Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The Observing Self

What is the Observing Self?

Another one of the pillars of ACT is the Observing Self, also referred to as the Self-As-Context. If just reading these terms for the first time, you may not understand what they are referring to and you may have glossed over them without attaching any real meaning to the words. I prefer the language, the “observing self,” because the part of myself that can observe my thoughts, emotions, and other aspects of my internal world is an observer, so this makes sense to me, the “observing self.” This is the part of us that can reflect back on a situation with self-awareness and recognize our patterns, behaviors, and emotions. Ideally, we work toward engaging the observing self in the moment, zooming out and seeing a situation for what it is, so as to better manage our thoughts, emotions, and actions in the moment. I use the language, “zooming out,” because I think that stepping into the observing-self seat is a kind of zooming out. It’s a zooming out from the ego, in ACT known as the conceptualized self. The conceptualized self is made up of all the stories of who we think we are and who we should be. It’s the part that gets beat up by shame, discouraged, and frustrated. It’s the part that drives one’s ambition for material success and social status.

First Mindfulness, Then Step into the Observing Self

In therapy, the natural progression to getting to the observing self is to engage first in present moment awareness, or mindfulness, then step into the observing self to notice the current thoughts and emotions that might be arising in response to a situation. This, then, allows one to see his thoughts for what they are, just thoughts, which are just words. And feel emotions for what they are, biochemical reactions to thoughts or a situation.

The Ego or Conceptualized Self

What I’ve found most confusing is the concept of noticing the ego or conceptualized self. It feels so fluid, sticky, and hard to contain. I feel that I am constantly asking, is this my ego? How about this? Was it my ego that felt injured in that situation, or was that justified emotion? I think that knowing one’s ego allows for a greater understanding of oneself, one’s motivations, one’s stories, and how to manage the tapes that get stuck on repeat in the mind. I also have to ask, is the ego all bad? Who is pushing me to do better and be better? Is that my ego? Is that bad? If I didn’t have my ego, then would I be able to support myself as an adult?

Coming back to MINDFULNESS and knowing your VALUES

Aha! This is where it becomes necessary to know one’s values. When one is completely in tune with one’s values, then the ego can rest because it doesn’t have to work so hard to fulfill some kind of story. It can be rooted in what’s happening in the moment.

So let’s practice. The Observing Self Worksheet.

References, Resources, and Links:

Recent Super Soul Podcast that discusses the ego.

Podcast on using ACT in pain management.

More about ACT:

On Psychology Today

The Association for Contextual Behavioral Science: Gives more information on ACT, provides worksheets, metaphor examples, and referrals for therapist.

Learn more about the 6 Core Principles/Processes of ACT

Free Resources provided by Russ Harris, author of ACT made Simple and the Happiness Trap

Book recommendations for someone interested in learning more about ACT:

The Happiness Trap, by Russ Harris

Get out of your Mind and into your Life by Steven Hayes 

Book recommendations for therapists who want to use ACT in their practice:

ACT Made Simple, by Russ Harris

Get out of your Mind and into your Life by Steven Hayes

The Big Book of Act Metaphors: A Practitioner’s Guide to Experiential Exercises and Metaphors in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, by Jill Stoddard, PhD, and Niloofar Afari, PhD