This is one of an occasional series of articles about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), one of the therapeutic approaches that I often use in my practice. ACT involves six core concepts that make up the ACT Hexaflex: Acceptance, Cognitive Defusion, Being Present, Self as Context, Values and Commitment. This week’s blog unpacks the concept of Self as Context.

Thoughts and feelings are like the weather – they are always changing, sometimes fine, sometimes windy and rainy. In contrast, the observing self is like the sky – it is always there and cannot be harmed or changed by any kind of bad weather. Sometimes it is totally obscured by clouds, but above the clouds it is still there.”

This weather metaphor is one that practitioners often use to help explain the concept of Self as Context in Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT). Self as Context is the understanding that experiences, thoughts, and feelings are only content that is ever-changing. They don’t fundamentally impact the core self. In other words, no matter how you feel, think or see yourself at the moment, you are still you.

With this therapeutic approach, we typically utilize mindfulness exercises to encourage patients to “connect with a sense of self that is a safe and consistent perspective from which to observe and accept all changing inner experiences,” according to the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science.

As with other concepts of ACT, the goal of clinicians is to help patients increase their psychological flexibility so they can become unstuck from negative thought and behavior patterns. As I’ve talked about in previous articles, these changes happen when an individual can be mindful and aware of their thoughts, feelings and emotions, observe them and accept that they are only thoughts, feelings and emotions that can be altered. By connecting the patient with their core sense of self, we use “self” as an instrument for therapeutic change.

A scenario we might see in therapy is the patient who tells us they are depressed. They see themselves as a depressed person and act accordingly. They think and behave like a depressed person and over time they become attached to this concept of themselves. The belief is regid and won’t allow any other sense of self to emerge. In this situation, the practitioner would help the client shift their perspective so they can separate the content (feelings, thoughts, etc.) from the true, lasting self. This process, over time, takes away the power of the thoughts and allows others in.

One example of an exercise that is sometimes used to encourage a patient to develop the sense of Self as Context, is to ask the individual to silently listen to their thoughts or the voice in their head. Then, ask themself two questions:

  1. “Am I the thoughts that are going through my head?”
  2. “Or, am I the one who is aware and listening to these thoughts going through my head?”

The client shouldn’t answer these questions out loud but sit with them. The goal is to foster the individual’s awareness of the distinction between themself and the thoughts.  

Self as Context is a challenging concept to put into words. I recommend this short video created by DJ Moran, Ph.D. for Social Work & ACT as a helpful introduction for the layperson.

If you feel stuck in negative and unhealthy patterns and are interested in finding out more about how I implement ACT in my practice, please get in touch. I can help you consider whether this approach is right for you.  

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