First Person Versus Third Person Views of the Mind

When we enter into a genuinely intimate knowledge of our own selves, we can approach our understanding from a first person or a third person view. This is one of the subtle characteristics of pronouns in general, by the way. There is a me (first person), there is a you (second person), and there is a he, she, or it (third person). So, we can view our mind experience from the perspective of how it feels to be me (first person, subjective view) or we can think about our mind experience as if it is an object we are studying–an “it.” If we have a therapist or a friend or a partner, we can share what it feels like to be me with a person who is “you,” not the person having the experience, and not an object or outside experience, but a listener, witness, viewer, or receiver of our experience.

Sometimes sharing our experiences causes us to see it or experience it in a different way. We are no longer embedded in the experience itself, but instead we are observing it, understanding it, giving it credence or meaning or perhaps deciding to discount its significance. We may see it differently as we share it with a second person. We are both looking at it from the third person view. “My mind is doing this thing. How should we understand what it means?”

Stepping back and deliberately entering into an awareness of which perspective we are holding can, in itself, free us to choose what parts of our mind experience we embrace and which ones we disentangle ourselves from. Perhaps an example would help. Say I am at home, with my partner, and he or she says or does something small which causes me to feel enraged. For example, say he is supposed to be home at 7 and he does not get home until 9. And I am furious.

The subjective experience is extreme anger. But there might be a part of me that wonders, “Geez, why am I so extremely angry. This doesn’t seem like it warrants that level of rage. It must be triggering something else.” Okay, the first person experience is the unreflective rage. The third person experience is the awareness that what my mind is generating might be amplified for some other reason. There is a me that can stand outside of the stream of my subjective experience and notice it and evaluate it.

If I say to my partner, “You are late, and for some reason that is making me furious.” Then there is a “you” involved. He can respond with his subjective mind experience out of the gate by being defensive or angry back. Or he can take a third person view of his own mind and of mine and say, “Weird. What do you think is going on? I already feel bad about being late.” Or, alternatively, we can talk with a therapist in order to sort out what our mind is doing. We can create an oasis on the highway of our everyday life, by developing a therapeutic relationship within which we can be reflective and come to know our own minds deeply.

Maybe one way of thinking about this distinction between the third person and the first person view is the difference between being reflectively aware as we live our lives and being immersed in the river of mind experience. Of course we can’t just sit around being reflective about our lives. We have to live them, too. And our emotional experience is not formulated out of nothing. There are always reasons our minds do what they do. It’s just that if we can choose to step back and be curious about the flow of consciousness sometimes we can be freer to live our lives in more authentic and satisfying ways out of free choice instead of being carried along with all the flotsam and jetsam in the river.

About norasblog

I am a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Chicago.
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One Response to First Person Versus Third Person Views of the Mind

  1. R says:

    I always love reading Nora’s blog and this one in particular. It is fascinating to think about how taking a different perspective can shift thoughts and reactions.

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