Be a better observer

By March 14, 2024March 20th, 2024Uncategorized

Observe, Evaluate, Interrupt: Being More Thoughtful in Real-Time

Being a better observer is essential for becoming more differentiated, a fundamental concept of Bowen family systems theory. Differentiation of self has two parts. The first is distinguishing thoughtful thinking from automatic emotions, feelings, and reactions. The second is having a level of autonomy in relationships, holding onto something you value even when people pressure you otherwise.

“Everything Isn’t Terrible” by Dr. Kathleen Smith is a clear and relatable book on how to work on differentiation of self. The book examines how to manage oneself in different areas of life and relationships, even when others don’t change. She gives a basic guide for differentiation: observe, evaluate, and interrupt.

  1. Observe: What do I do to manage anxiety?
  2. Evaluate: Is it helpful? Is it how I want to live?
  3. Interrupt: Interrupt the automatic and manage the discomfort of doing things differently.

Zoom Made Me Numb

Here is my example of using this process. I am in my third year of Living Systems’ clinical internship program. As part of the training, there are monthly clinical Zoom conferences with instructors, clinicians, and trainees. People present papers, cases, and ideas, followed by discussion and questions from the group.

In my first year, I noticed my hands would go numb when I pressed the “raise hand” button to speak up in a meeting. (I was that nervous about speaking up!) The fact that my hands went numb only increased my nervousness about putting in my thoughts and questions. One quick, simple way to relieve my discomfort was to take my hand down and never press that button again. Not pressing the raise hand button would have been a fast track to less anxiety. But it was a slow track to learning, being engaged, and possibly working on my differentiation.

Here’s how I implemented Dr. Smith’s O-E-I framework.

First Observe

I started by observing myself. “Hey! My hands are numb. That means I am feeling stressed about something! This feels gross and uncomfortable. I don’t like it.” Then, I observed my surroundings. “I just clicked on the “raise hand” button. I guess I’m nervous about speaking up. What if I mess up, or I go blank? What if I say something stupid, and everyone finds out how little I know?”

Observing is about stopping long enough to notice all of those automatic reactions we have little control over. It also includes noticing the feelings and stories I’m telling myself.

Second Evaluate

Do my physical, feeling, and mental responses match what is happening right now? And if not, what is the mismatch about, and what can I do about that? My numb hands are a physical response to my anxiety. The numbness does not feel good, and because it is uncomfortable, I could quickly get more anxious. This is called “having anxiety about one’s anxiety.” When I got anxious about my anxiety in this context, my brain got a lot less thoughtful. For example, I would think, “Everyone is going to think I’m an idiot for what I’m about to share.” If I let my automatic anxiety run the show, I would feel incompetent and never raise my hand.

Evaluating is putting a pause button on those anxious thoughts and seeing if they are valid. We may not have control over our first thoughts, but we can work on our ability to have choice and control over our second thoughts. We do that by assessing whether the first thought is factual. The physical and feeling responses are automatic. The mental reactions – the stories I make up – can be a good place to start.

Third Interrupt

I may not immediately stop my hands from going numb in a Zoom call, but I have options about what I do about the numb hands. A bit of evaluation helped me remember: 1) I have meaningful things to share too. 2) I share what is valuable for me and it’s okay if that differs from what others find valuable. 3) If I sound foolish, I likely won’t be ridiculed. I can change the stories and my perception of what things mean, especially if they are not based on fact but are false assumptions.

Interrupting often has two steps. The first step is to correct and shift the automatic thoughts, the stories I’m telling myself. The second step is to do something about it in the presence of others. (Remember the definition of differentiation? This is the microscopic work of differentiation: me and my numb hands one Tuesday evening per month.) The anxiety is coming from what I think others will think and do. So, acting in the presence of others is vital. Differentiation of self is all about holding onto self in relationships.

And I did something about it in the presence of others. I did not run away from the “raise hand button.” I kept it up and dared to speak. Sometimes, I would write out my question in case I got so nervous that my mind went blank when it was my turn. The biggest thing, though, was thinking about what I value. I value learning and engaging in dialogue. And if I didn’t put my hand up, I wouldn’t be living out of that value.

This does work

I am in my third year and rarely get numb hands in Zoom calls. Sometimes, I get a little heart fluttery when I say something, but I still have the courage to speak. I have even said some unclear and likely “stupid” things in those calls. And I’ve survived!

I observed, evaluated, and interrupted an anxious, uncomfortable experience. And I’ve learned through practice that I can do things even when my hands are numb! One small step at a time is how climbers get up Mount Everest. One slight change at a time gets one more differentiated.

Autonomic Awareness

Another area that has been helpful for me in the observe, evaluate, interrupt model? Understanding the autonomic nervous system and how the body responds to real or perceived threats. You can read more in this post 

Knowing the specifics of my autonomic states helps me manage my immediate panic and judgment of automatic reactions. I can better remember that even uncomfortable stress responses are adaptive and there to help me respond to challenges. I also know that my body sometimes misinterprets situations! So when I can observe, evaluate, and interrupt, I have more space to manage the automatic. I am still human and prone to reacting. But this practice helps me be a bit more thoughtful in managing myself.

Thank you for your interest in systems.

Dixie Vandersluys

Living Systems is offering a conference this April about reactivity in relationships. Find out more here.

For more information from Kathleen Smith, including a link to her book, “Everything Isn’t Terrible,” see her blog.

Dixie Vandersluys, M.A., C.C.C., is a counsellor based in Manitoba. She is a third-year trainee with Living Systems. She recently completed the Polyvagal Institute’s first-ever certificate course.