Within our lives, we often use labels, occupations, or roles to conveniently communicate aspects of our identity. Think of all the labels in your life: these can be positive like “hard worker” or “soccer mom,” but they can also be negative such as “unlovable” or “not good enough.” In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy we call these ideas or self-descriptions we have our, “conceptualized self.”
Some advantages of using self-descriptions are that it allows us to quickly and clearly communicate large portions of our identity in a small package, as well as helping others to know how to engage with us. However, these same labels that help us understand each other more can often lead to problematic behaviors when we hold ourselves too rigidly to these concepts—we can end up limiting ourselves to unworkable action.
Often, when we feel like a part of our conceptualized self is being attacked, we become defensive and inflexible. For example, let’s look at a talented athlete. Perhaps this athlete holds beliefs, memories, and judgments that together sum up to “I’m a great player.” However, when receiving feedback, criticism, or facing blame that goes against “great player,” their defenses jump into gear. The athlete may argue, dispute, or counterattack this threat. It may become hard for them to grow as a player if they hold their conceptualized self, and its accompanying ideas, too closely—too rigidly.
So, how can we form healthy self-images and beliefs while simultaneously not holding on to these concepts too tightly?
First, we can develop an awareness of our own conceptualized self. What do we pride ourselves in? What roles occupy our lives? What’s important to me?
Second, practice self-acceptance. One way to apply this is to notice all these different parts or roles in your life. Now, here is the important bit—notice who is doing the noticing! Some call this “self-as-context” or the “observing self” This is the psychological space, a viewpoint, where noticing happens. This vantage point is continuous and separate from thoughts and feelings.
Try it now, notice what your mind is saying about what you're reading. Observe how the light hits the room you're in: where it’s brightest, where it’s darkest, notice any sounds you might hear—now noticing who is noticing. The observing self is a larger, timeless, interconnected context that holds all of our experience and yet is not any one of them.
Simply put- you are more than your experience. You're the container for it! You may be a great parent, friend, or spouse, and still feel at times you have room to grow. Nevertheless, from your observing self you are a continuous experience safe from the mind's judgments, criticisms, and evaluations.
-Miles Keller, LLPC