Your Three Selves

Stop for a moment and think about who you are….

In response to this question most of us come up with a list of statements about ourselves, perhaps some memories; some labels about the roles we play; some values; our beliefs about our personality: I am a mother; I am a business woman; I am a gardener; I like chocolate; I am kind; I am lazy; I am messy; I have a Derbyshire accent….

We develop these ideas about ourselves throughout our lives but particulalry in childhood – who we are, what we like; what we dislike. These stories we have about ourselves are important because they help us to maintain some sense of self coherence. However, if we treat these self descriptions as true, fixed and unchangeable then they can limit us. It is helpful to hold these self-descriptions lightly. One term to describe this aspect of the self is ‘the conceptualised self’.

There is another aspect of self. This is the part of us that watches what is happening in each moment. The part of us that can notice our thoughts, feelings and actions. Research on mindfulness suggests that if we can learn to observe our thoughts and feelings with openness and curiosity we can make better decisions, perhaps because we get better at noticing our thoughts and feelings rather than being unconsciously controlled by them. This aspect of ourself is called ‘self-as-awareness’.

The third self is the ‘observer self’. This is the ‘you’ that is the context in which all of these thoughts and feelings occur. The ‘you’ that notices that you are noticing your thoughts. The ‘you’ that has been consistent all through your life, even though you have grown and changed. Sometimes we become aware of this unchanging part of ourself during a moment of crisis. People who have coped resiliently with traumatic events often talk about connecting with this part of themselves: ‘I realised that there is a part of me that can not be hurt by painful thoughts, feelings and memories or even outside circumstance.’ Steve Hayes describes this aspect of the self as like the sky – our thoughts and feelings are like the weather, constantly changing, but the sky is always there. Having a sense of this unchanging aspect of the self can help us to handle difficulty with more grace and less panic.

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