In this column I’ll cover the last two techniques you can use to develop greater psychological flexibility. They are called the Observing Self and Disentanglement. Remember, the more psychologically-flexible you are, the less stressed you’ll be.
What people refer to as your self is not really a single thing. You can view your self from a variety of different perspectives. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy the two main views are the self-as-content view and the self-as-context view (The Observing Self View). The Observing self is that silent, quiet part of yourself that persists through time, observing and noticing all the things that go on inside your head without getting caught up in them.
When you take a self-as-content view and see yourself as merely a collection of thoughts and feelings. In other words, you see yourself as the same thing as your thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories, stories and images. Much of this view is unhelpful, outdated, and does not match up to reality.
Taking a self-as-content view places tremendous value on your thoughts and feelings. It also sets you up for believing that because your thoughts and feelings are so important, you can work out all of your problems and decisions in your head without having to directly experience them in real life.
In actuality, you are more than a mere collection of thoughts and feelings. You are a living being comprised of flesh and blood, with a rich history and living presence, part of which includes your mind.
When you take an observing self view (a self-as context view) of your life you can step back and become an impartial observer of your thoughts and feelings. Observing your thoughts and feelings from the safe distance of the observing self allows you to see that your mental activity is just that, things going on in your mind. It also helps you observe whether or not this mental activity is accurate and helpful, or inaccurate and unhelpful and a source of your stress.
You can consider the observing self view as a kind of viewing or observing platform where you can go to disentangle (ACT calls this defuse or cognitive defusion) yourself from unhelpful, unwanted or unpleasant thoughts and feelings.
The way you do that is by using Disentanglement techniques. These give you several different ways to step back and take an observing-self view. Many Disentanglement techniques such as The White Board.
The White Board is a classic tool that can be used to help you disentangle from the troubling thoughts, self-talk, and mental images, and painful emotions that are causing you stress. Writing things on a board and then stepping back creates mental and physical distance from them. You create mental distance by literally get them out of your head and onto a white board. You create physical distance from them by continuing to step further and further away from the board.
You can do this activity with a whiteboard, a flip chart with color markers, or legal sized pad with felt-tip pens.
- Think of an area where you are feeling stressed. It might be related to work, your relationship with your partner, spouse or children, or any other area.
- Pick up one of the markers and write this heading: Unhelpful Thoughts My Mind Is Telling Me About [whatever you’re stressed about]
For example, “Unhelpful Thoughts My Mind Is Telling Me About Starting to Date Again” or “Unhelpful Thoughts My Mind Is Telling Me About Asking for a Raise.”
- List all of the thoughts and self-talk your mind is telling you about being stressed about this issue.
For example, about dating again, you might find your mind telling you, “I’m too old to be doing this or I’ll never find another person like my ex-wife.” Regarding asking for a raise, your mind might say things such as “I don’t really need the money or I should be happy to just have a job.”
List all of your thoughts—no matter how crazy, silly, or inconsequential you think they might seem to be.
- Now write the following heading: Unhelpful scary pictures my mind is creating about ……Close your eyes when doing this to help facilitate seeing the images in your mind.
- Describe all of the scary pictures your mind is creating about…….Describe all of your scary pictures—no matter how crazy, silly, or inconsequential you think they might seem to be.
- Finally, write the following final heading: Painful emotions my mind is creating about ……
- Describe the emotions your mind your mind is creating about…….Describe all of your emotions—no matter how crazy, silly, or inconsequential you think they might seem to be.
- When you’re done, put down the marker and step back a few feet from the board or pad and re-examine all of your unhelpful thoughts, personal scripts, mental images and emotions.
- When you are done stepping back tell yourself; “Boy my mind has been pretty busy churning out all of these things.”
- Now step back three more feet and say, “These are merely my thoughts, feelings, and mental images—they are not me. I am much more than these things.”
- Feel the effects of your self-talk and the distance you have put between yourself and these unhelpful thoughts and feelings.
- Try stepping back even further to put more distance between you and these unhelpful thoughts.
When you are done, you’ll probably find that the actual process of getting things out of your mind and onto paper was incredibly liberating. Following that up with literally stepping back and observing this mental activity from a distance made it even more powerful.
There are many other techniques available for helping you develop an Observing Self view and disentangling from your troubling thoughts and painful emotions. For more information check out my Rethink course on my website.www.drrichblonna.com/courses/courses-for-everyone
Until the next time, remember to Stress Less and Live More.