Often, our struggles can be so persistent and overwhelming that we lose sight of the distinction between them and us. We start to identify with the struggles rather than seeing them as experiences we are having. If we feel sad or hopeless, we think, “I am depressed,” rather than, “I am experiencing depression.” And that identification can make it harder for us to see the possibility of change.
I have found an important part of the work of therapy is simply to get separation between our self and our struggles. I say “simply,” but I know this is not always easy. We may be used to identifying with our struggles. We may think of ourselves as “an anxious person,” rather than someone who regularly experiences anxiety. Even now, as you read this, you may be thinking, “Well, what’s the difference?”
With that question in mind, here are a few techniques I have found useful in beginning to see the difference between our selves and our struggles.
You may already be aware of mindfulness, which Jon Kabat-Zinn defines as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” So what does that have to do with separating our struggles from our selves?
Well, when you are observing your thoughts and feelings without judgment or reaction, what part of you is doing the observing? Odds are it is a part of you separate from your feelings of depression or anxiety or stress. You might even say that it is your true, untroubled self watching as emotional experiences and difficult thoughts happen.
By observing our thoughts and feelings without judgment, we can begin to see them as things happening to us instead of who we are. And that gives us the freedom to choose how we will respond.
Another technique that can be helpful for getting perspective on our struggles is externalization. Externalization refers to a way of thinking and talking about problems as outside yourself, allowing you the room to decide how to relate to them. Rather than saying, “I’m getting depressed,” we might say, “Depression is trying to take over again.” Rather than saying, “I am so anxious today,” we might say, “Anxiety is really bothering me right now.” Thinking and speaking in this way can help break the habit of seeing our struggles as intrinsic to our selves and therefore impossible to change.
A third way of relating to our struggles is to view them as emerging from parts of ourselves that may in fact be trying to protect us, albeit in ways that are no longer necessary. As in mindfulness practice, it can be helpful to step back into the observing self and ask the anxious part what function it is trying to fulfill. There may be other parts of you that are wounded by its efforts, which it is unaware of. As with the other two methods, the process of identifying parts of ourselves that feel and behave in certain ways can help us work with these parts rather than identifying with and being controlled by them.
These are far from the only possible strategies for giving ourselves the necessary space to change. In my work with clients, I like to ask what has worked for them and to follow their lead. If you have a strategy that works to separate your self from your struggles, please share. My clients are my best teachers!