The self and perspective-taking: Relational framing and self-awareness

It is with pleasure that I introduce Louise McHugh, Assistant Professor of Psychology at University College Dublin, Ireland. Louise is a prolific researcher and author in the behavior analytic and contextual behavioral science fields. She is widely respected within the field as a leader in doing the complex experimental work that is needed to connect the dots between Relational Frame Theory (RFT) – a behavioral theory of language and cognition – and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, the applied therapeutic model founded upon RFT. Much of her research is on the self and perspective-taking. Louise is a very vibrant personality, and can be found live on stage performing stand-up improv comedy or in Croke Park stadium in Dublin hoping that one day her beloved home team, Mayo, will win that elusive All-Ireland Championship title! – Dr. Ian Tyndall, University of Chichester, UK

It’s not personal


Imagine Kate is getting negative feedback from her supervisor about how her work is not up to scratch. This brings up feelings of discomfort for Kate. Therefore, rather than learning from the feedback Kate focuses on creating a coherent story about how wrong the supervisor is and does not consider her own role.

If we didn’t take things personally we would see what was actually going on in front of our eyes. Being able to take perspective is critical to our relationship with our self and others. While this is not something typically talked about in behavior analysis recent advances in our understanding of perspective taking and the development of a sense of self allow us to understand complex behaviors such as taking things personally.

According to Skinner ‘There is a difference between behaving and reporting that one is behaving or reporting the causes of one’s behavior’. From a Relational Frame Theory (RFT) point of view the ‘[S]elf is not simply behaving with regard to [ones] behavior but is behaving verbally with regard to [ones] behavior…’. As I write this blog there is a difference between my writing the blog and my thoughts evaluations and descriptions about the blog. Technically, even an animal could be trained to produce a response to their own responding. And if it was a parrot it might even be something like ‘I key pressed’. The parrot is not responding verbally, however. The self is relational framing (verbally responding) about one’s own responding. I can talk about the fact that I blogged and that I am doing this to illustrate the self from a behavior analytic point of view, etc. I can report on my own behavior. This kind of complex responding to one’s own behavior is made possible by relational framing. Nevertheless, even without invoking that process, even if we just stand back and consider Skinner’s suggestion by itself, in isolation, there is still something profoundly insightful and parsimonious about this concept that is typical of the behavioral approach. In arranging conditions under which a person describes the public or private world in which he lives, a community generates that very special form of behavior called knowing. At a core level, self-awareness really is about responding in some way to one’s own behavior.

Our sense of self develops through learning to relate to ‘I’ as distinct from ‘you’. We learn that I have a perspective here and now that is different to your perspective there and then. This abstraction allows us to describe our ‘self’ in terms of who we are, what we like, what we don’t like, ways we behave, etc. If there wasn’t another to compare our self to the description about our self, such as smarter, funnier, uglier and so on would not exist. Just as there is no bigger without something smaller, there is no ‘I’ without a ‘you’ to compare myself to. That may seem strange but if you reflect for a moment if you were the only person that existed who would you be smarter than? Being able to take perspective on my experience as distinct from others is essential to the development of a sense of self.

Therefore, it is not surprising that we tend to reference self when hearing new information about others. We reference what it means about us and how we are in the world. Often that is adaptive. Often it is not. Coming back to the example of Kate, when relationship challenges occur it would be more useful to check in with what we are personally doing and not to focus exclusively on the other person. However, this is painful to do. For example, if when Kate received the negative feedback she checked in with her own experience and noticed that she was feeling ashamed and guilty for not working harder she would be better placed to adapt her behavior to the feedback. The issue is that when something occurs we reference our self and try to make sense of it. If when we reference our self negative emotions emerge, we may distort and defend our position in order to avoid discomfort. Whereas if we did not take it ‘personally’ that is, referencing ‘I’ we would be able to more clearly interpret what was occurring in the situation. This is not only true of events that are happening to us as we also reference I when evaluating and considering other peoples’ behavior.

If Kate’s husband had an affair and that caused significant pain to her she might be more likely to react harshly to a friend if the friend disclosed that she has recently had an affair. Indeed we don’t even have to have directly experienced something such as an affair to feel personally attacked or concerned for our selves when hearing about an affair. If an ‘affair’ is related to ‘betrayal’ and ‘betrayal’ is something we have learned to derive as bad then on hearing someone else talk about having an affair we can become protective of our self and have a strong reaction to what the person is saying.

It is worth mentioning that from the behavioral point of view the self is an action (i.e., verbal responding to one’s own responding) and not an entity. Hence, it is arguably more appropriate within this approach to use the term ‘self-ing’ (i.e., a verb) rather than ‘the self’ (i.e., a noun) for the phenomenon in which we are interested. So, perhaps it is more accurate to say if we didn’t engage in self-ing behavior we would be in a better position to observe the behavior of others. However, we cannot ever fully achieve this. What can we do? We can broaden our sense of self via perspective relations to see that I am an observer of my experience and this will serve to comprehensively distance me from the content and allow me to observe the behavior of myself and others more clearly.