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Self-Observation Basics

Noticing my own Thoughts, Feelings, Reactions, and Behavior

Accurate self-observation is at the very heart of getting to know yourself.  In our work together, you’re encouraged to observe others—like a video camera—without critical judgment or criticism.  And at the same time, you’re encouraged to observe what’s going on inside yourself: your self-talk, your thoughts, feelings and beliefs, your readiness to connect, your common first reactions.


Judging and reacting are “natural habits” that we do daily without thinking about it. In fact, not judging runs counter to our cultural habit. We constantly observe and then judge our own thinking, feeling, and actions. We observe and judge others. We’re more likely to react and be defensive than we are to have a mindful response. Reacting and judging are just what we do. It’s a habit. We immediately, often imperceptibly, judge others, the situation, and ourselves on the basis of good/bad, right/wrong, agree/disagree. In such a reactive state, there’s no room for listening, for real connection or understanding. We’re likely to attack, justify, blame, and deny immediately, and the immediacy offers little chance to observe what's going on or understand its impact on us.


Let’s pause and talk about how powerful the habit of reacting to and judging ourselves and others is before we continue.

In the course, we would pause here and have a conversation among participants.


We’re often not aware of our reactivity. When we do become consciously aware of it, we believe it’s normal since everyone does it. 


The very first step of NVC (Nonviolent Communication)—to observe without judging—flies in the face of what we all do naturally, habitually, and unconsciously. At the same time, our “natural” reaction—to judge and criticize—pushes people away and destroys trust and connection.


Here we’re at a decision point. We know intellectually that judging and criticizing don’t work, yet we continually practice this lifelong “natural” reactivity. So now we need to pause and become honest about our willingness to change. If we don’t realize we’re judging, we won’t change. But even if we realize that we’re reactive, we still may not be willing or motivated to change.  


Pain is a powerful motivator. When I’m convinced through personal experience that my reacting and judging cause pain and unnecessary suffering to myself and others; when I realize it pushes others away when what I really want is to connect; when I come to realize that reacting destroys trust and connection in relationships, I may be willing to change. It requires me to see and take responsibility for how I’m reactive and judgmental in the moment—and that can be painful.


When I become willing to make a conscious commitment to not judge, criticize, and/or blame, I’m more likely to be proactive and seek new skills and tools on my own. There are great new skills to learn when I’m ready and willing to change.


Here are three steps to help you shift reactive thoughts.  

  1. Observe my first reaction—my first thought. Receive, accept, and allow it. Don’t try to change or dismiss it. Observe the feeling and belief surrounding the reaction.

  2. Step back—pause—understand my first thought. It’s not the truth, just a reactive thought. Interrupt the reaction and breathe. It’s kind of like waking up from a bad dream.

  3. Open to a new thought or insight. Choose a thought that’s closer to how you would want to be treated, something closer to being open and curious … something closer to love.

©2020. Center for Self-Sustaining Leadership (CSL). No copy may be reproduced or transmitted in any form, including photocopying without permission in writing from CSL. (802) 229-1908

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