Have you ever wondered why it is so much easier giving advice to other people than it is to figure out what you should do yourself? Why are some of us capable of helping out others with their problems, while our own leave us baffled? Too bad we couldn’t figure out some way to give ourselves some of that sound advice that we pass on to others. Good news, there is a way.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a type of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that has the answer to this dilemma. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, also known as ACT, uses a number of techniques and strategies that allow people to give themselves sound self-help. ACT therapy, while best learned from a competent therapist or personal coach, is perhaps the ideal type of self-help. One of the strategies that ACT uses is referred to as Self as Context, or “The Observer.” The goal of this strategy is to allow an individual to view their situation from the outside, as if it was happening to someone else. People find that, in doing so, they gain greater objectivity, are less emotionally reactive, and make better decisions. Used frequently a person develops the ability to give themselves the same kind of sound, solid, advice that they often give to others.
Perhaps the biggest reason that we are able to be so wise and objective when dealing with others is that we are giving advice objectively, with no emotional attachment to the process or the outcome. If you have been following this blog, you have become aware of the role that emotions and faulty logic play in most problems that we have in life. It is our interpretation of the events, feelings, and emotional reactivity that usually cause the discomfort and distress. These emotions and discomforts usually surface through emotional states such as doubt, shame, poor self image, and lack of confidence. When we give advice to someone else our advice is usually sound because we are not privy to those internal events of other people. It is those internal events that get in the way and sabotage life.
The ACT strategy of The Observer can also be used to keep us living within the realm of our own personal moral compass. Most of us have standards of morals for ourselves that we consciously try to adhere to. When we act in ways inconsistent with those values we suffer emotions such as guilt, shame and remorse. Most adults who make these kinds of poor decisions do so without weighing the options fully before acting. Taking the perspective of The Observer is also effective in keeping us in line with the moral standards that we have. Carl Jung, one of the giants in the field of psychotherapy, described the dark side that each of us has as the Shadow Self. He believed that the Shadow Self is the flipside of the ideal that each of us has and the standards that we try to live up to. When we act in ways that allows the Shadow Self to do its thing we feel guilt, shame, and remorse and suffer a subsequent lack of self-esteem. Adopting the role of The Observer allows us to control the Shadow Self, giving it advice and direction, much in the same way that we do for our children when they are young.
There are numerous ACT strategies that allow one to adopt the role of The Observer. I’ll mention a few here to get you started. You should also feel free to create your own. The goal here is to observe your situation and your difficulties AS IF THEY WERE HAPPENING TO SOMEONE ELSE. You are not trying to deny your problems by any means, you are trying to get more objectivity so that you can attack the problem using your intellect rather than your emotions.
Some strategies to start with are:
1. Adopt the third person-Describe to yourself what’s going on using a name instead of I or me. Don’t use any self talk in which you think of yourself in the first person. People find it helpful to use a name and discuss it, either to themselves or to someone else, as if it were happening to someone else. This separates you from the emotions that you would otherwise experience. At some point you may want to ask yourself “What should a person in this situation do?” “What’s the best decision for this person to make” is what you are trying to get it. Not what should I do.
2. Create a story-Creating a story about your situation is a powerful way to develop some objectivity and make a more rational choice. If you review lost opportunities of your life, you’ll probably find that you would have been successful in many cases where you did not even try. You now realize that you probably could’ve done a lot of things that you never attempted. You didn’t do those things because of a story that you probably told yourself. The “I’m not good enough” story, or the “they wouldn’t hire me” story, or the “he/she would never go out with me” story are the typical tales that one tells themselves.
Many successful people do this instinctively. Ted Williams, perhaps the greatest hitter in baseball history, spoke of himself to himself as “Teddy Ballgame.” Muhammed Ali, former heavyweight champion, referred to himself as “The Greatest,” and eventually talked himself into believing it. I’m not saying you need to be this grandiose, what I am saying is you need to find ways to refer to yourself realistically.
3. The Helicopter View-When dealing with a difficult situation learn to associate a deep breath with viewing the situation from above, as if from a helicopter. I often ask clients to view a difficult situation in this manner. I add the analogy of the situation as a hurricane, and ask them, “What would this look like if you were flying over it? You’re in the hurricane right now. If you could fly over this in a helicopter right now, what would it look like? What would be your best options here?
4. Put the I/E-This is a simple formula that I usually write on a piece of paper or whiteboard to show clients. I explain to them that the best choices are made when we use our Intellect over Emotions. We then discuss their dilemma analyzing their thoughts as products of either the I, intellect, or the E, emotions. Analyzing in this way for a few moments quickly creates far better judgments, as a person quickly labels thoughts as either rational, and part of the intellect or irrational, and part of the emotional. A very simple tool that you can use instantly with very little setup.
5. Write a story about the problem-This is best used when the problem appears to be huge. Writing the story out, substituting a fictional character for yourself, opens your mind to a world of possibilities. As you get to the decision-making point of your story, stress the best possible outcomes rather than the things you fear. Asking questions like, “What’s the best possible way that this can go?” opens up possibilities and increases the likelihood of better decisions and better outcomes. If you’re dealing with a huge event spending some time working on this story, in writing, can lead to clarity. Discussing the story with a therapist, personal coach, or trusted friend amplifies the benefit of this strategy.
Becoming the Observer is a skill that takes a little time to develop, but when it does it pays huge dividends. It decreases emotional reactivity and pain and leads to more realistic decisions. Begin to implement these strategies for small things and attempt to make it a part of your natural decision-making process. Doing this regularly keeps the skill fresh. When you need this for bigger problems in your life the process we’ll be more natural and spontaneous.
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