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  • Writer's pictureKatie Dunnigan

Observing Without Judgment – How to Stop Reactivity

Updated: Dec 29, 2023

Self-observation is the first step of inner unfolding" -Amit Ray
Do not believe your thoughts - mindfulness practice
Observing Without Judgement

What is Awareness?

Awareness is not just knowing what you do. It is becoming conscious of the deeper dynamics that contribute to our patterns. It is about being the “witness” to these patterns as they unfold in real time. When this occurs, we begin to see things as they really are: we observe the truth behind our defences, assumptions, or interpretations. By slowing down and acknowledging what is, we become free to choose how to respond. It is as if a new way of being emerges, seemingly out of nowhere. We realize that it was our own mind standing in our way the whole time, and we feel lighter as we recognize a path to healing.

How Do We Stop Being Reactive?

So how do we connect to this deeper awareness? How do we stop reactivity? We start with the practice of “observing without judgement.” This involves paying attention to what is happening in the present moment, which is what mindfulness therapy is all about. We notice our thoughts, our emotions, and shifts in our body. We do not try to control it or change it or reframe it. We simply bring our attention to it with a sense of curiosity. The opposite of being aware is being unconscious. When we are unconscious, we go on auto-pilot and react to our thoughts and emotions in predictable but often painful ways. This reinforces old patterns and keeps us stuck. Through observation, we begin to pause in the moment and stay with whatever arises. With time, we come to see that we have other options that we couldn’t see before. Then we are able to take responsibility and choose another way that is more authentic, loving, patient, and wise. In other words, the pattern wears itself out because it no longer works for us. This is the power of transformation through awareness.

As an example, imagine you are prone to being passive in your relationships. From an intellectual perspective, you should just develop assertive communication skills and then perform them. There are many therapies and self-help books based around this premise. While this is well-intentioned, many people report that they know they “should” assert themselves, but they continue not to. They may even have a script in their mind to adhere to which they cannot seem to execute. Others might latch onto assertiveness techniques they have heard about and use them as a way to “fix” themselves or become someone different. But without a deeper shift in awareness, this can create issues such as reinforcing egoic desires that keep us in unhealthy relationships (e.g. the desire to get what we want from others). Some people even end up flipping from passivity to aggression. This is the risk of trying to create a new personality: it is not necessarily aligned with our true nature and therefore has consequences.

By coming back to the practice of observing without judgement, we would make a commitment to spend time watching ourselves in our relationships, with a particular focus on the thoughts running through our heads or emotions that emerge. What might we notice through our observation?

• I feel guilty when I say “no” to others so I often give in because it feels easier

• My identity is built around being a “nice” person so I always say yes

• I have a fear of being inherently bad so I try to make up for that by doing more

• I say yes to everything because if I stop “doing,” I might have to face my feelings

• I learned that being “good” means people pleasing, and I’ve never questioned that

• I am so afraid of being alone that I appease others to make sure I keep people in my life, no matter what the cost

• I don’t want anyone to be mad at me because it makes me feel anxious

These are just a few examples of underlying dynamics or insights that may come up, but the list is not exhaustive. It is important not to guess which one applies to you but rather use observation to pay attention and see what is really there for yourself. When we notice something, we may feel an urge to change it or push it away or fix it, but it is important not to give in to this. Instead, we must trust that our awareness will guide us. For example, if my underlying issue is a fear of being “bad,” I watch that fear as it comes up in my interactions with people. I remember not to judge the fear for being there, since that can create a reaction which will reinforce it. It can be painful to watch these patterns because we become aware of the true impact they are having on us. For a time, we may even feel worse (e.g. more fearful than usual) because we are not using defences to protect us. Through our objective observation, a space is created in our mind where we can eventually choose to respond to the situation rather than react to the fear. With courage, we may begin to communicate in our relationships in a way that is more authentic and honest. This does not happen perfectly - it takes practice and so we continue to observe ourselves as the process unfolds. Eventually we get really good at using our intuition rather than our reactivity to guide our communication. We come to understand that we are responsible for the way we interact in the world but not for all of the outcomes.

How Do We Become Aware?

It is important to note that we cannot force awareness. It is a process that unfolds in its own timing. But we must create the proper conditions for awareness, and that includes, but is not limited to:

o Willingness: We have to want to find the truth. Oftentimes we are comfortable in our patterns, despite how much suffering they cause. It takes courage to let down our defences, sit with the discomfort of uncertainty, and simply observe what is there.

o Patience: Awareness doesn’t change our patterns overnight. If we become impatient, we might give up too early or seek out surface level solutions. We have to let go of our timelines as we begin our observing practice and trust that our awareness will guide us.

o Honesty: Most people speak and think in half-truths. As humans, we have a lot of egoic defences (denial, rationalizing, blame, projecting, intellectualizing, etc.) that distort our perception of reality. It can be painful to watch our patterns play out and accept that we have things to work on.

o Non-Attachment: We must let go of our desire to control outcomes. If we want to find a certain answer, or make a certain connection from our past to our present, we might miss the truth. Observing is not self-analysis or interpretation.

o Quiet: Introspection and inner silence go together. If we keep our mind busy with distractions, we will not be able to truly observe ourselves.

My clients who are ready for this type of inner work are often amazed by the power of their own awareness. They come to see that analytical strategies and techniques are not our greatest resource. They also begin to recognize how limiting and unnecessary willpower is. With this deeper awareness, they feel capable of creating true change and living their lives in a way that works for them. They see how everything that they need comes from within, which speaks to our innate wisdom.

Mindful Awareness Practice 1:

Spend some time over the next week observing your thoughts without judgement. You can do this in your interactions with people, during menial tasks (e.g. doing the laundry), or other situations that feel important to you. What did you notice during your observation period? How does your mind work? What kinds of stories do you tell yourself when difficulties arise in your life? Do you notice any patterns?

Mindful Awareness Practice 2:

Pay attention to the difference between who is witnessing a thought and what the thought is that is being witnessed. See if you can sense what it is like to feel yourself as the witness. Can you feel a distinction between you and your thoughts?

This post was written by Katie Dunnigan. She is a therapist in Burlington, Ontario offering online mindfulness therapy, transpersonal therapy, and humanistic therapy. She believes in healing from the inside-out from eating disorders, depression, anxiety, anger, trauma, stress, and more.

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