The art of the observing self.

Learning to accept who we are.

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If you want to stay fit and healthy, you go to the gym, right? Well, yes, but in this series of blog posts, I am arguing that good mental health requires more than working out on a pilates transformer or a step machine.

Think of taking care of your mind in the same way you think of getting and staying physically fit. It’s something you have to put effort into to get some reward.

In my last post, I talked about our relationship with ourselves, and how a good relationship with ourselves is central to mental good health. I talked about the need to talk to ourselves in a supportive and loving way.

What, then, if you really don’t at a fundamental core level believe you are worthy of being loved? Or supported? Or nurtured?

This is where something called mindfulness can come in very handy. You may have read about mindfulness in the media, or heard it talked about as being used in schools and workplaces. Indeed, it has become something of a mental health mantra: be mindful and be calm.

So what is mindfulness? Mindfulness is the ability to bring one’s attention to experiences that are happening right now, in this present moment. The classic example is the breath. In mindfulness, we would sit and observe the breath, how it rises and falls, and how it comes and goes from our lungs, through our airways and out through our nostrils.

But mindfulness is also the ability to observe what is happening around us, how the orange autumn leaves flutter to the ground, or listening to the sound of the wind rustling in the leaves before they fall. It is a type of absolute presence to what is, right here, right now.

So what’s the big deal about being able to do that? And how does it help us to stop berating or belittling ourselves if we habitually do that?

One aspect of mindfulness is the idea that we all have inside us a sort of neutral observing self: a part of ourselves that is able to watch what is going on – without judgement. It’s the part of you that says “I don’t feel very well, perhaps I’m sick”. Or “I’m getting really het up about this I wonder why?”. It’s a sort of watching narrator feeding back information to us about our state of mind, or how we feel emotionally or physically.

In mindfulness, we use this observing self. For instance, when we watch the breath in mindfulness we simply watch it, we don’t comment on it, we don’t assess whether it is good or bad, we just observe it rise and fall. And if a part of us does comment on it -- “oh, that breath was crap, I’d better try again” -- we just watch the thought come and let it go.

Mindfulness does not attach to any thought, it simply watches it come, and then lets it go.

This observing self is enormously helpful when we are thinking about how we talk to ourselves. Because this observing self does not judge us. It simply watches us. And in not judging us, it does something very powerful: it accepts us.

It accepts everything about us: it accepts our anger, it accepts our sadness, it accepts our jealousy, our kindness and our joy.

Think of it as a way to side-step your critical self. Indeed, mindfulness, even accepts your critical self. It watches it come and watches it go, but it does not make the mistake of thinking, I am my critical self. I am a bitch. It simply, and with complete acceptance, observes that aspect of self.

The science of the observing self is that it is function of the prefrontal neo-cortex, which enables us to be conscious of who we are and what we are doing.

But the magic of the observing self is that once we begin to practice observing ourselves from a neutral position, from a place of acceptance, we automatically begin to support ourselves.

We are no longer beating ourselves up: but we are watching ourselves with acceptance.

And, gradually, as you do this you will find that self-acceptance feels a lot like self-love.

I think of psychotherapy as being similar in some ways to mindfulness: we, the therapists, are neutral observers observing our clients. We may challenge, but we do not criticise or belittle. The best psychotherapy is an acceptance of the client’s struggle. A belief that in being free to be themselves – in all their darkness, pain and, also, their joy – clients grow and evolve and find their way through to self-acceptance.

The irony is that as we begin to accept ourselves, we are then much more likely to be able to  praise and support ourselves. Somebody else’s praise no longer makes us feel like a sham, but feels like something we can absorb. And as we learn to love ourselves, we feel more able to reward ourselves with kind words and nurturing.

I find the use of mindfulness very helpful in my practice if a client is stuck in a self-critical pattern. If you want to learn more about mindfulness, there are a number of courses you can attend, such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. Or you can download an app called Headspace, which teaches mindfulness and meditation.