Self-as context is easier to explain if we contrast it to the self that we are most familiar with.
The spiritual traditions, and Western psychology, recognise that there are two distinct components of the mind: the thinking mind and the observing mind. The thinking mind and the observing mind are also commonly known as the thinking self and the observing self.
The technical term that ACT theorists use to refer to the thinking self is “the conceptualised self”. With clients it is best to use the thinking mind or thinking self. “It is the verbal “I am” self, as in … I am anxious; I am kind; I am mean; I am unlovable; I am sweet … and so forth. The conceptualised self is brimming with content; this content is the story about you and your life that you have been selling to yourself (Hayes and Smith, 2005; p90).
If you are suffering with anxiety, depression, or stress, your identification with these states is part of the conceptualised self.
Most of us, for most of the time, are fully inhabiting the conceptualised self or the thinking mind. We experience and identify with the part of us that is always thinking – always generating thoughts, making judgements, retrieving memories, having fantasies, exploring options and hatching plans.
While we are very familiar with the thinking self, there is another aspect of us that is aware of whatever we are thinking, feeling, sensing or doing at any given moment. This is the observing self. Some traditions call it “pure awareness”. In ACT the technical term used to refer to this is “self-as-context”, but with clients the term “observing self” is most practical.
Other synonyms for the observing self include: self-as-perspective; the noticing self; the silent self; pure consciousness; and the transcendent self (Harris, 2009). Additional terms used by Hayes and Smith (2005) include: no-thing self and the spiritual sense.
Self-in-context is a viewpoint from which we can observe thoughts and feelings, and a psychological space in which those thoughts and feelings can move. It is a place from which we can observe our experience without being caught up in it. We access this psychological space by noticing that we are noticing our thoughts and feelings, or becoming conscious of our consciousness.
Most of us are not very familiar with the observing self – we might catch glimpses but these are usually brief and transitory. Individuals are highly variable in the extent to which they are aware of, able to recognise, or are in touch with the observing self when we start to talk about it. One of the most common experiences of the observing self is realising that there is someone who always stays the same inside us as we age and who observes all the changes that happen to our bodies, thought patterns, beliefs, and roles as we mature and age. Most of the exercises used to develop self-as-context help the client get more in touch with the observing self.
The aim of developing self-as-context and the observing self is to facilitate defusion and acceptance. When we become familiar with the observing self and are able to get into this space, we find it easier to defuse from and accept our thoughts and feelings.
Practising self-as-context is particularly useful to facilitate acceptance when a person is afraid of being overwhelmed or harmed by his own inner experiences. The observing self is a steady and constant viewing point from which to observe these experiences. It is a safe place inside where no matter how great the pain is, it cannot harm them.
Practising self-as-context is particularly useful to facilitate defusion when a person is overly attached to the conceptualised sense of self. The distance provided by the observing self facilitates choice and effective action because we can see that thoughts and feelings do not control action.
Self-as-context can be introduced after a few sessions on defusion and acceptance, or it can be introduced before this. The concept can be used at any time.
Metaphors used by ACT practitioners to help explain self-as-context include:
The sky and weather metaphor – 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 cloud it is still there.
The chess metaphor – Our thoughts, feelings and memories are like the pieces on a chessboard. Imagine there are an infinite number of pieces. Some of them are positive (e.g. happiness, pleasant feelings, loving memories), others are negative (e.g. anxiety, sadness, a memory of someone who has died) and these tend to hang out together in teams. The pieces on the positive and negative teams are constantly battling with one another trying to get advantage over the other side. The battle has gone on for years. We go through life trying to knock off all the pieces from the negative side, but as soon as we do another one pops up. The observing self is like the chessboard. It is in intimate contact with all the pieces but it’s not involved in the battle.
The stage show metaphor – Life is like a stage show and on that stage are all your thoughts, feelings, memories and everything that you can see, hear, touch, taste and smell. The observing self is that part of you that can step back and watch the stage show: you can focus on one part of it, or step back and take in the whole scene.
These notes are based on Harris (2009), Chapter 10 unless otherwise specified. Some notes are taken from Hayes and Smith (2005), Chapter 7.