Demystifying ACT: A Practical Guide for Therapists

Learn how to apply ACT principles in your everyday practice.  Earn 5 CE/CME credits.

Self-As-Context and PTSD: How Labels Reinforce Trauma

By Sonja Batten, Ph.D.

This video is part of our upcoming online course about ACT for PTSD.

Highlights

  • There’s a distinction between the sense of self defined by content and experiences and the one that’s consistent over time and doesn’t rely on private experiences.
  • For trauma survivors, finding a safe perspective can be essential to respond more effectively.

 

Transcript

As I’ve mentioned throughout this course, a number of consequences flow from our ability to use verbal language to describe, categorize, and evaluate the world.

One of those follow-on effects is that beginning very soon after we’ve learned descriptive words like good or bad, we come to apply those types of labels to describe ourselves as well.

So, a child may pretty quickly go from describing herself as a girl to describing herself as a good girl or a bad girl, and then later on, to the label of a good girl or a bad girl who’s afraid of the dark.

References

Batten, S. V. (2011). Essentials of acceptance and commitment therapy. SAGE Publications Ltd.

These self-descriptions of characteristics, evaluations, and roles go on and on as they’re elaborated over time and throughout our lives.

And this set of labels that we each have for ourselves is known within ACT as the conceptualized self.

References

Batten, S. V. (2011). Essentials of acceptance and commitment therapy. SAGE Publications Ltd.

And it’s important to note that the conceptualized self is, itself, neither good nor bad in and of itself.
It’s problematic only when we become overly attached to this conceptualization and truly believe that we’re defined by those labels in a firm or unchanging way.

References

Batten, S. V. (2011). Essentials of acceptance and commitment therapy. SAGE Publications Ltd.

Everybody has a conceptualized self, a way of looking at themselves and thinking about themselves and describing themselves to others.

But the impact of these labels comes with how firmly the individual believes them.

Again, the labels themselves are not the problem. It’s the attachment to those labels that can keep people stuck in roles and judgments, rather than in direct experience and moving forward based on values.

References

Batten, S. V. (2011). Essentials of acceptance and commitment therapy. SAGE Publications Ltd.

This is a normal process. And there’s no way to stop our minds from attaching these descriptions and labels to our self-concept over time.

But imagine how this process can get escalated after a traumatic event, not only labels like victim or survivor, which can have an array of implications for subsequent behavior either way, but also things like dirty, or failure, or doomed, or a variety of idiosyncratic verbal descriptions.

As these labels are generated and reinforced by the individual’s experience or by society, the person’s behaviors can become more and more shaped by these descriptors rather than by which behaviors are most workable.

References

Batten, S. V. (2011). Essentials of acceptance and commitment therapy. SAGE Publications Ltd.

And these labels can be even more entrenched and problematic when they arise due to ongoing trauma, like child physical or sexual abuse or domestic violence, due to the repeated experiences that bring up this content.

And the content can become even more complex based on other people’s reactions to the trauma.
If the person is invalidated by those around them when they disclose their trauma history, then there may be labels like overreacting or liar layered on top of those descriptors that are directly related to the trauma.

References

Batten, S. V. (2011). Essentials of acceptance and commitment therapy. SAGE Publications Ltd.

Within ACT, we operate on the belief that when individuals recognize that they are not their content, labels, or history, then they can open up to try new things, and move forward, and behave flexibly and effectively.

References

Batten, S. V. (2011). Essentials of acceptance and commitment therapy. SAGE Publications Ltd.

The process of contacting this place of what we call self-as-context requires skills of both defusion and a mindful present moment focus—both things that we’ve covered already.

References

Batten, S. V. (2011). Essentials of acceptance and commitment therapy. SAGE Publications Ltd.

So, the goal of this phase of ACT is to assist the client in distinguishing the person from their programming.
And their programming is really everything that has happened, or been said to them, or been told to them, or that they’ve read or thought or seen on TV or in a movie over time.

References

Batten, S. V. (2011). Essentials of acceptance and commitment therapy. SAGE Publications Ltd.

And so this work reinforces the work of defusion, reminding the client that so much of that cognitive content that arises naturally is just arbitrary based on that programming that we’ve all gotten.
And if the client can learn through experience that he’s not defined by his sadness or shame or anxiety or troubling memories, then maybe there’s another way to relate to this internal content.

References

Batten, S. V. (2011). Essentials of acceptance and commitment therapy. SAGE Publications Ltd.

The alternative we would suggest to experiencing a sense of self that’s defined by the content of one’s thoughts, feelings, memories, and bodily sensations is to find a place or a space, an experience, a perspective in which one can conduct with a transcendent sense of self that has always been present and that is safe and not determined by transient thoughts, feelings, labels, and memories.

References

Batten, S. V. (2011). Essentials of acceptance and commitment therapy. SAGE Publications Ltd.

So, if the trauma survivor can identify and choose a perspective in which their identity is not defined by the content of their experience, then the perceived danger of experiencing those difficult private events is reduced.

References

Batten, S. V. (2011). Essentials of acceptance and commitment therapy. SAGE Publications Ltd.

And so this perspective, in which one is able to connect with a consistent sense of self that transcends thoughts, feelings, and labels, is known in ACT as self-as-context.

References

Batten, S. V. (2011). Essentials of acceptance and commitment therapy. SAGE Publications Ltd.

So some key points.
Within ACT, a distinction is made between a perspective in which a person’s sense of self is defined by the content and experiences of the person’s thoughts, feelings, memories, and self-evaluations vs a perspective in which the fundamental nature of who a person is is consistent over time and does not rely on impermanent private experiences.

Especially for trauma survivors, finding that safe place or perspective from which to experience thoughts, feelings, and memories can be essential to being able to respond more effectively when that trauma-related content is present.

More ACT for PTSD presentations