Is Decentering the Key for Feeling Centered?

When I meet a patient for the first time, I always ask about what they hope to achieve in therapy. Of course, therapy is a process, not an outcome, and as the process unspools, goals sometimes shift or morph into something else entirely. “My hope is to salvage my relationship with my partner,” might become “My hope is for our relationship to end with mutual respect and dignity.”

While some goals evolve, a persistent and enduring wish, in my experience, is the longing to feel centered. Feeling centered conjures confidence, calmness, and a sense of control over one’s emotions. It is the opposite of feeling “adrift,” or “un-moored” or “frantic” or any other experience that conjures a lack of equanamity.

While one might assume that the most reliable way to get centered is to focus on oneself, think again. Counterintuitively, research shows that decentering—separating one’s thoughts from one’s feelings—is the key. Decentering entails stepping outside of one’s immediate experience and shifting perspective. Rather than seeing one aspect of a situation, decentering expands our point of view and allows us to see multiple points of view.

The paradox of decentering is not self-focus but finding ways to get out of your own head. Here are five data-driven decentering strategies.

1. Be a Fly on the Wall

In the heat of the moment one of the worst things to do is what comes naturally to many of us. We immerse ourselves in our emotions and fixate on what’s bothering us. This response is like putting gasoline on a fire. It fuels the flame by keeping upsetting thoughts front and center. Research offers a simple strategy to cool these hot emotions. When someone upsets you, pretend you are a fly on the wall, viewing the situation from a distance. The process of mentally stepping back from an experience and seeing it as separate from itself and through the eyes of an outside objective observer will protect you from feeling emotionally askew.

2. Separate Yourself From Your Negative Thoughts

Use your words to create some distance between you and your critical self. For instance, if the thought is “I’m useless,” add the phrase, “I’m having the thought that I’m useless.” To create even more distance, take another mental step back with the phrase “I notice I’m having the thought that … I’m useless.” The goal is to see these negative thoughts as what they are—just thoughts—and as a result, lessen their power over you.

3. Zoom Out

Think of yourself and your situation, then zoom out and see it from the sky—see your house and the street you live on. Then zoom out further and see the city and the country underneath the clouds. Then zoom our further and see the Earth spinning round. Then zoom out further and see the solar system, and then the whole galaxy of the Milky Way, and then thousands and thousands of galaxies, containing billions and billions of stars and planets. Look around you, at the expanse of the universe, glittering with light and energy. This view from above, adapted from Philosophy For Life, helps keep perspective on the ground.

4. Fast Forward

Imagining what your future self might think about a current stressful situation reduces the emotional toll of the present. For example, as upsetting as an interaction with a difficult coworker might be today, imagine how you will think about it six months from now. When viewed through the lens of a future self, emotional challenges feel less permanent and less personal. Plus, recognizing the transitory nature of our thoughts lessens the distress they cause.

5. Be Your Own BFF

When you’re feeling off-balance, consider how you would advise a friend who was in the same predicament. Research shows that this technique promotes clearer thinking about one’s own issues. It is also linked with cultivating greater humility and awareness of one’s own shortcomings, and with feeling greater appreciation for another person’s point of view.

Self-immersion might seem like the most logical path for feeling centered but the opposite turns out to be true. People who decenter more frequently are less likely to get stuck in distressing emotional experiences and their negative thoughts don’t linger as long as they do for those who don’t.

Bottom Line: We all get self-centered at times. The key is to find ways to decenter.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman