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Observations vs. Stressful Thoughts

Last updated on September 7, 2020

Observation: “There are a lot of old boxes dumped here.” Stressful thought, “This is a disgusting mess.”

I Should Question Everything, Is it True?

What I love about The Work of Byron Katie is that you can question anything. And I tend to do that. But even this idea can be questioned. There are times when questioning everything can spin me, or confuse me, or make me step away from myself instead of moving closer to myself.

The purpose of self-inquiry is for me to move closer to myself. So anything that moves me away from my own experience is not actually self-inquiry, even if it is “The Work” itself. True self-inquiry is not asking “The Work” for my truth, but rather using The Work to ask myself what is my truth. Only my truth can set me free.

So if I notice that The Work is somehow pushing me away from my own experience, I feel it, and then I stop. Why? Because I’m not really doing The Work. I’m going through the process of asking myself the questions, but I’m not actually listening to my answers.

How Can This Happen?

A reader emailed me recently asking about a confusing situation for her. She suspected that her boyfriend was cheating on her. She didn’t know. Part of her thinking was stressful thinking, and part of her thinking was just observation.

How do you do The Work in this situation?

What I do is I listen to my stress and question the stressful part. If it’s stressful, I use the four questions and turnarounds to balance out the stressful feeling. I look for the opposite of what I believe is true, and I experience those possibilities.

This has the effect of calming my agitated mind. I start to see things in a more balanced way. I’m not panicking and reacting. I have dealt with the worst part of it, my exaggerated thinking and fear-based imagination.

When the Stress Goes Down, I’m Left with Observations

Once I question my exaggerated and stressed version of what is happening, I may see that it’s not so bad. I can see more clearly the situation. In the example above, maybe the boyfriend is cheating. It is also a possibility, but it is not something to panic over if I’ve done my work.

On the other hand, if I use The Work to make myself “feel better” (“Oh, nothing is happening”), then I may be deluding myself. Instead, I prefer to question “He is cheating on me,” with an open mind, and to look for the balance between “He is cheating on me” and “He is not cheating on me.”

The truth is I don’t know. So it could be as true that he is not cheating as he is cheating. This leaves me in a neutral place. I’m open to learning more, asking more questions, observing more. And I move forward in a peaceful, non-reactive way.

This Is the Purpose of The Work

I use The Work simply to open my mind. When I question everything, I open to all sides. This feels fair and peaceful. But it doesn’t mean that I become blind to what may actually be happening. If there is clear evidence to support that he is cheating, then that is simply an observation.

And observations are what I use to act on. I may even question my observations, but I try to do so with an open mind. Just because I question something doesn’t mean I must try to make it untrue. Let me just look and find out where things land.

I do The Work to soften my stressful judgments, not to obliterate my discrimination. It is not about trying to fool myself with the four questions and turnarounds. It is just about cleaning up my internal experience so it is less stressful and more objective.

Observations vs. Stressful Thoughts

Stressful thoughts:

He is cheating on me.
This is terrible.
I need him to be faithful.
I don’t want to lose him.

Once these and other stressful thoughts are questioned, the following observations remain.


He is hiding his phone from me.
He is not answering my questions.
He is texting a woman.

Now, it’s just a matter of exploring the truth further with him without any drama. Maybe it becomes clear that it’s time to part ways, but there is no stress in it if I have also questioned, “I don’t want to lose him.” 

In fact, with a clear mind, I may find understanding for why he would cheat, and let him go with ease. Or we may find a new understanding that works for both of us. It almost doesn’t matter once I’ve done my work. Staying together and breaking up are equally good options when the mind is free.

Ready to Go a Little Deeper Into The Work?

Join us for my online course, The Work 101, Sep 14 – Nov 15. Registration closes in just a few days on Wed, Sep 9.

This course is designed to give you a lot of experience of The Work in a short amount of time. And to give you confidence in how to navigate the nuances of this practice of self-inquiry.

Have a great week,

“You may or may not be willing to put up with your partner’s apparent flaws. Whether you stay in or leave a relationship, there are always two ways to do it. One way is in peace, with love; the other is at war, with anger and blame. If you want to be in peace, judge your partner, write it down, ask four questions, and turn it around. Clearly see that his flaws are flaws in your own vision. Then let the decision make itself. It always happens right on time, and not one second before.” Byron Katie, I Need Your Love, Is It True?

Further reading: Is The Work “Telling” Me to Stay in a Bad Situation?

About the author

Todd Smith has been doing The Work of Byron Katie on an almost daily basis since 2007. He is just as excited about this simple process of self-inquiry today as he was when he first came across it. He also enjoys writing about The Work, and training others in the subtleties of this meditative process. Join Todd for The Work 101 online course, private sessions, virtual retreats, and his ongoing Inquiry Circle group.

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