The “Observing Eye” in CAT

In this article, Alison Jenaway explains the idea of the “observing eye” in cognitive analytic therapy.

Mapping in cognitive analytic therapy

One of the unique things about CAT therapy is that you and your therapist try to create a visual picture of the problems you are talking about as you go along.  This is called a diagram or map. Gradually, as the therapy progresses and you discover things that help, you can add these to the picture as “exits”. You can also add a “healthy island” of the parts of your life that are going well.

Although the original term for these pictures was “diagram”, more and more CAT therapists are calling them “CAT maps”.  The term “map” seems to capture why we think they are important.  They provide a guide to where you have been stuck.  They also act as a kind of road map to help you see possible future directions to go in.

Click here to read an article that explains more about CAT maps and diagrams.

The “observing eye” in CAT maps

Your therapist may draw an eye somewhere on the diagram to show how you are standing back slightly and observing, or looking at the patterns. As you start to see the patterns, you have the chance to make different choices. It is really hard to change something that you don’t even notice is happening.

Using your CAT diagram to think about what happened after a difficult interaction with someone is a bit like being able to watch a replay of the TV programme you were watching. You can watch the replay with your calm, “observing eye” rather than being caught up in the action. A part of you is slightly removed from the situation and the feelings are not so strong.  You can think more clearly about what happened and how you reacted.

Strengthening your “observing eye”

If you try to do it regularly, your “observing eye” will get stronger and stronger. It’s bit like your arm muscles if you keep lifting weights at the gym. You will start to recognise typical patterns and eventually be able to spot them as soon as they happen.  You might even get to the point where you see the pattern coming and make choices that prevent you going down that road at all.

What does this look like in practice?

Let us think about an example.  I know that I have a tendency to get excited when new ideas or projects are suggested. I want to impress people with my good ideas and share my enthusiasm.  However I can end up offering to do something that I really don’t have the time or energy to do. Afterwards, I am cross with myself for agreeing to do the job and start to feel anxious.

Using my diagram, I might be able to recognize this “superhero” cycle that I have drawn out with my therapist. I may be able to feel myself “putting on the superhero cape” and about to volunteer. Once I can do this, then it is possible to create a “pause button”.  This could mean saying to the other person something like “these are some great ideas, but I need to have a think about what I can manage to take on at the moment”.

Later on, when I am not so excited and can get back to thinking clearly, I may be able to make a different choice which fits better with what I can manage. Over time, I may start to see the pattern even before it happens. I can develop ways to change direction even earlier.

Observing what’s happening between you and your therapist

Another helpful aspect of a map in therapy is that you and your therapist can use it to make sense of difficult interactions that might arise between the two of you in sessions.

For example, your therapist might point something out – perhaps noticing that you didn’t complete something you decided you would definitely do when you last met. You might start to feel as if you’re being told off and feel uncomfortable or bad. 

It would be easy in this kind of situation to become a bit defensive, or withdraw or cut off from the therapist.  Your therapist might feel as if they’ve said something wrong and start to feel anxious and guilty.  If uncomfortable feelings like these crop up between you, you can both use them as a signal to think about them together using the map.

The map might help remind you that you can easily feel criticised if you’re not getting things perfectly right. After all , that’s what important people did in the past when you made a mistake.  Your usual reaction might have been to feel bad, hurt or cross.  To try to protect yourself, you got into the habit of withdrawing from other people at the first sign of criticism.  It’s easy in this situation for communication to break down.

By using the map to explore this together, you can both think about what’s happening and keep communication open.  In this way you are both using your “observing eyes” to float above the strong feelings and patterns of relating that cropped up quickly.  This could be a useful learning experience which helps you deal with future situations differently.  Perhaps you’ll always feel sensitive to criticism, but you’ll be more able to spot when feedback is intended in a helpful way.  Sometimes others might be trying to help, rather than putting you down. 

Key points – CAT maps and your “observing eye”

  • As you map things out together, you start to see how things link up. It’s less of a confusing mess and more understandable as you realise how you move around the patterns on paper.
  • It is a tool that you can take away and use between sessions, to help recognise the problem patterns outside the therapy room. Seeing the pattern on the map helps you to see it happening in your life, day-to-day.
  • The map can also help you and your therapist understand what’s going on between the two of you.  This can help correct misunderstandings and assumptions, and keep your lines of communication open.
  • The more you practice observing how you relate to yourself and other people, the easier it may become.
  • Spotting patterns earlier gives you more chance to make different choices and try out other ways of coping or relating.
  • Once you have your healthy island and some exits on the map, it can act as a visual reminder of how to make choices that work better for you.

Before retirement, Dr Alison Jenaway was a Consultant Psychiatrist in Psychotherapy in the Liaison Psychiatry Service in Cambridge. She is a CAT therapist and supervisor and has been using CAT for around 20 years.  She is a past Chair of the national Association for Cognitive Analytic Therapy

The “Observing Eye” in CAT by Alison Jenaway for ACAT
CC BY-SA 4.0