Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) largely helps people both 1) identify values and goals that give their life purpose, and 2) develop skills to get unhooked from unhelpful thoughts and painful emotions. In this sense, getting unhooked doesn’t mean that we do not have the thoughts or emotions any more, but rather that we change our relationship with them. This is essentially where the therapeutic change comes from in ACT.
An additional skill in ACT comes from understanding the two main different ways that we experience ourselves:
The first way that we experience ourselves is in the way of mental content. What do I mean by this? I am referring here to our language-based thoughts that operate as the ways we categorize and represent the outside worlds in our brains. Any kind of description that you might think about yourself is self-as-content:
I’m a good employee.
I’m a terrible friend.
I’m a skilled athlete.
I’m quick to anger.
Any of these ways that we think about ourselves represents ourselves as a piece of content in our minds. This is the idea we have of ourselves, of who we are as a person – which is different from who we actually are. You may notice that self-as-content operates pretty exclusively in the world of judgment.
There is a recognition in ACT that as human beings in modern day society, we have the tendency to attach ourselves strongly to our self-as-content, to the conceptualized self (different phrase for the same thing) in our minds.
When we spend a lot of time and energy defending the idea of ourselves, either to ourselves or to others, this takes precious time and energy away from areas it could be better spent. For example, defending the idea that one is right in a relationship discussion may cause one’s partner to feel unheard, harming the relationship. Defending the idea of who you are by coming up with points and examples comes from being attached to our self-as-content.
Alternatively, we may spend a lot of time defending ourselves in our own minds, going back and forth on what labels to apply to ourselves. At times it seems to be an endless battle:
I want you to imagine for a moment a chessboard that extends outward in all directions. It’s covered with black pieces on one side, and white pieces on the other. Our thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and body sensations can be kind of like this – they sort of hang out together in teams: the “bad” emotions on one side (that is: anger, sadness, fear, regret, guilt, shame, negative self-talk) and the “good” ones on the other (that is: happiness, joy, satisfaction, relaxation, self-confidence, positive self-talk).
So it seems the way the game is played we select our sides that we want to win. We put the “good” pieces on one side and the “bad” ones on the other, and then we ride into battle on the back of the black queen, fighting to win the war against anxiety, depression, anger, our low self-worth, etc.
But there’s a logical problem to this idea which is that from this posture huge portions of yourself and your experience are your own enemy. That is, when you’re on the same level as these pieces, fighting the battle on this board, the pieces can be as big or bigger than you are.
So somehow, the more you fight, the bigger they get. Because of the way our minds and bodies work, if we are unwilling to have an experience, that is often the experience we end up having. The more you fight these thoughts, these emotions, the more central to your life they become, and more dominating of your experience.
So the battle goes on, and you start to feel hopeless that the battle can be won.
In this metaphor, although we tend to associate ourselves with the pieces on this board, our mental content, our emotions, etc., in reality we are not the pieces on the board. Instead, we are like the chessboard itself that holds all the pieces. You contain your thoughts and emotions, not the other way around. The more we can connect with ourselves as being like the chessboard instead of the pieces, this can be helpful for becoming unstuck from old ideas about who we are.
The Observer Self
If we shouldn’t only understand ourselves as our own mental content, then what other version is there? This is what in ACT is called the observer self. If self-as-content tends to put is into problem-solving mode, trying to build or maintain our image of ourselves in our minds, then the observer self is experiencing your thoughts and mental content from observation mode, the mode we’re in when we do not have any agenda or try to change anything. This can create a state in which we can be aware of our mental content, of the process of back-and-forth in our minds, without being so attached to the outcome of that process.
In turn, this makes it easier to become unhooked from our attachment to our conceptualized self, and makes it easier to choose valued actions. The counter-intuitive thing about the observer self is that it can be difficult to contact on the level of logic, because logic itself is a part of the language-based problem-solving mode in our minds. It is more faithfully contacted on the level of experience, as a match for what the observation mode truly is.
In the below sound clip, you can follow a guided meditation (19-minutes) that is designed to help you get in contact with that observer self. For anyone interested, I have pasted the script to this observer self exercise at the bottom of the post.
While being able to contact who you are from your own observational perspective can be a helpful skill, this does not mean that we disregard all mental content in our lives. Similarly, our days would be hard to get through if we didn’t use at least some judgmental words to speed things along. We do need to be in problem-solving mode sometimes, and so this post is not meant to suggest that we are never allowed to care about or defend our conceptualized self. However, for the times where our attachment to that conceptualized self harms us, it can be valuable to be able to gain a greater perspective on it.
A reliable way that we can develop this new perspective and understanding of ourselves is through the process of therapy. If you live in Seattle or the greater Washington area, and are interested in working on this via telehealth, please feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation today or learn more about my approach on my website.
Observer Self Script:
Take a moment to close your eyes and get settled into your chair in a comfortable position. This mental and visualization exercise is designed to bring you into contact with a different version of yourself than how you normally understand yourself. It goes beyond the content connected to the concept ME in our brains, and instead gets to a deeper sense of who you are, a sense of continuity from over your life.
For the exercise, you can simply follow my voice… if you notice your mind wandering, as our minds have the tendency to do, simply notice that your mind is wandering, and gently guide it back to the sound of my voice.
For a moment, with your eyes closed, turn your attention to where you are in the room you are in, or if you are outside, where you are outside. Picture yourself in the place where you are. Now begin to go inside your skin and get in touch with your body. Notice how you are sitting in your seat. See if you can notice exactly the shape that is made and the parts of your skin that touch the chair. Notice any bodily sensations that are there. As you see each one, just acknowledge that feeling, and allow your consciousness to move on from it… Now notice any emotions you are having, and if you have any, just acknowledge them… Now get in touch with your thoughts, and just quietly watch them for a few moments…
Now I want you to notice that, as you noticed these things, there was a part of you that noticed them. You noticed those sensations, those emotions, those thoughts. And that part of you we will call the Observer You. There is a person in here behind those eyes that is aware of what I am saying right now. And it is the same person you’ve been your whole life. In some deep sense, this observer You is the you that you call you.
Shifting the focus from your present sensations, emotions, and thoughts, I’d like you remember something that happened last summer. I’ll give you a moment to bring to mind a memory... And when you do, try to engage your mind’s eye, your visualization process. Now just look around,. Remember all the things that were happening then. Remember the sights… the sounds… your feelings… and as you do that see if you can notice that you were there then noticing what you saw, and heard, and felt. See if you can catch the person behind your eyes that saw and heard and felt. You were there then, and you are here now.
I am not asking you to believe this, I am not making a logical point, I am just asking you to note the experience of being aware and to check and see if it isn’t so that in some deep sense the you that is here now was there then. The person aware of what you are aware of now was there then. See if you can notice the essential continuity – in some deep sense at the level of experience, not at the level of belief, or the content part of your mind. You have been you your whole life.
Next, I want you to remember something that happened to you when you were a teenager. I’ll give you a moment to identify a memory from that time. Once again, I’d like you to visualize with your mind’s eye and look around from that memory. Remember all the things that were happening then. Remember the sights… the sounds… your feelings… take your time.
And when you are clear about what was there, see if you just for a second catch that there was a person behind your eyes then who saw, and heard, and felt all of this. You were there then too, and see if it isn’t true – as an experienced fact, not as a matter of belief, that there is an essential continuity between the person aware of what you are aware of now and the person who was aware of what you were aware of as a teenager in that specific situation. You have been you your whole life.
Next, remember something that happened when you were a fairly young child, say, around age 6 or 7. I’ll give you a moment to identify a memory from that time… Now, as you did previously, just look around from your mind’s eye from this time. Your eyeline, your perspective of the world would be much closer to the ground than it is now. See the sights from this perspective… hear the sounds… feel your feelings from that time… and then catch the fact that you were there seeing, hearing, and feeling.
Notice that you were there behind your eyes. You were there then, and you are here now. Check and see if in some deep sense the “you” that is here now was there then. The person aware of what you are aware of is here now and was there then.
You have been you your whole life. Everywhere you’ve been , you’ve been there noticing. This is what I mean by the “Observer You.” And from that perspective or point of view I want you to look at some different areas of living. Let’s start with your body. Notice how your body is constantly changing. Sometimes it is sick, and sometimes it is well. It may be rested or tired. It may be strong or weak. You were once a tiny baby, and your body grew, and it has been continually changing as you have aged. You may have even have had parts of your body removed, like an operation.
Your cells die and are renewed constantly in the order of millions. While you would not be here without your cells you are not simply your cells. Your bodily sensations come and go. Even as we have spoken, they have changed. So, all this is changing, and yet you have been there your whole life. That must mean that, while you have a body, you do not experience yourself just as your body. This is a matter of experience, not a matter of belief. Just notice your body now for a few moments, and as you do this, every so often notice that you are the one noticing…
Now let’s go to another area: your roles. Notice how many roles you have or have had. Sometimes I’m in the role of employee, sometimes as a child of our parents, sometimes as a friend. Sometimes a leader, sometimes a follower. In the world of form, I’m in some role all the time. If I were to try not to be, then I’d be playing the role of not playing a role. Right now you are playing the role of Listener to this exercise. Yet, all the while, notice that you are also present.
The part of you that you call “you”… is watching and aware of what you are aware of . And in some deep sense that “you” never changes. So, if your roles are constantly changing and yet the you that you call “You” has been there your whole lif, it must be that while you have roles, you do not experience yourself to be only your roles. This is not a matter of belief, but one of experience. Just notice the distinction between what you are looking at and the you that is looking.
Now let’s go to another area, emotions. Notice how your emotions are constantly changing. Sometimes you feel love, and sometimes resentment, calm, anxious, joyful-sorrowful, happy-sad. Even now you may be experiencing emotions… interest, boredom, relaxation. Think of things that you have liked and don’t like any longer, or fears that you once had that are now resolved. The only thing you can count on with emotions is that they will change.
Though a wave of emotion comes, it will pass in time. And yet, while these emotions come and go, notice that in some deep sense that “you” do not change. So, while you have emotions, you do not experience yourself to be just your emotions. Allow yourself to contact this from the level of experience, not the level of belief. In some very important and deep way, you experience yourself as a constant. You are you through it all. So just notice your emotions for a moment, and notice also that you are noticing them…
Now let’s turn to the most difficult area – you own thoughts. Thoughts are difficult because they tend to hook us and pull us into them. If that happens, just come back to the sound of my voice. Notice how your thoughts are constantly changing. You used to not understand much about the world, then you went to school and gained knowledge and learned new ways of thinking. Sometimes you think about things one way and sometimes another. Sometimes your thoughts may make little sense. Sometimes they seemingly come up automatically, from out of nowhere.
They are constantly changing. Notice the thoughts you’ve had since you woke up today, and consider the sheer number of them. And yet in some deep way the you that is aware of what you are thinking is not changing. So, that must mean that while you have thoughts, you do not experience yourself to be just your thoughts. Do not believe this. Just notice it. And even as you are aware of this, notice that your stream of thoughts continues. And you may get caught with them. And yet, the instant you realize that, you also realize that a part of you is standing back, watching it all. So, now watch your thoughts for a few moments – and as you do, notice also that you are noticing them…
So, as a matter of experience, and not of belief, you are not just your roles… your emotions… your thoughts… These things are the content of your life, while you are the arena… the context… the space in which they unfold… Notice that the things you’ve been struggling with and trying to change are not you. No matter how this battle goes, you will be there, unchanged. See if you can take advantage of this connection to let go just a little bit, secure in the knowledge that you have been you through it all and that you need not have such an investment in all the psychological content as a measure of your life. Just notice the experiences in all the domains that show up, and as you do, notice that you are still here, being aware of what you are aware of…
Now when you are ready, picture yourself in this room or in the place where you are. When you are ready to end the exercise, you can open your eyes and return fully to the place you are now.