Self monitoring as a vehicle for change
Self monitoring is one of our simplest and most powerful cognitive-behavioral tools. When we want to change something in our lives – our emotional state, a negative thought pattern or self-sabotaging behavior – we can start by enlisting a scientific phenomenon know as the “observer effect.”
Physical science has noted that observing something often changes it. Placing a thermometer in our mouths transfers heat to that instrument, thus slightly lowering our body temperature. A tire gauge, because it absorbs some air, gives a pressure somewhat less than was present in the tire before the gauge was attached.
In CBT observation changes our experience of something, which in turn can change the frequency at which it occurs, its intensity, or some other aspect of that thing. Here’s an experiment you can perform right now that demonstrates the observer effect in CBT.
You are currently experiencing something. My pointing it out to you will change your relationship to it, turning you into its observer. What is that thing? Sensation in the sole of your left foot.
What just happened? One, you shifted from “being” an experience to observing it. Second, you placed a cognitive frame around the experience that separated it from the rest of who you are. Third, you opened a door to a more fine-grained form of observation called measurement. As an observer of your experience you can now determine on a scale of 1 to 10 how comfortable your foot is, how itchy, and so forth.
We can self monitor many aspects of our lives. How often we have a negative thought. How often we feel an urge to do something or to avoid doing something. Self monitoring is easy with a digital counter that adds to the total number each time we push a button. At the end of a day we can write that number down and reset the counter for the next day.
We don’t yet know why self monitoring sometimes helps reduce or eliminate thought patterns, feelings and behaviors. We do know that parts of the brain that process observation are different than those parts that process direct experience. When we not only have a negative thought but also monitor it, we light up new neuronal pathways and this seems to support our responding in new ways.