The basic technique for practicing self-as-context is a simple extension of the technique used in contacting the present moment.
The basic mindfulness instruction is “Notice X” where X can be a thought, a feeling, a sensation, or anything that we can see, hear, touch, taste or smell. In self-as-context, the X becomes the original noticing and we notice that noticing.
The basic instruction involves 2 steps in the form of “Notice what you are thinking/feeling”. “Now notice who is noticing”, or “Be aware of who is noticing”.
Harris provides a 2 minute meditation exercise called There Go Your Thoughts that guides a client through these steps.
Talking and listening is another ultra quick exercise that illustrates the observing self. “For the next 30 seconds, silently listen to what your mind is saying. If your thoughts stop, just keep listening until they start again”. Pause 30 seconds. “So there you have it: there is a part of your mind that talks – the thinking self – and a part of your mind that listens – the observing self”.
The Continuous You Exercise is a 15 minute guided meditation in which the practitioner guides the client through the process of noticing several aspects of their physical and psychological experience – breath, thoughts, position of their body sitting in the chair, sensations throughout the body, and the role they are currently playing – and also noticing that there is someone doing all this noticing (Harris, 2009; p.178-180). This exercise involves 5 illustrations of or contexts for the same sequence of 4 steps:
- Notice X.
- There is X and there you are noticing X.
- If you can notice X, you cannot be X.
- X changes continually; but the you who notices X does not change.
It is often helpful to finish the Continuous You Exercise by using the Sky and Weather Metaphor
Whenever you are working on other elements of ACT, it is helpful to occasionally draw the client’s attention to the observing self. Harris (2009) offers a number of simple phrases that can be used:
- “As as you notice your breath / your thoughts / this sensation in your chest, take a moment to notice who is noticing”.
- “Be aware that you are noticing your breath / this memory / the sensation in your chest”.
- “So there is that thought again, and there you are noticing that thought again”.
- “See if you can take a step back and look at this thought/feeling from the observing self. Notice all those thoughts whizzing through your head”.
Let your self go – Practitioners who work with young people often believe that their clients need more self-esteem, and the way we tend to work on that is by helping them to reduce negative self-judgements and think more positive thoughts about themselves. From an ACT perspective, there are dangers to this approach of trying to replace negative self-statements with positive ones. “Fusion with a self-description is likely to create problems whether it is positive or negative” (Harris, 2009; p181).
“The problem with identifying with any particular aspect of who you are is that once you become attached to that particular aspect of your identity, you set yourself up to distort the world in order to maintain this vision of yourself” (Hayes and Smith, 2005; p89). If we are fused with a positive self concept and something happens that contradicts this, we can be thrown into a painful dilemma.
Rather than self-esteem, ACT recommends self-acceptance. This involves defusing from and accepting both the negative and the positive self-judgements that continually parade through our minds. Self-as-context or being in the observing self enables us to do this. Harris (2009) provides a transcript of a conversation "Let Your Self Go" (p.181-183) that illustrates why trying to replace negative judgements with positive ones can be problematic, and how an ACT practitioner might use self-as-context to help the client defuse from and accept negative and positive self-statements. You could re-write this script based on a plausible conversation you could anticipate having with a client. Harris (2009) also provides a homework exerceise (p.183) that clients can do after this type of conversation [See Note H8i].
Residing in self-as-context is essentially the same as being in a state of mindfulness. “Mindfulness is the defused, non-attached, accepting, non judgemental, deliberate awareness of experiential events as they happen in the moment. It involves every aspect of the things we have already worked with” (Hayes and Smith, 2005; p98).
In addition to facilitating defusion and acceptance, self-as-context is “a psychological space that frees us to make conscious choices about what we want to do … Because from this perspective we can ‘clearly see’ that our thoughts and feelings are transient events that don’t define who we are or control our actions” (Harris, 2009; p186).
These notes are based on Harris (2009), Chapter 10; as well as Hayes and Smith (2005), Chapter 7.
Note H8i The approach of self-acceptance as advocated by ACT is significantly different from the approach of “positive thinking” that is widely advocated in popular psychology. Mixing the two approaches can be very confusing and counterproductive. Positive thinking is not an evidence-based therapeutic idea.