Why is it that compassion and objectivity are so much easier to extend to others than to ourselves? Many of those I provide therapy to have said something to the effect of, “I can give such great advice to friends or family, but when it comes to myself, I’m so bad at knowing how to handle things.” I suspect we’ve all been there. I believe this is a human and universal experience. Let’s take a look at why this could occur and how we may become better at being in our own respective corners when challenging situations arise.
First, the theoretical framework. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) describes three separate “senses of self”: self as content, self as process, and self as context. The two I find most relevant, and on which I will focus for the purposes of this article, are the first and the last: self as content and self as context.
The self as content perspective is highly internalized and subjective. In this view, we identify with ourselves through our thoughts, evaluations, judgments, memories, and emotions. As a result, our sense of self can fluctuate depending on life circumstances. When life is smooth sailing and the content is neutral or positive, those who hold the self as content view don’t generally struggle too much. However, when the inevitable storms of life hit, over-identifying with the negative or painful content of our minds undermines a secure sense of self.
The self as context perspective, in contrast, is more externalized and objective. Those who hold this view place less weight on the transient emotional content of their minds and more on the parts of themselves that remain constant over time. A metaphor by Pema Chödrön, Buddhist teacher, highlights the difference between the self as content and self as context viewpoints: “You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather.” Learning to cultivate this sense of self can be grounding in difficult times.
Interestingly, when we are attempting to support others who are struggling, we naturally shift into the self as context perspective. We are able to step out and see the bigger picture beyond the content. We don’t get so caught up in their emotional storm, largely fueled by perception, and instead are able to observe the storm itself.
Interestingly, when we are attempting to support others who are struggling, we naturally shift into the self as context perspective. We are able to step out and see the bigger picture beyond the content. We don’t get so caught up in their emotional storm, largely fueled by perception, and instead are able to observe the storm itself. This allows us to transcend their situation and perception of it, and to show up in a helpful or compassionate way. At the most basic level, that is a large part of why talking to a trusted confidant can be so beneficial and healing.
How can we shift away from the self as content mode of thinking into the self as context perspective? The key is to find and make contact with your internal observer self; to cultivate a sense of mindfulness and awareness about these processes. There are a variety of ways to do so, some of which are formal and deliberate, some less so. For example, attending therapy guided by a mindfulness-based provider can help immensely and would be considered a more structured approach. On the informal end of the spectrum, participating in virtually any mindfulness-based activity or practice can assist with this goal.
Here’s a quick exercise aimed at making brief contact with your self as context. First, go to a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted for a few minutes. Then, either pull out a few picture albums from the closet or log on to a social media account (such as Facebook) that you’ve been posting pictures to for some time. Begin with the oldest pictures or albums, not dwelling too long on any particular picture or accompanying thought. As you take in the images, make an effort to notice what your mind has to say about particular events you’ve participated in, places you’ve been, people you’ve known, and how you’ve viewed yourself at those points in life versus how you see yourself right now. Notice the part of you that is doing all the noticing. In other words, attempt to separate the part of you that is reacting to the pictures and the memories from the part of you that is observing the associated emotions roll in and out like the weather.
From this place, can you see how much of your life and your views are constantly in motion, yet the noticing part of you never changes? What was that exercise like for you? What thoughts, feelings, and emotions showed up? Were you able to create some distance between these two selves, or did you find yourself getting lost in the content?
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