automatically happen, and it happens very quickly, and so when I’m talking to somebody, and I’ll ask “What was the trigger?”, they don’t know, and “What happened to your body?” They don’t know. They don’t think… they’re aware of when the action happened, and then this is what I did, and it’s like okay, but where did that come from? And we’re not really tuned into that, and I don’t think our culture necessarily teaches us to clue into that, but it is possible to clue into that, so this process that seems to happen pretty automatically and pretty quickly, we can slow it down, and maybe we learned a long time ago to disconnect our awareness from our physiological responses that our bodies have. Sometimes that happens when we’re kids. This information was too overwhelming, or we didn’t know what to do with it anyway. Nobody was kind of helping us. This would be kind of parents or maybe teachers could do this, though I don’t think it’s teachers’ job all the time. Parents need to be doing some of this, and so parents aren’t aware of this. They don’t know how to teach their kids to be aware of this, so kids don’t know what to do with it. It’s overwhelming information. Their body and their brain is taking in so much information through the senses, sight, sound, feeling, taste, touch, all of that kind of stuff, and it’s overwhelming because it’s gathering all this data, but it doesn’t have a way to process or interpret the data, so kids often, I mean I usually say kids naturally very much live in their body, and they’re very impacted by what’s happening in the body, but if that’s overwhelming for them, at some point they learn to just disconnect. They disconnect the brain and the body as a form of not being so overwhelmed by the information that their body is gathering and feeling and experiencing, and so our brain kind of learns to not be aware of what’s happening in the body, and so we say things like, “You’re right, If you think you can do it.” Well this is kind of thinking everything originates in the brain. I don’t believe it does. I believe it originates kind of in the physiological responses that are happening, and the brain clues into that, even if we’re unaware of that, the brain is taking its cues from physiological, sometimes very subtle responses that are happening in the body. Now our thought process may run through the ego, which we’ll talk a little bit about this ego concept, but the thoughts may be inaccurate or take us on a course of defensiveness or protectiveness. That’s kind of the job of the ego is to kind of protect us and defend us, so the emotions are being impacted or determined by what our thoughts are and what those thoughts are are our response to this physiological reaction, and then we react based on thought plus emotions, so how can we slow this process down? How do we get out of reaction and into action or into intension or mindfulness?
Viktor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and out freedom.” So when we talk about self-observation… self-observation is a basic, inner-life practice that appears in all wisdom traditions. It’s also known as witnessing consciousness or inner observer, and the practice consists of focusing your attention inwardly and becoming aware of the thought and other objects of attention that arise within us, and there are several ways to approach this practice, but the initial experience is always one of recognizing your automatic pattern and the tenacity with which certain preoccupations recur within your mind, so the fact that you can observe and talk about your habits of thought and feeling from the perspective of a detached outsider helps to make these patterns less compulsive and thoughts begin to seem separate from myself, rather than who I really am, this is a process that I experience. So an inner observer, that’s the term that I use most often, so an inner observer is kind of this neutral non-judgmental aspect of ourselves that allows us to witness our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and it simply just kind of watches like the lens of a movie camera, which doesn’t judge or interpret the thought.
I used to say like picture this, maybe I would say maybe news journalists today because I think the 24-hour news cycles have really kind of altered how we approach news, but back in the day, I remember when I was growing up and they had the, what was it? The fair information act that expired and wasn’t renewed and has contributed to maybe our not as… our journalism not being as integritous. So back in the day, if they were reporting a news story, it had to be much more fact-based, and they couldn’t kind of have biases reported or if they were reporting maybe this bias, they were required to report the other bias as well, and I remember even as a kid, I was interested in news, I was interested in what was happening related to news, and I remember I was always fascinated with presidential elections, so when I was growing up when I was young, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, they were kind of the news journalists that I remembered watching when I was young, the national news journalists, and I remember watching presidential elections be covered or the night of the election and kind of watching for the winner. I remember I would ask my mom, “Who do you think they’re voting for? Who are they supporting?” Because I couldn’t tell as a kid, and I was interested in that, but I couldn’t tell, and so again, maybe as an adult perspective I wouldn’t have had this same perspective, but as a kid I remember thinking it’s pretty unbiased because I couldn’t tell. They were just kind of reporting the facts. So this is our inner observer. Think of the inner observer in terms of just that kind of news reporter who isn’t trying to cause alarm. They’re not trying to report things that we don’t know. They’re not… it’s not speculating. Our inner observer doesn’t speculate because again, that isn’t necessarily accurate or good information to respond to, and so it may be something like there’s a fire, we’re not sure what causes it, everybody’s safe. Something like that. It’s just factual. So the inner observer might respond in a way that’s again it’s detached, and it can kind of separate itself from what’s happening in the body and kind of just report on that to the brain. We’re noticing a slight increase in heart rate. We’re noticing that the stomach is a little bit gurgling and muscles have tensed, and it’s related to this event that happened. We’re not sure what that means. We don’t have all of the data yet to fully decide how to respond, so as we develop this inner observer, we can recognize these cognitive neural markers, such as doubt, judgement, flattery when they appear and before they become too convincing so we can relax our emotional passion that drive outer behavior and learn to titrate these sematic contraction that signals our inner distress. Again, this is happening very quickly, so if we can just hit pause for a few seconds in this automatic process, if we can just pause before those thoughts just start going haywire or start becoming really convincing, it gives the other parts of the brain time to catch up and maybe say well, I’m not quite sure. I don’t know if I need to do this. I can be prepared to fight or flee or freeze, but I’m not sure if I need to. Let me just see how this is going, so again, the thoughts become different. It’s not about these panic-driven kind of impassioned thoughts that come about like “Get out of here!” or “That’s so embarrassing. You need to run and hide!” The thoughts don’t follow that pattern. We’re not calling crisis before we know if there’s’ actually a crisis. So the inner observer is this aspect of ourselves that observes what we’re thinking, feeling, and doing in each moment as the thoughts, feelings and actions are occurring. So often we think that we’re observing, but in reality, we rarely do, and if we’re not practicing developing and maturing this inner observer, we might think that we’re observing and we’re not. So what we often call observing is actually still just the ego maintaining this running commentary with criticism of the self and the world, so the inner observer is unattached to what is occurring with the ego, and it observes unconditionally. It’s from this unconditional place of watching that we can actually make a choice to change the habitual reactions.
Now let’s talk for a minute about where this idea of ego came from. So Sigmund Freud, who is the founder of psychoanalysis, he attempted to develop this model of the psyche, and he described three agents of theoretical constructs that describe the activities and interactions of the mental life of a person. So according to Freud’s structural model of the psyche, the id is the primitive and instinctual part of the mind that contains sexual and aggressive drives and hidden memories. The id, you probably learned about this if you took even a high school psychology class, the id is driven by pleasure and it’s repulsed by pain, so id is going to move towards pleasure and it’s going to move away from pain. Now the super ego operates as this moral conscience and tries to get us to behave in ways that are socially appropriate and acceptable, and then the ego is this realistic part that mediates between the desires of the id and the moral reasoning of the super ego and makes decisions. The ego helps to make these decisions between the two. So the ego operates on the reality principle, which works to satisfy the id’s desires and impulses in a way that’s realistic and socially acceptable and thereby appeases the super ego. So for example, if someone cuts you off in traffic, the id may want to respond impulsively and may feel like chasing the car down, flipping them off, reacting to that person in a way that kind of brings a sense of satisfaction or like righting, maybe a sense of justice that is going to… justice would be the pleasure that the id is seeking, and it’s going to kind of restore that sense of pleasure. Now the ego hopefully is preventing us from doing this. The super ego is maybe appalled at what the id wants to do, and the ego prevents us from doing this. Maybe we allow ourselves to cuss them out in the car, we’re maybe incensed at how they’re driving, but we don’t actually have to do anything to this other person, so the super ego is going to be pleased with that. The id is satisfied with that because we’re acknowledging the injustice, but it stops us from acting in this primitive and morally unacceptable manner.
So Freud referred to the id as this reservoir of psychic energy, so he believed it only consisted of our basic biological needs—eat, sleep, defecate, that kind of stuff. That’s what he kind of believed the id was consisted of, so the id is not really complex. It’s just pretty primitive. So Freud believed that the id is primitive. It’s irrational. It’s illogical. The super ego is trying to get you to make good decisions and be this upstanding person. So the id and the super ego are in this constant state of tension and conflict with each other, and then the ego steps in and tries to mediate between the two and act in a way that satisfies both. Now I will say before you start questioning if I’m a complete Freud fan, Sigmund Freud is widely considered in scientific circles to be interesting but also deeply flawed, and I would agree with that, but we do know from some of the research currently that several key Freudian ideas still hold water, and some of the research that we’re finding now, we may be using different language or different terminology, but some of it had its roots in what Freud was seeing and what he was onto. So his notion of this unconscious thought, for example, which he believed took place in the id, so today we’d maybe call this the unconscious part. He would have called it the id. The id is part of our psyche, and there’s a pretty fast-growing field of neuroscience research that matches onto what Freud described as the super ego or this moral consciousness. Now where Freud’s work is still considered flawed and is often dismissed today is his writings and beliefs on sexuality and particularly sexuality in women or homosexuality, so apart from that, he was pretty… I mean Freud was considered somewhat progressive on his ideas about homosexuality for his time period, but he was not progressive in his ideas about females and their makeup. But there’s still considerable value in some of his broad structures of his work.
Now in the psychology field currently, today the id like I was saying is what we call the unconscious or the idea that there’s this vast reservoir of representation that sits there and influences ongoing processing, but without being available to conscious awareness. Now the super ego in a sense is connected with what we would call metacognition, the idea that in addition to first-order awareness, the technical movie that we have as soon as we wake up in the morning and the field of sensations we experience and the thoughts we have, there’s this additional monitoring and control system that Freud talked about as the super ego or this moral consciousness, so we’re aware in current research that, like I said we may use different terms, but some of Freud’s ideas around this there’s some basis for. Now also according to Freud’s theory, mental illness arose when the ego is incapable of maintaining control of the id and super ego, so when their impulses are too strong, Freud believed this caused an imbalance that usually was related to early childhood trauma, so Sigmund Freud, and again his time period is like late-1800s, so this is a long time ago, but Sigmund Freud noted a number of ego defenses which he referred to throughout his written works, and his daughter Anna in the early 1900s developed these ideas and elaborated on them, adding some of her own to the work that he started, so many psychoanalysts have also added further types of these ego defenses. I think today we more commonly talk about them in terms of defense mechanisms, so that may be the word that you’re familiar with. A lot of that started with Freud, was added to by Anna. So we use these defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from feelings of anxiety or guilt which arise because ewe feel threatened or because our id or super ego becomes too demanding, so defense mechanisms operate at this unconscious level and they help ward off unpleasant feelings, or they make things feel better for us, so they’re again, repulsing pain, moving away from pain, moving towards pleasure. And there’s a large number of defense mechanisms, so some of the main ones that Freud and Anna were talking about, you have repression. So repression is an unconscious mechanism that’s employed by the ego to keep disturbing or threatening thoughts from becoming conscious, so a thought of this… so Freud talked about the Oedipus complex, also not one of his best works, but this aggressive thoughts about the same sex parents are repressed because if we see this in… If I’m a female and I see this in my mom, that’s threatening to me as a female or as a male it’s threatening for me to see things in my father because I’m also male, so I repress those things. May not be even aware, but I’m repressing.
Another defense mechanism is denial. We still talk a lot about denial. Denial involves blocking external events from our awareness, so if some situation is just too much to handle, the person just refuses to experience it, so you know, one of the things I think when I was talking about denial in one of our episodes, I talked about some smokers who just refuse to admit to themselves that smoking is bad for their health, and this can be quite complex, where you have physicians who are also smokers. It’s a high level of denial. Projection is another defense mechanism. This involves individuals attributing their own unacceptable thoughts, feelings, and motives onto another person, so I might hate someone, my super ego tells me that having hatred is not good. That doesn’t look good. That’s not really morally acceptable to feel hate for somebody, so I solve that problem by believing that they hate me, but I’ve projected my feeling onto them to make it acceptable. Displacement is a defense mechanism. It’s kind of satisfying an impulse with a substitute object, so someone who is frustrated by their boss at work may go home and yell at their wife and kids, so again, the frustration is coming at work, it comes out someplace else. Regression, which is different than repression, regression is this movement back in psychological time when one is faced with stress, so for kids, maybe they’re six, seven, they’re experiencing some bullying in kindergarten, and they kind of regress back to a time that was more soothing for them, and they exhibit younger years behavior, like wetting the bed or sucking their thumb. So when we get kind of this inappropriate age behavior, but is appropriate at a younger age, so that’s kind of that regression. And then the last one is sublimation, so this is satisfying an impulse with a substitute object in a socially acceptable way, so sublimation may be somebody who has a lot of aggression or anger and that comes out on the sports field or on the court or whatever sport they’re playing, so it’s managed in a constructive way, but the anger… not anger, maybe anger, but the aggression that they show up with on when they’re playing this sport as an athlete actually is coming from somewhere else.
So I wanted to talk about the ego to kind of understand kind of where that comes from and to understand that the… when Freud was talking about the ego, it wasn’t necessarily in the way that we talk about it today. I think it kind of gets this bad rap and isn’t something… we think of somebody maybe with too much ego, and so ego has kind of gotten a bad word, but I don’t think initially it was the idea of ego came about in this… the ego was somehow bad, and it kind of helped us manage the inner conflicts or inner tensions that we experience. So going back to this idea of development of the inner observer, the inner observer is usually not alone, so sitting closely alongside the inner observer is our inner critic, that little voice that pops up, bringing self-criticism, self-doubt, increased levels of self-analysis, maybe over-self-analysis, so this is where the term ego gets a bad rap today. Our ego is there to help us made decisions, mediate between different parts of ourselves and defend and protect us, and I think it’s helpful to view mental health issues on a spectrum, so those of us who experienced trauma as a child, that may be big T trauma, we’ve talked about that before, or little t trauma, we often have kind of this immature or undeveloped ego because the trauma that we experienced, whether it was things that happened that should not have or things that should have happened and did not, so however we experienced this trauma, there was part of our development that got shut down or there were barriers to it fully happening because we were experiencing this trauma and didn’t have a place or people to kind of help us work through that. So think of mental health issues on a spectrum, like when Freud was talking about mental health issues, he was talking about some people who really were not functioning in normal life. There may have been also reasons at that time period people weren’t functioning in normal life, but we can have mental health issues, and some of the times I get clients in and they’ll say one of the stigmas associated with therapy is am I crazy? And I will kind of tell them I don’t believe… that’s not really what I work with as an outpatient therapist, that’s not really who comes to therapy. Some of those more severe mental health issues along that spectrum, those folks may need long-term medication, lifelong medication, lifelong management in order for them to function, and on the lower end of the spectrum, you’ve got people who are fairly functional in their life but there’s some issues that they just can’t keep working anymore the way that it used to work, so they’ve got to come in and uncover some stuff and look at some stuff, so that’s when we’re talking about mental health issues, I don’t want you to kind of react to Freud’s term about mental health issues or some of the issues with the ego. We’ve talked about kind of that spectrum of mental health issues.
So it doesn’t take much for our inner critic or our ego to cause us to feel quite defeated, and it can trigger us to restrict our choices or to maintain or revert to old ways of doing things. It kind of reassures us that if we avoid taking risks or we avoid stepping outside our comfort zone that we’ll avoid the negative feelings associated with these, so developing an inner observer is also a way for us to manage this inner critic or our ego run wild, or as they say in addiction circles, the self-will run riot. We can observe and get curious about those parts of ourselves as well, so if that inner critic starts to come up, again I think that inner observer just notices that, like oh, that’s interesting that that was the first thought that I had, and it’s not necessarily going to have that thought lead to the emotion, lead to the behavior because it’s just observing it, and again this doesn’t take a long time. We’re not talking like even like 5 to 10 minutes. We’re talking lower than that. So as we develop the inner observer, it enables us to have a gap between the stimulus, the triggering event, and our response, the action. It’s in this gap that we can see our defenses arising, and we can choose whether those defenses are useful in this situation or whether to respond more consciously with more awareness, and we all have this ability to observe ourselves. However, the inner observer is like a muscle. In the vast majority of people, it’s atrophied and unused or never even developed, so the inner observer develops through practicing witnessing ourselves, and without developing this, we are constrained to continue creating our world in the same way, and we won’t even be aware of the pattern that kind of just runs the same outcome every time. We’re not even aware of that, and yet we are creating it, so the inner observer can watch you having a thought without having to act on it or having a feeling about it or like an emotion about it. The observer can witness whether the thought is a memory, is this a plan, is this an imagined fantasy? It simply watches like the lens of this movie camera, which doesn’t judge or interpret the thought. It’s just picking it up. It’s just noticing and observing and seeing what’s there.
So the inner observer has the capability of watching bodily sensation without having an opinion about it, so to illustrate a point, kind of think about for a minute a sensation you’re having in your body right now. The inner observer just brings some curiosity to that. It notices it, like maybe I’ve got some tension in my back, maybe I’m feeling kind of warm in my face, maybe I’m feeling kind of cold in my extremities, maybe there’s a sense of heaviness that I feel in my shoulders or in my chest, maybe I get some tingly feelings in my face or my hands or my feet or my toes. Am I noticing any tension in my body? Maybe in my head or… just kind of noticing a sensation that’s happening and instead of having an opinion about it, it’s just getting curious and it just says like, huh, I wonder what that is. I wonder where this is, where this is coming from, has is been here long? How long have I noticed this? So the inner observer can also be mindful of emotions, the same way it is mindful of these sensations, it can be mindful of emotions and identify them without attaching kind of a commentary or a storyline to this emotion. So the inner observer is a neutral witness of patterns of thoughts, and that neutral part is so important in determining how the outcomes look, and the more that we develop this inner observer, the more we can bring unconscious patterns of thinking, feeling, and sensing into our awareness, and if these patterns are not serving us, we can then make a decision to redirect our energy and move into new ways of thinking and behaving.