Who Do You Think ‘You’ Are? Get a Meta-Perspective on Your Three Selves for a Liberated Mind

“Without self-knowledge, without understanding the working and functions of his machine, man cannot be free, he cannot govern himself and he will always remain a slave.” – G. I. Gurdjieff

Who do you think »you« are?

Perhaps you think about yourself in terms of your memories, the roles you play, what’s important to you, or what others have told you. You come up with some story, and the story itself is interesting as every story is a selection of information.

I just read Dr. Steven Hayes’ most recent book, ‘A Liberated Mind’ (2019). In an interview, he says that it took him years to write it, and now I understand why. The book is my inspiration for writing this post.

I’ll introduce you to the tripartite view of the self. The theory of the “three selves” was proposed at the beginning of 1980s by Steven Hayes (1984), and I’ll walk you through some of the research findings supporting it at the end of this post. But let’s start somewhere else to discover what the three selves are about.

Consider this scenario: What happens when you meet new people? What story do you tell about yourself? I don’t like chocolate (who don’t?!), I am good at gardening, or I do this job for a living? What do you choose to emphasize?

Here is a brief exercise. Try to describe yourself in terms of three positive statements like “I am good at, I am friendly, etc.”, what would you say? And if you should describe yourself in terms of three negative statements, what would you say?

Now, reconsider these statements… Are they true at all times? In all situations? Towards all people?

I guess that your statements are a part of you – but not the whole of you. Consider what meaning the statements above have in your life, and how dominating they might be.

Knowing that the statements are just partly true, and just a small part of you, have these statements affected your life just partly and do they have just a small impact? Do the statements help you in a value-based direction or do they make you stuck in your life?

In this post, we’ll see that we are more than we think, more than we feel, and even more than our experiences. Notice that a part of you is experiencing all of your thoughts and feelings, meaning that the “noticer” can’t be the same as the experiences themselves. Continue reading to get your grip on this perspective.

A key feature of »sense of self« is the development of perspective-taking and Theory of Mind skills, which enables us to distinguish our own thoughts from the thoughts of others. These skills help us understand the behavior and intentions of ourselves and others, which is the heart of the self.

Now, let’s see what the three selves consist of.

Self-as-Content

The first kind of self is the self-as-content. This is the evaluative, conceptualized sense of self. It’s based on all the stories that the mind make up throughout life to make sense of different experiences. I gave you an example of this at the beginning of this post. It’s about who we are, what we like and dislike.

The stories are important as they help us to have a coherent sense of self. The problem with the self-as-content is that if we treat the stories as true and fixed, they can stop us from going in new valued-based directions. Luckily, we are more than our ideas about ourselves, meaning that we relate to these ideas in more than one way. Another way of describing this kind of self would be “the conceptualized self”.

Self-as-Proces

The second kind of self is the self-as-proces. This is the part of us that notices what is happening in each moment. It is the attention you give something, and the experience you have while doing it. You could focus on your inner world, such as your thoughts and feelings, or things outside yourself such as the surroundings.

Your moment-to-moment experience is the result of what gets your attention. When something distracts you, you can notice that something distracts you from the here-and-now. You can notice that you notice, so to speak.

The self-as-proces is the part of you that observes, describes, and differentiates all events. “I’m feeling lazy” or ” I smell something” or “The weather is freezing cold” would be examples.

Research on mindfulness suggests that we can make better decisions, when we practice noticing our thoughts and feelings rather than being dominated by them.

Self-as-Context

The third kind of self is the self-as-context. Self-as-context is the point of view from which observations are made. It involves relating to private psychological content as distinct and separate from oneself. This means that everything you do, see, think, and feel are experiences just parts of “you”. The thing about being distinct from the experiences is the important part.

It is the ‘you’ that has been consistent all through your life, even though your ideas and about yourself and memories (self-as-content) have changed over time.

Steven Hayes describes this aspect of the self as the sky and the clouds. The thoughts and feelings are like the clouds, constantly changing and dynamic, but the sky is always the same. It’s helpful to become aware of this constant part of the self as a way of handling difficult moment-to-moment thoughts and emotions.

Notice that you can ‘step back’ and observe yourself debating whether or not you are right about something, and how real this debate becomes inside your mind. At the same time, you can observe how debating makes you feel and what it makes you do.

This theory about the self is nicely illustrated by Dr. Russ Harris in this Youtube-video “Torch In The Dark – Metaphor for Self-as-context”.

Research Findings on The Three Selves

Studies support the idea of three distinct kinds of selves and their impact on mental health and well-being (Moran et al., 2018; Atkins and Styles, 2016, Barnes-Holmes, 2001).

In a study by Moran and colleagues (2018) on adolescent mental health, the authors found that higher levels of the self-as-context, higher levels of self-as-process, and a lower levels of self-as-content were found to be related to lower levels of distress.

This makes sense in that self-as-content contains the stories we live by. So, if we forget to take a meta-perspective on these stories, they might become self-fulfilling and dominating. What if we want to go somewhere else in life than where we have been? It helps us to relate to the self-as-content in a flexible and curious way.

A study by Atkins and Styles (2016) found that employees in a leadership program experienced improved well-being six months after having practised “self-as-proces talk” in their work life. The study controlled for baseline levels of well-being. In addition, it was found that “self-as-content talk” didn’t predict well-being. This is in line with the first-mentioned study by Moran.

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), we work with the three parts of the self to develop greater psychological flexibility. We work with the person’s relationship to his or her own private experiences by six psychological flexibility processes, illustrated by the hexaflex model of ACT below.

If you are more curious about these ideas, I recommend the new book ‘A Liberated Mind’ by Dr. Steven Hayes.

I wish you a good reading and a good Christmas!

//Simon