When We Live Without an Observing Self

John DriggsThe oblivion we once hid from danger has now become our invisible prison. — Anonymous

Have you ever said “Why can’t he see what he is doing? Isn’t it obvious to everybody!” or “Gee I never saw it that way before. Maybe you’re right” Most of us have moment of cluelessness, especially in matters pertaining to ourselves. However when we are continually out of touch with seeing ourselves or not aware that we don’t see ourselves very accurately we have a serious problem on our hands. If this is the case for you then you are certainly in good company. Clueless is a modern syndrome that harms many of us. It makes us less effective in problem-solving, robs us of identity, keeps us stuck in problem relational patterns, fosters social anxiety and it makes us feel inferior in how we predict and control what happens to us. It also causes other people to not trust us. When the lights are not on we are indeed in the dark and often don’t know it. On the other hand, like the Motel 66 commercial says, “We’ll leave the lights on for you,” is a far better way to live. Having an observing self is a must for all of us. This skill can be learned no matter how many years we have been blind.

Why are some of us so clueless?

Some of us don’t even know what we don’t even know about ourselves. We remain clueless because we don’t see ourselves doing so. Often we over rate our own self-awareness. Even when we do see our oblivion we don’t know how to do it differently. We may also choose to not do it differently because seeing ourselves clearly may be too frightening. For example if you are being verbally abused by your husband you may not want to see how your passivity contributes to your own suffering. You might space out instead. Some of us lack support and courage so we remain clueless Others of us stay clueless because we receive some secondary benefit from it. If we are in a position of power in our business life it may be way more comforting or even exhilarating in the short run if we are unaware of how we affect others. Our “walking on water” may seemingly compensate us for our low self-esteem in a false sense of self. The “little big man syndrome” is an example of this idea. Some of us may endorse the “ignorance is bliss” mentality when it comes to our own self-awareness. We are more concerned about conforming to social media and asking others to tell us who we are than in knowing and embracing our own views Frequently we may space out and be unaware of how we are losing ourselves. Too many of us today are too scared to stand up for ourselves and we would rather conform to what other people tell us about ourselves. “Tell me who to be” is a modern mantra of our age. Unfortunately it causes us to have a diffused identity, be sheepish in relationships and float around in a sea of insecurity.

Signals of a lack of self-observation

The following signals likely indicate that we are out of touch with ourselves:

• hardly anyone ever challenges us with views that are different from our own
• we may continually worry that someone will criticize us in social situations
• we dread giving public talks or stating our opinions in meetings
• we are sometimes shocked to see how people react to us in unanticipated ways
• we feel easily hurt by criticisms or pretend to be above it all when people challenge us
• we sometimes feel vindictive towards people who are honest with us
• we couldn’t sit down and write an accurate descriptive paragraph about ourselves
• we lack insights to explain our life setbacks and failings
• we cannot anticipate situations that may harm us
• we have frequent bouts of numbness and spaciness
• we often repeat mistakes in relationships without knowing why
• others simply puzzle us and most of the time life feels unpredictable
• we are at a loss for words when explaining relationship problems
• others joke about our being out of touch
• we lose track of time or are prone to lose things
• we easily get defensive and can be hard on ourselves
• we live in a world of platitudes and superficial relationships

Culture’s Role in Cluelessness

We live in an age of airheadedness that is shaped by our culture. Too much TV watching and computer use makes us brain dead and more focused outside ourselves either for entertainment, buying products or rating ourselves on social media. By our cultural consumption we ask everybody else but ourselves the question “Who am I?” Our mania with Facebook overlooks whether we really care or want to compete with what others are doing or saying. Can we even trust what they say? Indeed culture is constantly in our face due to our cyber age well before we examine what we personally believe or know what values we hold to. Culture is constantly frightening us to see if we really belong and the thinking parts of our brains get placed in sleep mode. We are pressured to buy new electronic products without examining why we really need them or if we could live without them. Many times we are promised that certain products will enhance our lives only to find out later that these same products have turned on us only making things worse or more insecure for ourselves. Security breaches in products we buy are rampant and sometimes transformed our lives into nightmares. When we turn our lives over to a GPS we may have greater convenience but lose confidence in our own ability to know where we are and why we are going there. Culture is such a huge distraction away from ourselves that many of us even forget that we have selves in the first place or ought to. Just watch people checking their cell phones as they walk in a state of oblivion to others.

Developing an Observing Self

Consider being a less frequent consumer of our culture. Overdoing culture is a lot like going to a fast food restaurant. An occasional visit will not kill you but a constant diet of it will destroy your health and well-being. Rely on affirming authentic friends, a personal journal, a regular physically active life-style, a trusted therapist and a 12-Step support group to know who you are. Getting to know yourself is a long process, not a quick fix, partially out of necessity. It’s best done slowly, with the realization that knowing yourself will require great courage on your part and moments of great peril that will help you be authentic. Read two books by the famous analyst, Sheldon Kopp: Who Am I…Really (St. Martin’s Press, 1987) and Mirror, Mask and Shadow: The Risks and Rewards of Self-acceptance(Bantam Books, 1980). There are many detours of horror and grief along the way. Being who you really are is not for the faint-hearted and often requires a crew of supporting people to love you in ways you are unfamiliar with. When you have done even a small part of your journey of self-knowledge you will develop a little swagger which in itself will make your life so much more bearable and allow you to feel hopeful about future challenges you face. The journey to self will forever anchor you in the worst of storms and make joy truly authentic. Godspeed.


John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.


Happy Holidays and Peace for the New Year — The Phoenix

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