The Subtle Power of Self Observation
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | November 7, 2022
Definition, history, and purpose for the observing ego
A feature of higher cognitive function is the ability to observe ourselves. In psychology, this process is sometimes referred to as the observing ego.
Non-judgmental observance of self allows for a less subjective examination of the self, almost as if we are observing ourselves from an outside view point. Skilled use of the observing ego enlightens self understanding free from the normal biased judgments and self protecting defenses.
Jane Simon wrote that "the observing ego, or the split between our experience and our observation of it, allows us to perceive and change. By contrast, without the observing self, we experience ourselves as 'acted upon,' or lacking control" (2014). The observing ego is a skill taught in many mindfulness therapies and programs.
These are some pretty strong claims—claims that I partially agree with. We can't address what we don't notice. Unobstructed observations brings to consciousness many elements of self that we miss when on autopilot. Practices that engage awareness of unfiltered observation may create an environment that motivates healthy change.
Observing Ego is a person's ability to view themselves from the outside, observing actions, feeling affects, defenses, motivations, and thoughts.
The History of the Concept of the Observing Ego
Sigmund Freud suggested that a property of the ego allowed it to observe itself. He referred to this as a "split in the ego." Freud wrote, "the ego can take itself as an object, can treat itself like other objects, can observe itself, criticize itself and do Heaven knows what with itself" (1932).
Following Freud, the observing ego remained a concept mostly used within the psychoanalytical circles. The split in the ego was a fundamental avenue for treatment. These splits could lead to neuroses if not properly integrated. The split off function was believed to be a temporary state in healthy individuals and then brought back together through integration.
Freud suggested that the split off function of observation served reality (Scialli, 1987). Self-observation could realign our elaborate explanations back to reality. Our mind when left to itself has a way of getting lost in ruminations, jumping from creative self-serving narratives, to judgmental condemnations. The observing ego was considered a tool that could lasso in those rascal thoughts and bring them back to realistic considerations.
A key psychoanalytical tool of therapists is to assist the patient utilize the observing ego. The patient's "capacity to observe and evaluate oneself from a vantage point outside" is a 'requisite tool' in the healing process (Hausner, 2009).
In 1965, Arthur A. Miller, Kenneth S. Isaacs, and Ernest A. Haggard, collaborated on "an article that shifted the importance of psychologists' focus to working with clients on improving their awareness and functionality of their 'observing ego,' which they argued is critical to our social functioning" (Guttman, 2021).
Some of the early authors suggested that the observing ego is invested with neutralized energy because of there being a lack of pressure for action (1987). From this avenue, the concept of the observing ego spread to other domains of psychology, especially common in therapies that include mindfulness as an effective tool in the work of regulating emotions.
Mindfulness and the Observing Ego
We unconsciously operate, moving through our days with little thoughts of the underlying processes motivating behavior. Mindfulness is a skill of bringing some of the unconscious operations to the surface, where we can observe them, and modify unruly behaviors and emotions.
Cedar R. Koons explains that "most of the time a part of your attention is quietly observing everything you are doing, even your own state of mind. To identify your state of mind, tune in to yourself from that observing part of you" (2016, Kindle location 583). Mindfulness is tapping into this knowledge, bringing it to the forefront of our attention.
Mindfulness is a practice of observing without the intrusion of thoughts and emotions. Koons wrote that to observe, "you must first step back from thoughts and emotions and come into the present moment with alertness and purpose" (location 1,374). The concept is that when you observe, you only observe.
The observing ego is a term simply referring to the cognitive processes of perception. Mindfulness is a practice of separating the observing ego from other cognitive processes such as judging and interpreting.
Interpreting incoming data is essential—a survival function. We need to make sense of perceptions and determine appropriate action to protect and flourish in our environments. However, in the course of living, we jump so quickly to interpreting, we never grasp what it was we perceived, and therefore, miss exactly what it is motivating action. Slowing down this process, giving the present moment space to experience perceptions, without interpretations, can be both informative and healing.
An essential element of separating the observing ego from other functions is to isolate observations from interfering thoughts and emotions. This is accomplished by clearing our mind of normal judgements.
Marsha Linehan taught that "when you begin to describe what you have noticed, you stop observing" (2016, Kindle location 1,341). Once we start describing we are infusing observations with words, moving beyond observations and beginning additional cognitive processes, labeling what we are observing.
Linda Graham, a marriage and family therapist, mindfulness teacher, and expert on the neuroscience of human relationships, wrote, "the observing ego allows us to notice our experience, tune into the felt sense of it... and also step back from our experience a bit and reflect on it nonjudgmentally and objectively" (2013, p. 64).
The observing ego simply notices without comment. Graham suggests that the observing ego maintains an "even hovering attention." Non-judgmental observation is not a new age addition. Freud also distinguished between "the neutral, objective, self-observing capacity of the ego from the judging and criticizing capacity of the superego" (Glickauf-Hughes, 1996).
What Does the Observing Ego Observe?
In short, the observing ego observes everything. We gather knowledge from observing the innerworkings of our bodies as well as elements out in the surrounding environment. We observe how the environment arouses our system and stimulates thought. We observe how others react to our reactions.
Our bodies are environments are so full of stimulus that we must intentionally choose one element at a time during practices of observation. Once we move inward we can draw our attention to states of arousal, noticing the sensations teeming through our veins. We can observe how an element in the environment impacts our breathing and heart rate.
We may occasionally step back from the sensation to remind ourselves that the emotion is separate. We are not the emotion but a person having an emotion.
We can let our attention drift from pure sensation to the thoughts that the sensations provoke. Koons reminds that "observing our thoughts is much different than thinking" (2016, Kindle location 1,388).
Koons describes the observation process of moving from emotion to thoughts, "an emotion is an event in the body; it physically impacts us. We can identify its sensations: heart rate rising, sweat breaking out, stomach churning, jaw clenching, and so forth." He continues, "we can notice how the emotion comes and goes in intensity. When the thoughts associated with the emotion appear, we can also step back from them, noticing them as emotional thoughts" (location 1,398).
Dragomir Kojić draws from Freud's split ego and explains that we have both an 'experiencing ego' and an 'observing ego.' These dual ego processes can be found throughout psychoanalytical literature. These dual processes "differentiate between the part of yourself that experiences everything that happens to you from the part of yourself that observes how you experience your life" (2021).
The point is that observation is not an independent state. We observe as as we experience. The practice is by intentionally focusing on the observing process.
"Everybody has a continuous on-going flow of bodily lived experience. A felt-sense is formed when we deliberately pay attention to the flow of experience in relation to some situation or issue or problem" (Hendricks, 2007).
The practice of observation is as simple as giving the mind space to observe. The actual act of observing may prove difficult for some that have habitually defended against emotions through disassociation. Stubborn detachment from emotion may require assistance to regain the ability to examine inner sensations. Others may suffer from alexithymia which impairs conscious examination of inner sensations.
For most, a gentle reminder to shift to the observing ego is sufficient to start observing. practices of meditation or mindfulness may help to refine self observation skills. Eugene Gendlin in his extensive writing and research created a template for building the bridge between experiencing and observing. Gendlin taught a six-step program he refers to as 'focusing' (Murphy, 2019).
Critical to focusing on inner sensations, as explained by Gendlin, is the practice of making space. making space is the practice of non-judgmental attention. Here, as explained by T. Franklin Murphy, "by directing attention to the body, we become explorers of the mysterious, enlightening our minds to a different facet of living, free from the logical world of language and judgments. These proprioceptive examinations reconnect us with the very source of life" (2019).
A Few Closing Words on the Observing Ego
Perhaps, we can't always attend to the inner world, giving sufficient attention to what is happening beneath our skin. Yet, becoming familiar with the grandness of our inner universe may improve our lives, rejuvenate growth processes, and enlighten our understanding of motivational forces that leaded to maladaptive behaviors. Only through conscious awareness do we hold the keys to change. And as Jane Simon wrote, "allows us to perceive and change."
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