Observer Mode – The Gateway to Personal Power

Written by Kathy Jacobson

Apr 29, 2023

Back when I taught novel writing, I began compiling a list of emotions as a “cheat sheet” for writers. A couple of decades later, when developing the Modes of Emotion Diamond™, I began to examine emotions from a different direction, thinking of them in terms of energy and personal power. I wanted to discover the difference between those we label negative and those we think of as positive.

I was fascinated to discover five distinct categories – and that those categories represented significant shifts in personal power.

Here’s what I found: At the lowest level were emotions characterized by the fight/flight mechanism, instinctive emotions arising from the body’s need to survive. Moving up the scale, the next category was unified by judgment, the brain’s need to make sense of things by determining whether something is bad or good, right or wrong (and dozens of other dichotomies). Into the next level (the middle of the scale) fell emotions I perceived to be neutral, absent the need – or the desire – to label, to divide, or to jump to conclusions.

This mode of neutrality became the separation point between the negative, or destructive, and the positive, or constructive. After that came emotions characterized by cooperation. And at the very top I place emotions that bring harmony.

Eventually, I named these five categories, working from the bottom of the diamond to the top: Victim, Interpreter, Observer, Partner and Creator. (Read more about these modes in a previous blog, Attributes of the 5 Modes of Emotion.)

Today, I want to focus on Observer Mode.

Personally, my facility with Observer Mode didn’t come automatically, or even naturally. For most of my younger life I could more than hold my own when it came to annoyance, irritation, frustration, embarrassment, envy, guilt, hostility, misgiving, defensiveness and pride. I was far more reactive than mindful. When I finally started to recognize the fruit I harvested by nurturing such a crop, I began to select different seeds.

I began to see that judgment equals pain; acceptance equals no pain. All emotions and states of mind from Victim or Interpreter Modes generate adversity of some kind, and that was not how I wanted to live. I realized that to live a positive life, I had to leave judgment behind. It’s taken years of practice, but as I’ve mastered Observer Mode – choosing neutrality over judgment, most (if not all) the trials, tribulations and adversities of my life have eased up.

And I wish the same for you.

Operating from Observer Mode does not mean “bad” things will never again happen to you. I’m assuming you have no desire to retreat to a hermit’s cave and seek enlightenment through isolation. I’m assuming you want to live, love, aspire, experiment, experience, and grow. I’m assuming you will create new challenges for yourself – and if you don’t, life will no doubt supply you with some. By thus engaging with your life, you will continue to gain self-knowledge, you will sometimes stumble and sometimes transcend, you will occasionally discover hidden pockets of judgment. When you stop operating from Interpreter mode, you will find more blessing than hardship in the events of your life. Everything in your life will flow more easily.

Becoming the Observer

Let’s start by observing what happens in Interpreter mode.

First, an event occurs and your brain responds with an emotion. You experience this emotion somewhere in your body: your gut, your throat, your heart, your pituitary system . . . somewhere.

You are now likely to internalize it in some way. You may ignore it, act on it, think about it, bury it, etc. Or you can dismiss it. I encourage you to acknowledge it, to become mindful of it. Notice it and name it. An ignored emotion tends to take up residence in your body and busily generates its result. (For instance, resentment results in neediness.) On the other hand, an emotion you acknowledge is likely to simply dissolve away. This level of mindfulness is the very essential first step in accessing the power of your emotions.

If the emotion persists, however, here are several options for what to do next:

  1. Deal with the emotion directly. You’ve noticed it. You’ve named it. Now own it. Say to yourself, “I’m choosing to feel _______.” When you consciously take responsibility for the emotion, your subconscious mind recognizes your power to choose something else. You will probably find yourself accepting this power to choose. Choosing to feel something else instead will probably follow quite naturally.
  2. Listen to it. Pay attention to the story the emotion gathers to itself. In and of themselves, stories help us make sense of a situation, make sense of the emotions we feel and look for options. Unfortunately, in Interpreter Mode the story always contains an element of judgment.
  • The story may be as simple as “That’s bad.” or “That’s good.” “It’s her fault.” or “It’s not my fault.”
  • The story may assign motives – and the motives assigned will contain judgment: “He’s stupid.” Or weak, or unconscionable, or a coward, or immoral, or wrong.
  • The story may rationalize behaviors: “I just took the facts into account.” or “Given the circumstances.” or “I couldn’t just stand there.” or “I wasn’t about to get involved.”
  • The story may deny options: “I didn’t see.” or “I have to protect myself.” or “She made me.” or “I had no choice.”

Once you can see the judgment in the story, use an emotion from Observer Mode to retell the story without judgment. For instance, respect will remove the scale of good/bad, right/wrong; compassion will reassign motives; humility will discourage rationalization; and courage will illuminate options.

  1. You may find yourself in resistance to the emotion. Perhaps you feel beset by anxiety, loneliness, embarrassment, ambition, doubt, envy, or some other Interpreter emotion. The presence and power of the emotion overwhelm you, and you want to be free. Keep in mind that by judging what you feel, you hold onto it as firmly as it holds on to you. Open yourself up to it. Say to the emotion, “Show me everything you’ve got!” When you approach the emotion itself from the Observer Mode, with curiosity, tolerance, courage, patience or courage, the balance of power shifts from the emotion to you. As the emotion loses its power and you access more of yours, you discover it to be ephemeral – nothing but air.
  1. Identify an antidote. While every emotion in Interpreter Mode produces an unfavorable result, each one also has an antidote. I first encountered the concept of emotional antidotes while reading the transcripts of a symposium the Dalai Lama held on destructive emotions.(Healing Emotions: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Mindfulness, Emotions and Health. Goleman, Daniel. 2003) The forum speaker who discussed the idea said an antidote is specific to the emotion. When I present this concept to clients, I ask them to imagine which emotion would be the logical antidote to their situation. We then work with whatever they come up with, and that seems to produce the results we want. Consider the following examples, then choose your own antidote:

If the emotion is Doubt, the antidote might be Optimism

For Frustration, the antidote might be Patience

Anxiety will always respond to Calm

To deal with Irritation, you might choose Niceness

The antidote to Pride might be Humor

We all operate across a spectrum of emotions. Sometimes, in some situations, we’re caught by Victim or Interpreter emotions. Other times we operate from Observer mode. On occasion we soar into the realms of Partner or Creator. When you can see yourself functioning mostly as Observer with shorter and more infrequent dips into Interpreter, you will also notice your fluctuations are also elevated. Sure, there will be occasional slips, but as Observer becomes your natural state, Partner emotions will beckon more frequently.

It’s all a journey. Where you are is where you are. The choices you can see are your choices. And your interpretation is your reality – until you choose a different path.

Look at the world with wonder and at yourself with warmth.

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