“The observer self is that aspect of consciousness which can watch us act like fools and stand back at a safe distance, shaking its head in disbelief. It is capable of observing our behaviors with an even, unattached point of view. The observer can help us see our wounded areas, our habitual patterns, and our inner selves more clearly, without the interference of the ego and its desire to maintain the status quo. The observer self is an invaluable ally in personal growth that can lead us into higher levels of consciousness. William Harryman
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is effective because it teaches us to not add fuel to negative emotions. Trying to change them is futile and a waste of energy. Think of a large checkerboard with large black and white chess pieces. These chess pieces are our emotions. One is not better than the other.
“ACT uses three broad categories of techniques: mindfulness, including being present in the moment and defusion techniques; acceptance; and commitment to values-based living.”
Everyone has anxiety but by learning to accept it and defuse it, we can live a calmer life. “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” Notice when you attempt to avoid anxiety. Don’t struggle to change or fight your feelings. It will pass.
In defusing anxiety or negative thoughts, defusion helps you learn how to step back from the thought or feeling and to learn to observe it only. Defusion doesn’t lessen feelings because this would be fighting them again. Rather it is teaching you to disconnect from them by observing them.
ACT teaches us to: STOP—STEP BACK—OBSERVE You can use metaphors while you’re learning how to use ACT.
Passengers on a bus metaphor:
You can be the bus driver with all your noisy thoughts being critical or shouting out at you as the passengers. Allow the thoughts or feelings to shout but you keep your attention on the road ahead. You are not your thoughts. You are the bus driver.
The helicopter view:
When something is distressing us, we’re so close to it, involved with it, part of it – it’s really hard to stand back from what’s happening. We see the close-up view, but we can’t see anything else. It’s like the well-known saying: “We can’t see the wood for the trees”. If we could zoom out our view, like a helicopter hovering above, we’d be able to see the bigger picture. We could stand back, be less emotionally involved, and see a different perspective.
Playground bully metaphor:
The playground is fenced in and the children have to learn to live with the bully. This bully uses threats, mocking and abusive words to upset his victims. We can’t stop our thoughts, but perhaps we can react to them in a different way, as the following victims show us.
Victim 1 – believes the bully (the thoughts), becomes distressed, and reacts automatically. The bully sees this as great entertainment and will carry on targeting this victim. This is how we normally respond to our thoughts.
Victim 2 – challenges the bully, and bully eventually gives up on this victim.
Victim 3 – acknowledges then ignores the bully, changing focus of attention, and the bully soon gives up.
This ACT defusing technique was in a 2005 book by Steven Hayes, the main creator of ACT:
Suppose you come across someone standing in the middle of a pool of quicksand – there are no ropes or tree branches available. The only way you can help is by talking to them. The person shouts “HELP! GET ME OUT!”, and is beginning to do what people do – struggling to get out. 99.9% of the time, the effective action to take is to walk, run, step, hop, or jump out of trouble.
Not with quicksand. Normally, to step out of something, you need to lift one foot and move the other forward. With quicksand, that’s a bad idea. Once one foot is lifted, all the person’s weight rests on only the other foot (half the previous surface area), and the downward pressure doubles. The person sinks deeper.
As you watch, you see them starting to sink deeper. If you understand how quicksand works, you might shout at them to lie flat, spread-eagled, to maximize contact with the surface. The person therefore probably won’t sink, and might be able to roll to safety. Since the person is trying to get out of the quicksand, it goes against all their natural instincts to maximize body contact with it. Someone struggling to get out of the mud, may never realize that the wise and safer action is to get with the mud.
Our own lives can be very much like this. The normal problem-solving methods that we use (sometimes repeatedly for years) to try to deal with the struggles we face, may themselves be part of the problem, just like someone trying to get free of the quicksand. ACT offers something very different, to help us free ourselves from the quicksand we find ourselves in, but to get with it. By doing so, we can relieve our suffering and become empowered to lead valued, meaningful, dignified human lives.