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.
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.