The Power of Observation
If I’ve learned anything from years of mindfully observing my inner experience and coaching others to do the same, it’s this: you can’t change a thought or feeling the same way you change a flat tire. You can’t replace an unwanted emotion with a more desired one. If this were true, no negative feeling would last longer than a few seconds, because you would undoubtedly swap pain for pleasure.
Some things just can’t be voluntarily changed. A good example is trying to force yourself to fall asleep. It doesn’t work—never has, never will. Try it and you’ll find yourself more awake than you were when you first laid down. The same is true for what you think and feel. If you’ve been trying to change how you experience certain thoughts or feelings, my advice is stop!
You were likely brought up to believe that problems can and should be fixed with hard work and perseverance. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for regulating your mind and emotions. If nothing else, methods that rely on self-control only make things worse, because when it doesn’t work, the mind tends to spin debasing stories about you—the one who can’t control herself—and that yields even more negative thoughts and feelings. The real problem isn’t you not trying hard enough. My guess is you’ve been trying too hard. Inner peace isn’t earned through willpower. Instead, it’s discovered simply by observing your inner experience because observation has the power to bring the change you’ve been looking for all along.
Imagine you’re at the mall, sitting at a table in the food court. Suddenly, you see the most attractive person you’ve ever seen walking on the other side of the building, and you begin voyeuristically watching from afar. Then unexpectedly, the person looks directly at you and catches you spying. What would you do? Chances are you would look away, or if you’re braver than me, you would smile or make a flirty gesture. This is a simple, real-life way of showing how you change what you’re doing when you know you’re being observed.
Now imagine you’re at the gym. You’re doing crunches. Your abs are on fire. Your entire core is shaking and you can’t do any more. You want to stop and rest, but just as you are about to give up, you notice that same attractive person watching you. What would you do? My guess is you would suddenly be filled with energy, at least enough to pound out five more crunches. Again, observation brings change.
Now, let’s say you’re driving and your favorite song comes on the radio. You start singing along and really get into it. Before you know it, you’re singing and dancing like nobody's watching. Only when you pull up to the next red light, you realize you’re being watched by you know who—that same gorgeous person. What would you do then? Chances are you would stop singing, blush, fix your gaze firmly on the instrument panel, and pray for the light to change faster. On the other hand, you could begin serenading him or her. The funny thing is, if you did, the person of your dreams would likely look away once too much attention was given. In this case, observation would change what you were doing as well as what the other person was doing.
The idea that observation brings change should be obvious to anyone who has children. Little ones behave completely differently when they’re being watched versus when they’re not. When children aren’t being supervised, they’re capable of all kinds of ungodly things. Thoughts and emotions are exactly the same: they are less likely to misbehave if regularly checked in on.
This approach may seem foreign, but it’s great if you desire to change the way you think and feel, and have struggled to do so. The good news is you can stop struggling and do less than you’ve ever done. After all, doing more hasn’t worked. Chances are, everything you’ve ever done to not feel anxious has led you to feel more anxious. Likewise, everything you’ve ever done to cope with depression has caused you to feel more depressed. My advice is to stop trying to force change. Instead, simply bring awareness to what’s happening in the moment, and allow room for change to unfold on its own.
Maybe you’re asking, “How do I do that?” That’s a great question that’s too big to tackle in one post. For personalized help, feel free to set up a counseling appointment with me, or sign up for my newsletter to be notified of future blogs, videos, and audio to learn how to better observe your inner experience.