Category Archives: Self-as-Context / Observing Self

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!

ACT 101: Psychological Flexibility

Has this ever happened to you? Psychological Flexibility Meme

  • You set a goal to eat more healthful foods, but you give in to cravings, repeatedly, then think, “I’m never going to get this under control. I feel like just giving up.”
  • You want to be more loving to the people you care about, but you catch yourself in the middle of an argument, waving your hands, saying hurtful things, again. Then, you mentally turn equally hurtful words towards yourself, “What is wrong with me?”
  • You decide you want to further your education, but just can’t seem to force yourself to sign up for that next course? You think, “It’s just too hard.  I’m not smart enough.”

You wonder if you’ll ever be able to be the person you want to be, or accomplish the goals you’ve set for yourself.  It’s like trying to get to the top of a steep hill.  You take a running start with such good intentions, and up you go for a while. Then you lose traction and slide back down, maybe sometimes even tumble and roll back to the bottom of the hill.  You get up, look around and see you’re in the same place you started.  You grit your teeth, muster your dogged determination and try again…with the same result.  You try again, and again. You’re disappointed and frustrated, at the situation and at yourself.  You just feel stuck, and furthermore you’ve had it with this exhausting, painful pattern and you’re ready to call it quits.

Don’t give up.  Give ACT a try!  ACT recognizes this stuck pattern of behavior as a normal human experience and it offers 6 Core Processes that, when practiced, help you get unstuck, and help you develop the ability to move forward in the direction of your chosen values, goals, and ways of behaving, even when stuff gets in the way.  This is known as developing “psychological flexibility.”

Below, is a very brief description of each the 6 Core Processes, and we’ll be visiting each in more depth in other blog posts.  But first, let’s take a closer look at what is really happening here.  Initially, there is the desire to move towards something you value (a healthier body, improved relationships, or higher education, etc.).  Next, unpleasant thoughts show up like, “What if I fail?” or “I’m not good enough,” and difficult emotions arise like uncertainty, fear or frustration when things don’t go as expected.  Then, you want to avoid those painful thoughts and feelings, so you’re tempted to quit, or maybe you do quit. And maybe even more painful thoughts show up, “I’m such a loser.”

Again, all of this is perfectly normal.  It even has a name; it’s called experiential avoidance.  But, it’s keeping us from being the person we really want to be.  I encourage you to watch this 3-minute video that explains it.

So, let’s take a very brief look at what makes a difference, the 6 Core Processes of Psychological Flexibility:Hexaflex with credit

  1. Values – Clarifying what really matters to us
  2. Committed Action – Taking clearly defined steps towards our values
  3. Mindfulness – Being in contact and fully engaged in our lives moment-by-moment
  4. Self as Context – Recognizing the enduring part of ourselves that observes our experiences throughout the many stages of our lives
  5. Defusion – Detaching, or unhooking, from our painful mental experiences (thoughts, memories, judgments, etc.) that arise when we’re moving towards our values
  6. Acceptance – Expanding our capacity to experience those difficult emotions that also show up

ACT is about building skills in each of the 6 processes.  For a short, yet very effective practice, I recommend this 3-minute breathing space exercise to begin the process of noticing your internal experiences (thoughts, emotions and sensations), and to experience mindfulness.  I invite you to share your experience by leaving a comment.

Let’s practice ACT together!

ACT – What is It? How Can It Help?

What is ACT?


Hayes, S. C. (2004) ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and the new behavior therapies: Mindfulness, acceptance and relationship’. In Hayes, S. C. Follette, V. M. & Linehan, M. (Eds.), Mindfulness and acceptance: Expanding the cognitive behavioral tradition, New York, Guilford, pp 1-29.

Acceptance & Commitment Training, or ACT (said as a word rather than initials), is an empirically science-based model for therapy and coaching.  At ACT in the Moment, we use this powerful model for training and coaching with two objectives in mind:

  1. To create a rich, purposeful, rewarding life
  2. To effectively manage the painful or limiting thoughts and emotions that sometimes stand in the way of having the fulfilling life we desire

ACT: 6 Core Processes

ACT consists of 6 Core Processes that help achieve Psychological Flexibility.  Similar to how stretching and toning exercises help make us stronger and more agile in performing hour daily physical activities, ACT processes can help us become more flexible mentally and emotionally, so we can better handle the situations that life throws at us.  This allows us to be free to take actions toward what is truly meaningful in our lives.   Those 6 processes are:

  1. Contact with the Present Moment/Mindfulness
  2. Values
  3. Committed Action
  4. Self as Context
  5. Defusion
  6. Acceptance

Values – The Why of What We Do

Reasons, feelings, beliefs—all may change.  If your choices are dependent on those, you’re constantly bouncing around.

— Steven Hayes, PhD

man-on-compassThis quote by Steven Hayes, founder of ACT, highlights why identifying our life values is such a crucial activity.  Our values set our course and keep us focused on what really matters.

So then, how do we discover our values?  The ACT model offers several exercises to support the values clarification process, and one of those is to simply ask ourselves what really matters to us in life?  What do we want our lives to be about?  Who do we want to be as a person? What do we want to stand for?  How would we like to be remembered?  It’s about using what we uncover during the exercises to determine how we really want to spend our time and energy.  Our values become our guiding principles for our actions much like a compass pointing the way.

Committed Action

goals-checklistSo, the next step is to set goals and take committed action.  While our values are there to guide, motivate and inspire our course of action, committed action is about doing what needs to be done to bring those values to life.  Values point the way like a compass, and goals help us identify milestones as we move forward.  They are things that we can check off as arrival points or accomplishments along the way.  For a simple example, if you value being a loving supportive husband, a goal may be to plan a special evening out with your spouse.

Our values are what truly matters to us, goals and committed action are ways we pursue or demonstrate our values.

But, we’re human, and stuff gets in the way.  Stuff like:

  • Lack of confidence
  • Fear
  • Stress
  • Overwhelm
  • The feeling of being stuck
  • Self-criticism or perfectionism
  • Thoughts that we’re “not good enough”

So, then what?   ACT’s 6 Core Processes were designed specifically to help with these.  One such process is to make contact with the present moment.

Contact with the Present Moment

Our minds are like pieces of technology or software programmed to think constantly, 24/7, 365 days a year.  They ruminate, analyze, recall, compare, strategize, fantasize, and evaluate.  They evoke things from the past and surmise things about the future.  Memories and projections show up as, “If only this hadn’t happened,” or “Once I have this, then I’ll be happy.”  Our minds can run us ragged.

here-and-nowACT offers training and exercises to help us manage this constant mind noise by making “contact with the present moment,” so we’re more aware of our here-and-now experience and so we can engage fully in ourselves, our lives and the world around us with an attitude of openness and curiosity.

For a very quick and simple exercise, right now, turn your attention to your breath, as you inhale pay attention to how your chest or belly rises, and as you exhale notice how it recedes back again.  It can be that easy to bring our attention to the present moment.  And it can be done anytime, anywhere.

Connection means being fully aware of your here-and-now experience, fully in touch with what is happening in this moment.

— Russ Harris, M.B.B.S., Physician, Therapist, and Trainer in ACT

Self as Context

Another life-enhancing ACT process is known as Self as Context.  The ACT model recognizes the importance of perspective, and acknowledges that we have 3 ways of experiencing who we are, or senses of self.  Understanding each of these senses of self can also be helpful in dealing with difficult thoughts and feelings as they arise.

  • The Conceptualized Self is the way we view our appearance, our roles, our personality, and so on. It is the process of evaluating and summarizing who we are.  Our conclusions and descriptions can be accurate or inaccurate, and can influence the choices we make in life.
  • Self as Process is the activity of being aware of our current experiences. For example, “I am feeling anxious” or “I am thinking that I need bread from the store.”  A conflict between the conceptualized self and the awareness we have of a current experience can be disturbing.  For example, if we see ourselves as someone who is always nice, our thoughts of anger and resentfulness may be difficult to admit.
  • The Observing Self is the part of us that can see all of our past and present experiences like a string of pearls, connected by a golden thread (that aspect of ourselves which remains constant). The part of ourselves that was who we were when we were young, and is still who we are now. Recall a time when you were young and an experience you had, maybe playing outside with friends.  Now think of brushing your teeth this morning.  The observer self is that part of us that recognizes that that young person and the person who brushed their teeth today are the same person.

Becoming familiar with each of these senses of self and knowing their purpose can be very helpful.  For example, it can help us with the next process called defusion.


We all know that feeling of getting hooked by our negative thoughts.  They show up as worry, guilt, self-doubt, perfectionism and the like.  These are the thoughts that slow us down, or can even stop us in our tracks.  They zap our confidence and motivation.  The ACT model calls that getting fused with, or hooked by, our painful or limiting thoughts.

Defusion is the process we use to create some distance between ourselves and these negative thoughts, beliefs or memories.  It consists of techniques we can use to remember that our thoughts are really just a type of language in our minds.  We can learn to mentally step back, detach, or unhook ourselves from these thoughts and return to the perspective of being a curious observer, and then take action toward building  the life we desire.


At one time or another, each of us has experienced disappointment, failure, illness or injury.  What’s a common reaction to those feelings?  Very often, we think, “I should be able to just get over this,” or, “Why can’t I just pull myself up by my bootstraps and move on?”  But struggling with negative emotions does not make them go away.  Studies have shown that it actually can make them worse by adding additional layers of suffering.

So, what do we do?  Let’s use the metaphor of quicksand.  If someone falls into quicksand their natural reaction is to thrash around to try to get out of it immediately.  But, what happens when they do that?  They sink even faster.  Negative emotions work the same way.  The more we struggle to get away from them, the tighter their grip can be.  With quicksand the best thing to do is relax back and lay yourself out flat like a starfish.   With emotions, we can learn to pause, make some space for those feelings and become skilled at letting them come and go without struggle.   ACT has many techniques to help us do

It’s about embracing the full spectrum of our emotions and recognizing the richness and depth they bring to our lives.

It’s about knowing what matters and managing the thoughts and feelings that stand in our way, so we can build and experience the rich, purposeful, rewarding life we truly want.

If you’d like to know more about ACT, you can visit our website, connect with us on our ACT in the Moment Facebook page, or contact us.