The Observing Ego
Updated: May 28
What do you do when the past repeats itself?
If you're an expert on mindfulness, zen buddhism, and/or existential philosophy, then you may already know the following:
As soon as a moment has passed, it is no longer real. The future is not real. All that is, is now.
This means that the present moment, each second that your consciousness spends engaging with your surroundings, with this text, with the people around you, is all that is "real." We waste hours worrying about future events that may never come to pass and fretting over past mistakes that exist only as memories, mental representations easily distorted by emotions and time.
But how do we reconcile living in the present moment with learning from past experience? One perspective demands that we eschew precedent; the other suggests that such a mindset is ignorant and foolish.
When clients ask me about this, they usually mean, “How can I continue to interact with someone who has hurt me without assuming they will hurt me again? How do I let go of the past when I know that history repeats itself?”
The past repeats itself when we are not growing and our stale thoughts and interpretations of events and motives recreate old patterns. Mindfulness is about changing the nature of our relationship with our own thoughts and feelings. This allows us to observe our experience with fresh eyes, unclouded by past wounds.
When we observe our thoughts and feelings as behaviors of the mind, we develop a continuity of self, separate from the transient experiences of the body.
When we learn to integrate mindful awareness into our daily lives, we learn to build an "observing ego," or a part of ourselves that watches our thoughts, worries, memories, emotions, and sensations like waves rolling into the shore, always in motion, always changing. When we learn to make sense of our internal world and monitor our moment-to-moment reactions, we begin to separate our thoughts, feelings, and interpretations from the observable events that trigger them.
Many clients come to therapy to figure out why they continue to choose "toxic" partners and ignore red flags when they know in their gut that they are making the wrong choice. Others recognize that they find fault with every partner, unable to determine if their criticisms are warranted or not. Through the therapeutic process, we almost inevitably learn that the client is acting on unconscious thoughts and feelings.
Perhaps she is choosing partners who remind her of a narcissistic parent and who makes her feel special when she pleases them.
Perhaps he finds reasons to reject others to protect himself from the dangers of vulnerability.
Perhaps they don't recognize when someone is causing them harm; perhaps they believe that they deserve it.
When we bring our mental behaviors (e.g., assumptions, feelings, implicit beliefs) into awareness, we give ourselves the gifts of agency and intention. We begin to recognize our role in selecting relationship partners who cause us more pain than pleasure, in perpetuating 'bad' relationship behavior, in imposing malicious interpretations onto neutral actions. We begin to recognize our failure to give partners the benefit of the doubt. We begin to recognize the effects of our unfounded suspicions on our partners.
Judging each individual moment of our experience as independent of past experiences does not change the truth or reality of that moment.
It does not change the motivations or intentions of someone who wants to hurt us. It merely gives us the ability to choose in the most objective way which behaviors we will tolerate, and which we will not. It allows us to decide in each moment if the person we are with is bringing us joy or pain. We have a multitude of ways to interpret one event, but the objective reality does not change.
Consider this example:
Event: Danny's partner picked him up from work an hour later than they agreed to.
Past-focused Interpretation 1: My partner continually disappoints me; doesn't care about me; is unreliable; doesn't value me or my time; wants to hurt me; is a jerk
Individual outcome 1: Emotional suffering; relationship doubts; holding onto resentment; passive aggressive comments; emotional distance; blame
Relational outcome 1: Stay in relationship, but have doubts and continue to accrue evidence to support doubts
Present-focused Interpretation 2: I feel upset; I'm glad my partner is safe; they must have been very overwhelmed to forget to call; I wish they had called; sometimes my partner can be really scattered; maybe I should not rely on them for rides from work when I have something time-sensitive to do
Individual outcome 2: Upset feelings; relief; acceptance; action plan (asking partner to call next time, finding different ride options); checking in with partner about why they were late; explain to partner importance of being picked up on time; suspense of judgment before facts are learned
Relational outcome 2: Stay in relationship, but readjust expectations and change approach: "if partner is late picking me up again, I will not trust them to pick me up on time"
Here we see that the same event can lead to the same ultimate relational outcome, but trigger very different sets of internal reactions. While neither of these scenarios ends in the loss of the relationship, Danny could decide at any time that he will not tolerate his partner's behavior of picking him up late, completely independent of why they were late.
By taking into account his own role, Danny also discovers ways that he can do things differently to avoid the same outcome in the future, regardless of whether he links his partner's past and present behaviors and motivations.
No one can tell you how to think or how to feel, but building awareness of how you interpret events can dramatically improve your sense of agency. For some of us, this is challenging but doable to put into practice on our own. For most of us, it can be helpful to get some guidance from a mental health professional.
"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
- The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
about the author
My passion is helping people connect with their most authentic selves. Through this blog, I hope to offer resources to demystify psychotherapy and encourage you to think about your mental wellness.
In my integrative psychotherapy practice in Echo Park, my mission is to support you in finding your best self and living an examined life.