Written by: Michele Lyman
That's right. You are NOT your anxiety. You probably feel like your anxiety makes up your identity and my guess is that you've recently said to someone, "I am anxious". I know I've used that term in the past. But the truth is that you are not anxious. You're the one that's aware that anxiety is here. This awareness is the practice of self-observation without judgement. Some call it the witness or the one who notices.
I think Michael A. Singer describes this concept best in his book "The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself":
If the voices in your head are swirling around anxious thoughts and you are hearing them talk, they are obviously not you. You are the one that hears the voices. You are the one that notices them talking.
If you continue to identify yourself as an anxious person, you will never be free from your anxiety. You will continue to tell yourself the same stories and be stuck in self-sabotaging habits. The moment you pause, step back and observe your anxious thoughts, you create space and freedom to feel more calm and at ease.
When you practice self-observation, you will begin to recognize that the part of you doing the observing is your true self. When you stop to observe your anxiety, you realize that the part of you doing the observing is not the same part that is anxious. In essence, when we practice self-observation we are becoming more aware of the “thinker” behind the thought. The very act of noticing how we are feeling can allow us to release or let go of stuck and stagnant feelings.
Awareness is not anxious. You are aware of anxiety. Taking that stance can shift your focus and make a world of difference.
Let me add an example here to help clarify this point. I used to fear that large planes flying overhead would fall out of the sky and kill me. I live right near an Air Force Base and so each time I would hear the planes' engines roar, my heart would race and I would start to panic. The voices inside my head would say things like “oh no, here comes another plane. How does it stay in the sky? This one is definitely going to fall out of the sky and crash right on me! What if someone didn't do their job correctly and the plane's engine stops working? What if the pilot falls asleep!” I believed these thoughts were me because my body would start to react and I would be in full panic each time a plane flew overhead.
Then I started to work with self observation without judgement. When a plane would take off, I noticed the voices telling me that it was time to be nervous again and I would start to feel my heart race. Instead of this stressor immediately triggering a panic attack, I was able to take a breath in, pause, and say "The thoughts and the voices inside my head are not me. It feels like it's me, but it's not me because I'm the one observing the thoughts." This pause allowed me to find a little space between the stressor of the plane taking off and my reaction to it. And that space I created let me choose and control how to react to the plane flying overhead. I could still choose to get nervous or I could choose to stay present and breathe.
If you can identify the different voices in your head and start to recognize that these voices are not you - you will begin to feel free from the painful grip of anxiety and find your true self.