Who Am I?
Self-as-Context in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
The atoms that make up your body are constantly changing. The matter that makes it possible for you to think - atoms, making molecules, making cells, making synapses, making neural circuits - is in flux. Nonetheless, there is a sense of continuity to your experience, right? You don’t feel like a fundamentally different being than you were last year even though, physically speaking, you are. This sense of stability is your “self.” It is a miracle. Somehow, “you” feel like you exist, day after day, year after year.
What does this have to do with therapy, you ask? In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), it has a lot to do with therapy, so much so that it gets its own name! In ACT, inquiring into your sense of self is called practicing self-as-context. This tip will explore how changing your perspective on your sense of self can help you feel free to live the life you truly want.
Who Am I: The Conceptualized Self
In your head, think “I am an elephant.” Think it again. “I am an elephant.”
Now, read this: “You are an elephant.”
So, have you become an elephant? Unless you are incredibly suggestible, chances are the answer is a resounding “no.” And why not? Because you know that “I am an elephant” is just a string of syllables put together that really has no bearing on who you are. You know that because you know what the symbols “I am an elephant” mean, and they don’t correspond to any feedback you’ve ever gotten from the world. In ACT, we would call “I am an elephant” a verbal statement that is not functional. It doesn’t correspond to the real world very well, so your brain throws it out right away. Good job, brain!
If your brain doesn’t accept the thought “I am an elephant”, what does it accept? In other words, who do you think you are? Let’s take some time to explore this. Complete the sentences below with the first statements that come to mind. Use phrases that describe how you perceive your identity, rather than your physical self (e.g. “I am pregnant”; “I am tall”). Do it quickly and instinctually, referring to the examples below if you need help.
I am a _____________ person.
I am _____________________.
I know myself to be ___________________.
I am a _____________ person.
I am _____________________.
I know myself to be ___________________.
I am a kind person.
I am a mother.
I know myself to be short-tempered.
I am an unworthy person.
I am an immigrant.
I know myself to be anxious.
Great job. Your answers to these questions should give you a sense of your conceptualized self. These are the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. They are the narratives that create that sense of continuity and stability, even though our physical selves are constantly changing. They are also functional in a way “I am an elephant” is not. In some way, those sentences you just wrote have been useful in your life, so useful that they’ve stuck around and become part of who you think you are - your conceptualized self!
Now, you might be sensing already that the conceptualized self is not all it’s cracked up to be. First off, the sentences you wrote down are just strings of symbols, just like “I am an elephant” is. The only difference is that these strings of symbols are actually functional, or at least more functional than “I am an elephant” is! That said, perhaps you also noticed that some of these sentences might not be as functional as they could be. Maybe there is a sentence that makes you feel bad about yourself or one that makes you feel like you have to deny parts of yourself. See if you can choose one like that, then complete the exercise below.
Thought from my Conceptualized Self
How Much I Believe It (0-100%)
How Believing It Makes Me Feel
Ex: I am a kind person.
There have been times in my life I have been cruel and selfish. I’m not sure how those fit into this idea of myself as kind.
Ex: I know myself to be anxious.
Makes me feel hopeless. Also, I think believing it this much makes me feel more anxious.
Wonderful work! Ideally, you’re now noticing that your conceptualized self isn’t always functional. Often, these narratives make it hard for us to accept all the parts of ourselves (like the times we aren’t kind). More often still, they make it difficult to free ourselves from mental suffering, like anxiety or depression. After all, if being an anxious person is a core part of who I am, why try to heal?
It is natural for our brains to create a conceptualized self. It is also natural for some aspects of our conceptualized self to get stuck, particularly those negative parts. Some types of therapy, like Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), work with those sticky parts by helping us understand that those sentences aren’t really true. Objectively, you’re probably not wholly “an anxious person”, just like you’re not “an elephant.” In ACT, we use a different strategy. Instead of trying to change the conceptualized self, we practice weakening our attachment to it. For some people, this is quicker and easier than changing the beliefs themselves. Let’s give it a try!
Who Am I: Self-As-Process
Choose one of your conceptualized self sentences from the last exercise. Choose one you believe in relatively strongly (+75%). I’ll use “I am anxious,” but you can replace this sentence with your own as you read, if it doesn’t fit for you.
Right now, something is happening in your brain and body to tell you that “I am anxious” is true. As you read, try to find those sensations. Is there tightness in your chest? Memories of panic attacks? Pressure in your throat or butterflies in your stomach? Thoughts about how you will be anxious in the future? Voices of those who have told you you are anxious? Be curious and mindful. What tells you that you are anxious? Give this part of you a name, like “Anxious Me.”
Great. Now, politely ask this part of you, “Anxious Me,” to step aside. There is another part of you that this statement does not describe. A part of you that does not communicate to your brain “I am anxious”. As you read, try to find that part. For example, do your feet feel anxious? Your ears? Do you have memories of times you were not anxious? Thoughts about how you are proud of yourself? Voices of those who have told you you are brave? A sense of contentment or ease, somewhere deep inside? Again, be curious and mindful. Not all of you is “Anxious Me.” Find this part. Give this part of you a name, like “Peaceful Me.”
Fantastic. Now, what if I told you that you don’t need to change anything about these parts? Instead, just keep your awareness on “Anxious Me” and “Peaceful Me” as you read this paragraph.
Look at “Anxious Me” for a moment, noticing the thoughts and sensations this part of yourself produces…
Now switch to “Peaceful Me,” noticing the different feelings this part of yourself experiences…
Practice letting go of the need to change anything about how you feel. Let these parts come and go as they please, like leaves floating by on a stream…
One moment you may be “Anxious Me”, the next “Peaceful Me,” and so on.
What you just did is called self-as-process. “You” are not your conceptualized self. Instead, your experience of yourself is multifaceted and changing all the time. So, if you’re not your conceptualized self, then who are you?
Who Am I: Self-As-Context
Become aware of “Anxious Me.” Become aware of “Peaceful Me.” Do you feel them both? Understand that they are both parts of you?
Now, who is watching these parts?
Who is it I’ve been talking to, this whole time?
Who is it that completed that exercise, filled out that table, and observed parts of themselves?
Who is reflecting on themselves, right now?
This is yourself as an observer, or yourself as context. Clearly, you are not the stories you tell yourself about who you are. If you were, how would you have watched them from the outside, like leaves on a stream? If you were, how would you have simultaneously observed two contradicting stories about yourself? You are much larger than these stories. You are the context they are happening in. The book that is being written in, not the stories. The river, not the leaves.
Notice how it feels to be the context, instead of the content. You might notice the spaciousness, the flexibility, and the freedom. The stories you tell about yourself aren’t really who you are! Further, you might notice how foreign this sense of yourself can be, and how easy it is to slip back into the conceptualized self. Lastly, you might have observed some similarities between this way of being and experiences you might call spiritual or transcendent. Understanding self-as-context doesn’t have to involve spiritual or religious experience, but it’s important to note that this concept is echoed in countless spiritual or mystical traditions around the world. Depending on your interests and background, you may find it useful to explore self-as-context through certain types of meditation (e.g. effortless/nondual mindfulness; headlessness) or prayer in which you imagine your sense of self dissolving into a larger, fully awake, and deeply compassionate space.
The next time a conceptualized idea of yourself shows up, like “Anxious Me”, you might practice noticing this as a leaf on the stream, inviting other leaves into awareness (like “Peaceful Me”), and understanding yourself as context in which the conceptualized ideas of yourself emerge. Clearly, self-as-context is a very different way of relating to yourself! Learning to see yourself from this perspective more often can be incredibly liberating. It also takes practice, and it helps to become familiar with the other ACT skills, too. These include: learning to accept uncomfortable feelings, understanding that thoughts are just thoughts, staying in contact with what’s happening right now, connecting with values, and taking concrete actions consistent with your values. It can be difficult to practice all this on your own. If this tip resonated with you and you’d like help expanding your view of yourself, reach out to one of our therapists and schedule an appointment by clicking here or calling 215-922-LOVE x100.