ACT for Social Anxiety: Self-as-Context


Warren Alpert Medical School, Brown University Portland Psychotherapy

Key Points

  1. Self-as-context means perspective-taking to explore how overidentifying with certain stories or identities can limit our behaviors and our lives.
  2. The process of self-as-context involves noticing the stories we tell about ourselves and understanding that this is inevitably reductionistic or limiting.
  3. Self-compassion is a valuable antidote to self-criticism.
Earn 1.25 CE Credits

Taking Perspective

Another process in the psychological flexibility model is self-as-context. It can also be thought of as perspective-taking, and refers to clients getting stuck in stories that are not helpful or trapped in identities that are limiting. For example, Charles has this story that he can only really connect with people from a similar cultural background. We don’t need to challenge that story; it’s based on a personal history that is surely true to some degree. But again, the question that arises with defusion also comes up here: how is that story serving you?

Part of the idea of self-as-context is that any concept we have about ourselves is essentially limiting or reductionistic. When we overidentify with parts of ourselves, that can lead to getting stuck in life. Charles was stuck inside his story of only connecting with people of similar backgrounds. He could be asked what it’s like to live in that story. What experiences has that story led him to?

Then see whether some flexibility can be created by asking him to think about himself in other ways. He might offer several examples, such as thinking of himself as a really good listener, or as a helping person. Charles did choose to be in a helping profession, after all.

A homework assignment can be given, of a worksheet with the words “I am _______” repeated many times. The client’s task is to fill in the blanks with as many answers as possible. This generates a wide range of identities or stories that they hold about themselves. When they bring this to the next session, ask which answer is most useful to them in working with their problems, or which they want to prioritize as the story they tell.

So there’s an emphasis on choice: we get to be the author of our own story, our identity, in the same way we choose our own values. We are the best qualified person to decide how to think about and present our own self.


As mentioned, Charles is very self-critical, which is another area where this process in ACT can be really helpful, in changing the relationship to anxiety or shame. The idea is not to get rid of self-criticism, but to help Charles change the way he relates to himself. That part of him that puts himself down might continue to be active, especially in or after social contexts. But Charles has agency in how he responds to that.

A good antidote to self-criticism is self-compassion. Charles is very compassionate to other people. Helping him to extend that same kindness toward himself is likely to be both useful and challenging. For many people who are self-critical, it’s an ingrained habit and pattern of behavior, so it will take time and effort to change.

The initial step with Charles is simply to introduce this idea of self-compassion, and help him notice all the different ways he beats himself up. A big piece of understanding self-criticism is developing awareness, as most people who are self-critical don’t realize the degree to which they’re hard on themselves, in ways they wouldn’t be to others.

One perspective-taking method is to ask Charles how he’d talk to a friend who said they were struggling with going out and being with other people. Clients can easily come up with a compassionate response. Charles can be helped to make the connection that the same advice, wisdom, or compassion he extends to others also applies to him. This too can be a daily homework assignment. The client thinks about something they struggle with, then writes down what advice they’d give to someone else with the same problem.

Relationship, Not Feeling

People often think self-compassion is a feeling, a warm and fuzzy, loving feeling that one has toward oneself. Self-compassion can include that, but that’s not necessarily all it means, especially in relation to someone like Charles, who often feels badly about himself. It’s not a feeling but a behavior, a relationship.

Clients can be asked what it might look like if they were kinder to themselves. This might generate things like taking better care of their bodies, eating well, or treating themselves to a day off more often. We can help them to identify specific things in their routines, some action items they could practice for homework as symbols of self-compassion.

In Charles’ case, he may say he’s going to spend half an hour a day reading science fiction, because that’s something he loves and that he’s gotten away from. But the homework isn’t just reading. It’s doing so consciously in the spirit of it being an offering to himself, practicing self-care by engaging in a rewarding and personally meaningful pursuit.

Moving Out

A metaphor we can use for describing self-compassion is the building of a house. Clients like Charles come to us with a self-critical house. Over the years, this structure of self-criticism and beating up on oneself is well-established. So we’re not trying to tear that house down and build a new one where it used to be, with no remnants of self-criticism. Rather, we’re trying to build another house next door. Initially, that second house might just have a foundation, or be the skeletal structure of a building.

But over time, as that house becomes more developed, perhaps it will be a place where Charles will choose to spend more of his time living. He might find himself going back to the old house now and then, but he can always choose to leave that old house and go back into the new house.

So again, we return to the approach of not getting rid of anything, but adding something. We’re adding self-compassion and helping Charles be kinder to himself, especially after social situations. Whenever he has a social encounter, he can be asked to spend some time afterward on an activity of self-compassion. That might be reading science fiction, or doing something else he enjoys; a way to practice giving himself credit for doing something hard.​

Looking for practical everyday tools? These print-friendly worksheet and handout are just what you need. Click on the following links to download the PDFs:

1- Self-as-Context Worksheet

This worksheet is a contemplative tool intended to explore and deconstruct limiting self-beliefs, and highlight the broader context of self-identity. This approach enables us to observe our thoughts, emotions, and narratives from a distance, leading to a fuller understanding that we are not confined by them but are the encompassing space within which they exist. By identifying and questioning self-imposed narratives and consciously embracing a wider perspective on identity, we can gain psychological flexibility and align our lives more closely with our values.


Therapists can use this worksheet as a guide to facilitate discussions centered on self-identity and limiting self-beliefs. Clients should be encouraged to thoughtfully engage with each step, identifying self-imposed narratives and reflecting on their impacts. Therapists can then guide clients toward imagining alternative perspectives and expanding their self-identity. The purpose is not to eliminate any part of their identity but to understand that they are more than any single narrative. The activity culminates in clients consciously choosing an identity or story that will be helpful in dealing with their personal issues.

2- Promoting Self-Compassion: A Guide for Therapists

This guide is a valuable resource for therapists supporting clients who struggle with self-criticism and negative self-talk. It provides a structured approach to introducing and cultivating self-compassion in clients, emphasizing the importance of perspective-taking, self-care, and daily self-compassion practice. It uses the metaphor of building a new house to help clients conceptualize their journey from self-criticism to self-compassion, encouraging a gradual transition rather than sudden change.


Therapists using this guide should first introduce to their clients the concept of self-compassion and its benefits. Clients can be encouraged to identify their self-critical patterns, and therapists must work with them to reframe such thoughts compassionately, using techniques such as perspective-taking.* Therapists may promote self-care as an act of self-kindness, setting daily self-compassion assignments to reinforce the practice. Use the metaphor of building a new house to manage client expectations regarding the pace of change, reminding them that it is a process of developing self-compassion habits, not eliminating self-criticism completely or overnight.
* You can use the self-as-context worksheet as part of perspective-taking work.

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