When my clients first come to me, they often have big dreams about what they want to accomplish in the world, but they feel scared about everything that could go wrong. They feel stuck not moving forward as quickly as they’d like. Part of why they’re stuck is because of how they’re relating to their fear.

Sometimes, they try to convince the scared parts of themselves to be less afraid. They might sound like, “Don’t be scared. There’s nothing to be worried about.” Or like, “Pay attention to this shiny thing over here. Don’t pay any attention to your fear.” 

Other times, they feel consumed by worry. Anxiety takes residence in their solar plexus, and they can’t stop ruminating about what to do next. They waste precious energy ruminating, going around in their minds about what’s past, what’s future, what could be, what isn’t yet. They allow their thoughts to constantly interrupt the present moment and create a constant buzz of background anxiety. As a result, their progress is far slower than it could be. 

My clients are relieved to discover that there is a third posture that can transform fear. Rather than trying to push the fear or other challenging emotions away or being overtaken by them, I teach them to embody witness perspective. 

What is “witness perspective”?

Embodying witness perspective means observing the sensations, emotions, thoughts, and images that arise within you without judging them or reacting to them. Rather than being overwhelmed by or trying to change your challenging emotions, you take a step back. Rather than identifying with the parts who are struggling, you watch the parts of you as if they were actors on a stage. Rather than trying to get rid of the parts who are stuck, you accompany each internal experience with warmth and curiosity, seeking to understand what each part needs. 

When you step back and witness your internal experience, you interrupt your habitual reaction and the autopilot impulses of your ingrained behaviors. You create space to notice how you feel, what you think, and what you need. With this information, you can choose a response that serves you more. 

Embodying witness perspective doesn’t mean that you stop experiencing your challenging emotions. It means that rather than being tossed around by the waves, you watch the ocean of your internal experience from a birds’ eye view. Rather than diving into the water, you sit beside it. Embodying witness perspective means that you experience the full range of emotion without getting wrapped up in what you feel or trying to escape. The paradox is that when you witness what’s going on within you without trying to make yourself feel any different, your feelings have the space they need to heal and transform. 

Witness perspective strengthens your brain.

Renowned interpersonal neurobiologist, Daniel Siegel, calls this stepped-back way of observing our inner experience “mindsight.” In his book Mindsight, Siegel writes that when we witness our inner experience, we resculpt the neural pathways in areas of the brain that are crucial to our wellbeing. 

In particular, embodying witness perspective strengthens the connections between a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex and other parts of the body-brain. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for nine essential functions that are key to wellbeing and smart decision-making. We perform these functions more effectively when the prefrontal cortex is well-connected to the rest of the body-brain. 

These nine functions are: 

  1. Body Regulation (maintaining a stable internal environment)
  2. Fear Modulation (turning down the dial on fear)
  3. Emotional Balance (feeling fear, sadness, and anger and return to a sense of inner peace; feeling in the flow of life, not chaotic or rigid; maintaining inner clarity amid the storms around us)
  4. Insight (understanding what’s going on within our minds)
  5. Empathy (understanding and sharing the feelings of another)
  6. Attuned Communication (recognizing, understanding, and engaging with another’s emotional state with language and behavior that resonates with that state)
  7. Contribution (thinking about and taking actions that benefit the greater good, even when alone)
  8. Intuition (receiving and respecting information from the heart and gut)
  9. Conscious Choice (pausing before responding and acting with awareness of what’s happening and potential ramifications)

Practice: Embodying Witness Perspective

I invite you to practice this now. You may want to record yourself reading the following prompts so that you can listen along with your eyes closed. If you don’t know how to answer the following prompts yet, don’t worry. In a bit, we will explore in far more depth what it means to notice your feelings and thoughts. For now, I invite you to do your best with these questions:

Settle your body, getting as comfortable as possible. (Pause.) Imagine that you are a bird in the sky, gently soaring above your internal experience, bearing witness to the life below. (Pause.)

Ask yourself: What feelings are present? Notice the sensations in your body. (Pause.) Notice any emotions that are present. (Pause.) Notice your sensations and emotions as if you were sitting beside a small child. You are not the child; you are accompanying the child. (Pause.)

Ask yourself: What thoughts are present? Observe your thoughts as if they were clouds passing in the sky. (Pause.) Notice if they are about the past or the future. (Pause.) Notice if they come in the form of images, memories, and words. (Pause.) Don’t get attached to your thoughts. Just notice them coming and going. (Pause.) 

Spend a few more moments soaring above your inner experience, noticing your feelings and thoughts, unattached and open. When you feel complete, gradually bring your attention back to the present moment, opening your eyes and taking in the room around you. 

As you go throughout your days ahead, I invite you to notice when you feel a twinge of anxiety or another uncomfortable emotion. Then, step back and embody witness perspective. Notice what you feel. Notice what you’re thinking. Each time you do this, it will become easier to soothe yourself and choose a response that serves you.

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Much love,

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