The Observing Self

The Chessboard
Imagine a chessboard that goes out infinitely in all directions. It’s covered with black pieces and white pieces. They work together in teams, as in chess–the white pieces fight against the black piece. You can think of your thoughts and feelings and beliefs as these pieces; they sort of hang out together in teams too. For example, “bad” feelings (like anxiety, depression, or resentment,) hang out with “bad” thoughts and “bad” memories. Same thing with the “good” ones. So it seems that the way the game is played is that we select the side we want to win. We put the “good” pieces (like thoughts that we are self-confident, feelings of being in control, etc.) on one side, and the “bad” pieces on the other. Then we get up on the back of the black horse and ride to battle, fighting to win the war against anxiety, depression, thoughts about using drugs, or whatever. It’s a war game.

But there’s a logical problem here, and that is that from this posture huge portions of yourself are your own enemy. In other words, if you need to be in this war, there is something wrong with you. And because it appears that you’re on the same level as these piece, they can be as big or even bigger than you are–even though these pieces are in you. So somehow, even though it is not logical, the more you fight the bigger they get. If it is true that “if you’re not willing to have it, you’ve got it,” then as you fight these pieces they become more central to you life, more habitual, more dominating, and more linked to every area of living. The logical idea is that you will knock enough of them off the board that you eventually dominate them–except that your experience tells you the opposite happens. Apparently, the white pieces can’t be deliberately knocked off the board. So the battle goes on. You feel hopeless, you have a sense that you can’t win, and yet you can’t stop fighting. If you’re on the back of that black horse, fighting is the only choice you have, because the white pieces seem to be life threatening. Yet living in a war zone is no way to live.

Yet suppose that you are not the chess pieces. Suppose you are the chessboard. Without a board, these pieces have no places to be. The board holds them. For instance, what would happen to your thoughts if you weren’t there to be aware that you thought them? The pieces need you. They cannot exist without you–but you contain them, they don’t contain you. Notice that if you’re the pieces, the game is very important; you’ve got to win, your life depends on it. But if you’re the board, it doesn’t matter whether the war stops or not. The game may go on, but it doesn’t make any difference to the board. As the board, you can see all the pieces, you can hold them, you are in intimate contact with them; you can watch the war being played out in your consciousness, but it doesn’t matter. It takes no effort by you.

SOURCE: Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. New York: Guilford.

The Classroom
Imagine a classroom full of students. Some of them are “problem” students who talk back to the teacher, stick gum under the desks, and send text messages when the teacher isn’t looking. Some are “good” students who pay attention, get good grades, and suck up to the teacher. Some are “average” students who sit at their desks and go relatively unnoticed. Then there’s the teacher at the front of the room who evaluates all the students, telling the problem students to pipe down, pay attention, and be good, and praising the good students and putting gold stars on their papers.

Your thoughts and feelings are like the students in the classroom: some are negative, some are positive, and some are neutral. And there’s also a part of you that tends to evaluate your thoughts and feelings. Like the teacher, it probably tries to make the negative thoughts pipe down and attempts to keep the positive thoughts around by giving them a gold star. But there is another part to this metaphor: the classroom that contains the students and the teacher. It’s in close contact with them yet also separate from them. It’s the context that contains them. So perhaps you aren’t the students or the teacher—the thoughts, feelings, or evaluations—but the classroom—the vessel that simply contains those experiences.

SOURCE: Stoddard, J. A., & Afari, N. (2014). The big book of ACT metaphors: A practitioner’s guide to experiential exercises and metaphors in acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

The Sky and the Weather
Your observing self is like the sky. Thoughts and feelings are like the weather. The weather changes continually, but no matter how bad it gets, it can’t harm the sky in any way. The mightiest thunderstorm, the most turbulent hurricane, the most destructive tornado–these things can’t hurt or harm the sky. And no matter how bad the weather, the sky always has room for it. Plus, sooner or later the weather always changes.

Sometimes we forget the sky is there, but it’s still there. And sometimes we can’t see the sky because it’s obscured by clouds. But if we rise high enough above these clouds–even the thickest, darkest thunderclouds–sooner or later we’ll reach clear sky, stretching in all directions, boundless and pure. More and more, you can learn to access this part of you: a safe space inside from which to observe and make room for difficult thoughts and feelings.

SOURCE: Stoddard, J. A., & Afari, N. (2014). The big book of ACT metaphors: A practitioner’s guide to experiential exercises and metaphors in acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

The Prince and the Beggar
Imagine a prince and a beggar who look exactly alike but who wear different clothes and live in different homes. Imagine that one day they meet and decide to switch places for a day. The prince puts on the beggar’s rags, and the beggar dons the prince’s robes. The prince walks around the city in foul-smelling clothes and is shoved around like the beggar used to be. The beggar wears expensive clothes and is treated like royalty. The beggar in the prince’s clothes is very appreciative of the sumptuous food he’s given and readily shares it with other beggars. The prince in beggar’s clothes steals bread from a little girl; he feels entitled to take it, after all! He talks down to other beggars and won’t eat with them. So while the prince and the beggar put on different clothing and are treated differently by others, the person each truly is remains unchanged.

SOURCE: Stoddard, J. A., & Afari, N. (2014). The big book of ACT metaphors: A practitioner’s guide to experiential exercises and metaphors in acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Taking Off Your Armor
Doesn’t it seem as though your early life was such a battle that you had to put on strong armor to defend yourself? You became a knight, constantly at war and therefore keeping your armor on all the time. You got so comfortable in your armor that it was like an extension of your own skin and you kind of forgot you were wearing it. And it really worked. It stopped you from being so hurt.

Look at your life right now. Are you still in a battle with people around you? Could it be that the war is over, but you’re still clunking around inside this suit of armor? How free are you to move? What is the armor really costing you? While it’s true that keeping the armor keeps you from being hurt, is it also stopping you from really having the feeling of being held, being loved? What would it be like to take off this suit of armor that seems to no longer fit?

SOURCE: Stoddard, J. A., & Afari, N. (2014). The big book of ACT metaphors: A practitioner’s guide to experiential exercises and metaphors in acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Munto
In the Kikongo language, spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the word for “people” is bantu. The singular form of this word is muntu. Muntu, unlike the English “person,” refers not only to a living person, but to beings who have yet to be born, as well as those who have died. Muntu is a transcendent self that persists, stably and unchanged, through prelife, life, and afterlife. The Congolese speak of muntu as a self that exists inside the body but separate from it, looking out through the eyes and simply watching what occurs. This self doesn’t get attached to outcomes because it isn’t affected by them and it can’t die. It’s a self that simply transitions from spirit to body and back again.

This is much like the ACT concept of [the observing self]: a stable, unchanging self that transcends the content of thoughts and feelings—-a self that experiences and contains these elements but isn’t defined by them.

SOURCE: Stoddard, J. A., & Afari, N. (2014). The big book of ACT metaphors: A practitioner’s guide to experiential exercises and metaphors in acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

The Anthropologist
Taking the observer perspective is like being an anthropologist, but instead of studying the cultural practices of the people of some far-flung location, such as Attu Island in the Aleutians, you’re observing the practices that occur in your head, body, and life—your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, memories, and roles. To be an effective anthropologist, you must use observational methods that allow you to gain valuable information without intruding on or impacting that which is being studied. You use an etic, or science-oriented, approach that allows you to observe separately and impartially. As the anthropologist, you don’t become one with these experiences; rather, you must remain a separate observer of them.

SOURCE: Stoddard, J. A., & Afari, N. (2014). The big book of ACT metaphors: A practitioner’s guide to experiential exercises and metaphors in acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Torch in the Dark (video)
Assorted Metaphors (drawings)
You are not your feelings. You can observe your feelings as they pass.

You are not the thoughts in your mind. You can observe your mind’s thoughts.

What self-concept are you chasing to feel better about yourself? Do you want to feel special … strong … admirable … perfect? When we chase a particular self-concept to feel better about ourselves, it can hurt our relationships. For example, as you struggle to see yourself as more special, you in turn may make others feel less special.

But we need to remember that our self-concept is an illusion. It’s not real, it’s all in our mind. A nonverbal animal (such as a dog) would not be able to see your “special” self-concept. Nor could they smell it, taste it, or roll in it! They don’t know that you want to feel special, or strong, or perfect. The dog wouldn’t know what the fuss is all about.

It may feel good when you finally get the self-concept you were chasing. When you can say, “I’m special” … “I’m strong” … “I’m perfect.” Unfortunately, our self-concept has to be fed, which takes a lot of time and energy. We feed it by searching for more and more evidence that we are still special, or strong, or perfect. So much work! How much further could we go if we didn’t have to feed our self-concept?

Our self-concept is also fragile. We often think it’s under attack when someone puts us down. We believe it’s damaged when we fail. So much time and energy can be spent trying to protect, defend, or fix our self-esteem. But what if self-concept is not real? What if it’s just a concept? It’s not there in the world. Therefore, it cannot be attacked or damaged, and we don’t have to defend it or fix it.

Even a positive self-concept can cause problems.

SOURCE: Ciarrochi, J. (2013). ACT images related to self-as-context. Retrieved from http://www.acceptandchange.com/visual-metaphors/.