ACT 101: The Observing Self

You’re introduced to someone you’ve never met before.  They say, “Tell me about yourself.”  How do you answer?  Do you say, “I’m a total stress ball, and have no sense of direction in my life?”  Probably not, except possibly if they are your new life coach or pexels-photo-573565.jpegtherapist.  More likely, you’ll answer with a basic description, including your roles.  “I’m a sales representative at ABC Company.” Or, “I’m a dad to 3 children.” Or, “I’m an accountant by day, and a sports nut on the weekends.”  And sharing those high-level descriptions of your roles and interests are fine, even socially expected, when having a conversation with someone for the first time.

With Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT), in which the goal is greater psychological flexibility, we dive a little deeper into the question, “Who am I?”  It is recognized that how we identify and relate to our descriptions, roles, thoughts, emotions and experiences has a profound effect on how we experience life.

For example, if we see ourselves as “a total stress ball, with no sense of direction,” we may make day-to-day choices that narrow or limit our world.  If invited to a party, we pexels-photo-206382.jpegmay think, “No one will want to be around me right now,” so we decline the offer.  Or if we see ourselves as, “overweight and undesirable,” we may choose not to go on a blind date even though we’d really like to be in a romantic relationship. ACT recognizes that the labels we attach to ourselves can impact more than just our perspective, it can affect how narrowly or broadly we experience our lives.  It can cause us to miss out on having or experiencing the things that matter to us.

So, let’s take a deeper dive into this idea of perspectives of ourselves.  ACT breaks it down into “three senses of self”:


When we describe ourselves by a story of our lives (roles, experiences, characteristics, thoughts, emotions, etc.), we’re describing what ACT refers to as Self-as-Content. In other pexels-photo-532389.jpegwords, these are the things that have been a part of you and your life, but are definitely not the whole of who you are.  You may be a mom, but you’re more than that.  You may be an engineer, but you’re more than that too.  You may be smart, or tall, or struggle with anxiety, but none of these represents the entirety of you.


Beyond the content of our lives as described above, we have the capacity to notice our experiences as they’re happening.  It is an awareness of what we’re sensing.  For example, “I am feeling angry,” or “I am seeing a car driving by right now,” or “I am in the process of planning an event for next weekend.”  Self-as-Process is the ongoing process of awareness; it is the realization that we are experiencing our life right now with our 5-senses.  We are making conscious contact with our present moment experience.


This sense of self is the most difficult to explain, because it is more fully understood as an experience.  It is the aspect of ourselves that is the answer to these questions, “Who felt the anger?” “Who saw the car driving by?” “Who is planning the event?”  And let’s take it even a step further.  Think of a time when you were a child and you felt angry.  Maybe a sibling played with a toy of yours and it broke.  Maybe your parents said no to your request to go somewhere or do something.  Think about who it was that felt angry then, and who it is that also feels anger sometimes now.  Somehow you know that there was a “you” then, and there is a “you” now, and that they are the same “you.”  Even though every cell in your body is a different cell, even though your bepexels-photo-247195.jpegliefs are different, your roles are different, your daily experiences are different. But at a deep level you know that you are the same you.  You know that there is an aspect of you that experienced all of those changing roles, changing emotions, changing thoughts; and that aspect of you is the true you.  ACT calls this our Observing Self, or our Self-as-Context because all of our experiences were experienced in the context of this sense of self.

So, why does knowing about these 3 senses-of-self matter?  Because there’s a spacious, calm, peaceful, and transcendent quality to our Observing Self, and when we experience the ever-changing events, beliefs, thoughts, and emotions in our lives from that stable, unchanging aspect of ourselves, we’re able to handle those events similarly to how we handle the changes in weather.  We might not like a storm, but we know that it will lightning-storm-weather-sky-53459.jpegeventually pass.

This 2-minute video demonstrates this metaphor by comparing our Observer Self to the sky in which the changing, sometimes turbulent weather occurs.

You are the sky. Everything else – it’s just the weather. – Pema Chodron

Then finally, through the generosity of Russ Harris, I offer you the opportunity to further the understanding of these senses of self through a meditative exercise.  Here is a 14-minute audio, entitled “Many Selves.”

Often when someone practices being aware of their Observing Self, connecting with it, pexels-photo.jpgand experiencing the events of their life from that “place,” they also experience a greater sense of wholeness.  But, even if that is not the case, there is a greater capacity to be more psychologically flexible when dealing with the unexpected in life.

Just for today, I will remind myself

I’m more than thinking mind,

There is another part of me, I am

the sky, I am the sea.

—  Corinne Shields

Let’s practice ACT together!

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