I once read that each of us is two selves: an actor self, who gets up every morning and sallies forth to earn a living, happy up the spouse or significant other, parent the children, endure gridlock, appease irrational bosses and customers, play chicken with sociopaths for parking spaces, and in general Take One for the Team.
The second–and true–self is the observer self, who, in my case, spends her time seated comfortably on a large, well-padded throne in the middle of a large, dimly lit throne room. She sits comfortably and watches my actor self as she struggles with the messy business living can sometimes be.
When I first read this it seemed pretty improbable, but the more I thought about it the more sense it made. Be honest now, don’t you ever have a sense that you’re not only living your life, but that a part of you is standing off to the side, critiquing your style and technique? Don’t you ever feel sad that you have to spend your time in mundane, mindless, wheel-spinning survival stuff when you know in your heart you’re capable of so very much more? Haven’t you ever wanted to say, “This is not my life?”
The idea that we send a part of ourselves out to deal with the world while we keep our true self safe and comfortable in the throne room of our souls might make a lot of sense, but it’s pretty hard on our actor selves, the poor, pallid little mice that we send out to face the brawl and brangle of life not once, not twice, but over and over and over. Life is hard for our actor selves.
So here’s the question: When your actor self comes stumbling back to the throne room after a hard day at the office, an afternoon of parenting children who don’t want to be parented, and arguing with the actor self of a partner who is likewise navigating the rough and tumble of living, how does your observer self respond?
Does she berate your actor self for not earning enough, for losing her temper, for not wanting sex? Does he sneer at your actor for not standing up for himself, for uttering a stupid pickup line, for not knowing how to fix the damned sink?
Or does your observer self spot your actor self trembling naked and bleeding in the doorway, leap off her throne, grab the velvet throw, run your actor self, and wrap her in her arms and velvet, wipe the blood and sweat from her face, and help her limp to a warm bath, saying, “You poor thing. You’ve had a hard day. Let’s get you fixed up.”
I like to think that my observer self watches my actor self as she struggles through her days not to criticize, but so she can better render aid and sympathy, and sometimes, when it all becomes too much for my poor actor self, I like to think that my observer self stands up, wraps my actor self in a velvet robe and tucks her into the throne, saying, “You stay in today, dear. You need a break.” And then my observer self goes out and does her best, which isn’t very good since she is, after all, and observer, not an actor.
She does it for love, to give her actor self a chance to heal. And when she returns to her throne room exhausted and battered my actor self leaps from the throne fresh and rested, rushes to the door, wraps the observer in velvet, and helps her to her bath…
When I first heard about the actor and observer selves I felt sorry for the actor; she seemed to get the short end of the stick. Now, though, I think it all depends on the nature of the observer self. I like to think that my observer self doesn’t see herself as judge and jury, but as loving, caring partner whose role is supporting, healing, and comforting the self I send out into the world every day. As I lie in bed at night I like to think of my observer cradling my actor in her arms, feeding her soup and toast, smoothing her hair back, and saying, “Rest, just rest. It’s all right. You did an amazing job today.” And then I sleep.