Three Senses of Self

It’s the question asked by philosophers, spiritual seekers, poets, and maybe you after you’ve unexpectedly done something shockingly awesome – “Who am I?”

Our mental health could really benefit from considering this question and exploring the different senses of self that we can focus our awareness on. Culturally, we usually identify most readily with The Physical Self and The Thinking Self. 

The Physical Self is the body, the brain, the nervous system – the vehicle through which we experience our five senses. 

The Thinking Self is the mind – the thoughts, the memories, the ideas, and the opinions we have. 

The Physical Self and the Thinking Self shape us into the unique people we are. They influence how we are seen by the external world and how we experience our internal world. We often identify strongly with one or both of these senses of self. 

You may have answered the question, “Who am I?” with something like, “I am a young woman living in California.” Thus, identifying with The Physical Self. 

Or you might have answered the question with, “I am a loving, compassionate, creative extrovert,” identifying a bit more strongly with The Thinking Self.

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, we make an effort to explore a third sense of self: The Observing Self. 

The Observing Self is the place from which you watch it all happen.

Do you remember the last time you had a negative thought about yourself? The Thinking Self was the one who had the negative thought. The Observing Self is the one who notices it.

Tune into The Observing Self and just watch what happens. You begin to see how everything changes. Your Physical Self changes – you notice that you have a headache until all the sudden you realize you don’t anymore. Your Thinking Self changes – you wake up one day and are absorbed in self-critical thoughts and then the next day you’re actually kind of feeling yourself. In the midst of this ebb and flow, these ups and downs, this emotional seesaw, The Observing Self remains, whole and transcendent amongst the changes.

Tapping into The Observing Self can become a refuge. It can be a safe space in the presence of physical pain and emotional chaos. You can begin to observe your thinking and your physical feeling without overly attaching to either. You no longer get tricked into acting as if your feelings are permanent or your thoughts are always true, because you have become aware of how much change is constantly happening in The Physical Self and The Thinking Self. 

From the seat of The Observing Self, you begin to see that it’s safe to experience the feelings in your body and the thoughts in your mind. You see that you have a choice regarding how to respond to them. You don’t get caught up in the drama. You watch it flow.

Inspired by Russ Harris, 2007. 

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