Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The Observing Ego

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on March 23, 2011

  Veronica is working on her “observing ego” I tell her. “What are you talking about?” She asks with impatience. “The part of yourself that can be yourself and observe yourself at the same time. In the movie ‘Annie Hall’ she gets out of bed, while she is still in bed. She splits into two people, and one person asks herself what the other person is doing.” I say, grateful to the media for helping me explain this concept. “Well, I do not remember that,” Veronica says, with an angry tone, letting me know through her body movements that she is feeling criticized. “I think it is helpful if we, I mean all of us, can try to see ourselves as others see us. That way, we can expand our sense of ourselves and our impact on others,” I say, trying to help Veronica see psychotherapy as a growth-promoting agent, and not an arena for unbridled negativity. “I think I see myself all the time, too much,” Veronica says, still feeling frustrated. “Yes, I think you do, but the advantage of psychotherapy is that you can now see yourself through my eyes, and as with all relationships, seeing yourself through someone else’s eyes, brings you new information about how you interface with your world.” I say, again, trying to help Veronica connect with psychotherapy in a way in which she can see our relationship as strengthening her ego and not splitting it open. “The strength of our relationship is that we can talk about your personality, but at the end of the day, we are still working together to build your interactions in the world in the way that you see fit.” In other words, I think to myself, we are working on Veronica having a more conscious existence. Veronica is still ill-at-ease. “I will see you next week,” she says, leaving with her head down. “Yes, I will see you next week,” again, using a tone to reassure her that we have a strong relationship, but indeed, now we are going through a rough patch. It is hard to have an ego, a personality, and an observing ego, an outside/inside observer, all at the same time.

9 Responses to “The Observing Ego”

  1. Shelly said

    If we have an “observing ego” then we are not “being ourselves” but are only acting all the time, trying to act to appeal to others, instead of being natural and expressing our natural personalities. How do we know what others appreciate about us, since others don’t tell us? Other people are attracted to us for all sorts of reasons, or are our friends for all sorts of reasons, our coworkers are thrown together with us and have to get along with us, etc… and may or may not get along with us, etc… If we only act certain ways because we think that’s what makes them like us or work better with us and surpress our natural tendencies to be ourselves, then how are we actually ourselves?

    • You are describing a “false self” as Winnicott would say. The personality which acts to please others. In contrast, the observing ego, is the ability to see yourself somewhat objectively, while still acting in a way which is “true” to yourself. In other words, one’s behaviors can be concordant with one’s internal compass, and at the same time, one can see how this impacts other people. The decision to change one’s behavior to accomodate others is then a judgment, rather than a mandate. With a “false self” one feels mandated to please others. Once again, this is a nuance.

  2. Jon said

    We can always learn more from seeing things from multiple points of view. It is not contradictory to be one’s self and still see ourselves being ourselves through other eyes. Agreeing with Shirah, it is indeed illuminating; much insight is to be gained. This is the case in literature, science and mathematics. It is also the case in understanding the human condition.

    • Yes, and thanks for your comments. The trouble is that it is hard for us to see ourselves in a negative light, even if that is accurate. Humility is not a strong part of the human condition-generally speaking.

  3. Ashana M said

    Your description of the “observing ego” sounds very much like Cooley’s looking-glass self: the mental construction we hold in our minds of how others see us and that we usually use in the process of creating our own self-concept. Are they, in fact, similar?

    • Yes. The observing ego, is, as you say, the ability to see yourself from outside of yourself.

      • Ashana M said

        How you (for example) see me, or how I would see me if I were looking at me from the outside? We don’t all see people in the same way.


        • Yes, of course, but the idea is that objectivity, as best as one can hope for, is better than staying merely with the experiencing ego. If we agree there is an experiencing ego and an observing ego, we need to be able to bounce back and forth. Getting stuck in one, is going to give us trouble with relationships.

          • Ashana M said

            I was actually asking which of those types of “seeing oneself” you meant–my view from an outside perspective or the perspective of the person I’m interacting with. It sounds like you are saying that’s the same thing?

            One of them is the ability to take a perspective and has to do with being able to construct a reasonably accurate mental facsimile of the other person. The other one has to do with evaluating our performance by our own standards.

            Certainly they are all important, but I’m still confused about what exactly an “observing ego” is and how it relates to other ideas about seeing the self in action.

            Thanks for clarifying. I hope to understand more soon.

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