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ACT Principle 4 - The Observing Self

The fourth principle of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is the “observing self.” The observing-self practices the art of noticing. This practice identifies two parts of the mind: “the thinking self” and the “observing self.”

The thinking self is automatic: “I’m a teacher,” “I’m depressed,” “I’m overweight”

The observing self observes these thoughts (practicing cognitive defusion, see previous post): “I’m noticing that I’m having the thought that I’m depressed.”

A metaphor helpful to understanding the role of the “observing self” -

The chessboard metaphor: Imagine a chessboard, where your one set of pieces represent all your positive thoughts and feelings, and the other set of pieces represent all your negative ones. This is often default functioning – going through life desperately trying to move our positive pieces across the board to wipe off all the negative pieces. But the problem is – there are an infinite number of white and black pieces. Also, each piece attracts it’s opposite: “I’m a good parent,” attracts “What about this area where you are lacking…” Instead of seeing our thoughts as pons in a battle, try to imagine your mind as the chessboard. The board is in intimate contact with all the pieces, but it’s not involved in the battle. The observing self is the chessboard. It enables us to step out of the battle with our thoughts and feelings while giving them plenty of space to move. Here we can observe, notice, and practice openness and understanding with our thoughts and feelings.

Notices the story of who you are given through thoughts and feelings: “I am a hard worker.” “I always need to excel.” “I am a teacher.” “I must do things perfectly.” Be flexible with your story. Holding it lightly. Collect data as a non-judgmental observer. Allow room to notice and space to utilize cognitive defusion – evaluating the workability of these identified self-concepts. Decide whether or not they are helpful to you through the lens of movement toward or away from valued, meaningful living.

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