When I was a little girl, one of my favorite books was Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhigh. I loved Harriet. I emulated her in every way, practicing my spy techniques daily. I drove my parents nuts by appearing any time they were trying to have a private conversation. They joked that they couldn’t keep a secret from me. I honed my listening and observing skills by trying to figure out their coded adult communications. I really, really wanted a pair of Whisper 2000 headphones (which allegedly made a person able to hear clearly from long distances).
Now, as an adult, I’d have to narrow down my top two career choices to life coach and spy. I realize that being a spy might be a tad unrealistic. First, I’d have to be able to shoot a gun with accurate aim, something that is not in my skill-set. (Instead, I’d likely harm myself and innocent bystanders.) I’d probably be more like Jonny English than Sydney Bristow if I was a spy. Second – well, there are numerous reasons the spy lifestyle just isn’t for me.
Recently, I was pondering this seemingly dichotomous pair of interests. I wondered why I have always been so passionate about spying, when it was never something I’d really do. The FBI would probably cringe at the very thought of recruiting me. Then I realized that the essence of what I love about spying is the very essence of coaching. It’s observing other people, noticing, and cataloging information without making judgments.
Even more than that, it’s the very core of what I’ve learned about creating peace in my own life. If I can observe myself, take notes, and study myself without judgment, I can learn about myself. I can take the pressure off and stop constantly trying to change myself. Instead, I can get to know myself.
A good spy has to stay detached as she observes and gathers information. She can’t be emotionally involved with the subjects in her mission, because then she can’t view them objectively.
Being a good spy in your own life requires the same skill. It requires stepping back and observing yourself as though you were watching a complete stranger. All those ideas about how you think you should be, who you think you are, ideas you’ve accumulated about yourself, judgments you’ve long held – they all have to go out the window.
To accomplish this, I pretend I’m a spy looking in on my own life. If you don’t have a passion for spying, you might pretend you are a scientist observing an experiment. That requires the same detachment and non-judgmental observation skills. Whether you’re a spy or a scientist, you’ll be doing the same thing: observing and noting things about yourself, then drawing conclusions, and finally, taking action.
Often, when something isn’t working in our lives, the temptation is to jump straight into action or fix mode. Solve the problem! Do something!
This is skipping an important and essential step: observation and discovery. If you really do look before you leap, you’ll find that you are much more efficient and effective with the action steps you take to improve your life.
For example, let’s say I want to lose weight. The action mode might take me into dieting and starting a new exercise plan. But how do I know if those are really effective for me? How do I know that’s what I actually need? The truth is, I don’t.
First, I need to take some time to observe myself. I need to ask questions like, what is my relationship with food? Do I eat when I’m not hungry? Do I use food to avoid emotions? If so, how? What are the most common triggers for me? Why do I use food to avoid emotions? What am I thinking about when I overeat? Am I overeating for other reasons, like a desire to feel more connected to my body? Am I overeating a food group because I’m not getting enough of another? Am I actually not eating enough during parts of the day? Do I know how to feel emotions? What is driving my dislike for my body? Where am I putting pressure on myself and creating a catch-22, because it makes me overeat? Am I already exercising, but not in the way my body wants?
I could go on and on. There are so many unanswered questions, because I haven’t taken the time to observe, notice, and learn. Instead, I’m making a judgment – I’m overweight. Therefore, I must lose weight. Bam – action. The action may not even remotely fit the need.
Like Harriet the Spy, I still carry around a notebook. I call it my self-observation journal. (I haven’t thought of anything catchier.) In it, I notice things about myself. I keep it simple, and just try to notice emotions, thoughts, body sensations, and needs or desires. I also write down conclusions or things I’ve learned about myself from my observations.
You, too, can keep a notebook, if you want. I find that writing helps me with my observation skills. After doing this for a few years now, I notice that my first step, when I notice a problem, is now to step back and observe, with or without my journal. I’ve created a new habit. I’ve become a better spy in my own life. Which, since the FBI hasn’t called yet, is probably the closest I’ll come to being a kick-ass spy. I’ll take it.