In my last column, I shared some thoughts on the difference between our thinking self and our observer self in order to deal with unpleasant thoughts and emotions.
A message from one reader this week reminded me that developing a new skill or attitude requires practical guidance – as they suggested, “the how is just as important as the why”.
I was asked to share some practical tips on increasing our observer self, which you might recall is the part of us that notices what’s going on in our minds without getting caught up in it.
We each have the tendency to buy into the stories our minds tell us. The mind can be our best friend, while at other times it’s quite mischievous. When we listen to our inner criticisms, self-doubts, fears and insecurities, we become “fused” with our thoughts.
For much of the time, there is little, if any, evidence to show that our negative thinking is based on fact. Our minds don’t care much about facts; their job is to protect us from rejection, isolation, humiliation, and so on.
While we might experience unpleasant thoughts, they’re often defence mechanisms that persuade us not to take any chances and therefore risk losing face. Sometimes, it can be helpful to be cautious and consider what our negative thinking is telling us.
If we’re considering a dicey investment, or an inadvisable decision, it’s sensible to take a step back and pay attention to why we’re feeling a little cagey and unsure.
That said, we all know only too well that we can let our thoughts take over in a way that makes a catastrophe out of an opportunity. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s had the thought, “If only I’d had the courage to go for it when I had the chance!”
It’s here that we can see the value of developing the observer self. The role it plays isn’t to disregard our negative thoughts or stop paying attention to those feelings of unease.
Rather, its job is to stop us from blindly following whatever our mind has to say. The more we develop our observing self, the better we are at weighing up the pros and cons of whatever choices we face.
Here are three metaphors which, if we practise consistently, can help us to break free of the excessive thinking self. These techniques are popular in acceptance and commitment therapy, and can also be applied to our everyday lives.
The Tug O’ War
Imagine you’re in a tug of war with your negative thoughts – self-doubt, judgement, criticism, etc. They’re all lined up. You’re holding on and pulling in one direction, they pull in another. Between you is a deep hole into which, if you fall, you’ll suffer a great deal more.
So you try desperately to keep pulling against those thoughts that try to drag you down. But the more you struggle with negative thoughts, the more exhausting it becomes, and they don’t seem to get tired at all. Of course, you don’t want to fall into the hole, so you should keep pulling, right?
What would happen if you just let go of the rope? It won’t make the thoughts disappear, but when you stop fighting against them, they lose their power to drag you down. There’s no more danger of falling into the hole.
It takes practise (the thoughts will throw the rope back at you and you’ll grab on again and again), but when you catch on to the realisation that your thoughts are just a fleeting bunch of words, you gain back whatever control you gave them in the first place.
Get Out Of The Quicksand
Anyone who has watched Westerns will recognise the old trope of the bad guys being sucked into the bottomless pit of quicksand, never to be seen again. In reality, it’s almost impossible to drown in quicksand, but you will sink deeper the more you struggle. This is due to the reduced friction between sand particles caused by water saturation.
The more you struggle in quicksand, the more difficult it is to get out. In order to free yourself, the advice is to lean back and spread your arms and legs. Even though it’s counter-intuitive, this is what helps you to float to the surface. Similarly, the more we struggle against our negative thinking, the deeper the thoughts seem to increase their hold on us.
To begin to let go of unwanted thoughts, we practise accepting them as they are, allowing the observer self to think, “OK, I notice there’s some anger now. It’s not pleasant, but it’s there. It’ll soon pass, it’s just a feeling.”
The Sushi Train
Whenever you’re in a Japanese restaurant, you might see sushi dishes gliding past you on the conveyor belt. Some look very appealing, others look a little off-putting, and the rest are neutral. Just as we watch the sushi dishes roll by, taking only those we want, we can practise watching our thoughts in the same way.
When we spot an unpleasant thought, we can visualise it on the sushi train, and watch it as it floats on by. Even though it might come around again, we can just simply let it go on its way without interfering with it at all.