You don’t need to be special, you just need to belong!

UCD CBS lab members returning from a behavior analysis meeting in Sao Paulo October 2019

Louise McHugh: I am an Associate Professor in the School of Psychology, University College Dublin. I have published over 90 papers and two books in the area of Behavior Analysis, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and symbolic language and thought. I am the director of the University College Dublin Contextual Behavioral Science lab, a former recipient of the ABAI Outstanding Mentor Award, a Fellow of the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science and a peer reviewed ACT Trainer. When I am not working you can find me supporting a team called ‘Mayo’ in an indigenous Irish sport called Gaelic Football.
Being a behavior analyst and part of ABAI is important to me. It is one of the things that gives me that sense of belonging that all humans yearn for. Therefore, I am delighted to be hosting the ABAI Symbolic Language and Thought blog for the next twelve months.

We need a sense of belonging to one humanity. Dalai Lama

Sometimes, in an attempt to feel valid, we try to brag about ourselves and project positive stories about ourselves to the world. We do this to feel good in comparison to other people. Of course feeling better than others and being right can feel good.
I have an eight-year-old niece who particularly likes to be right all the time. She also likes to point out to her classmates when she is right. I am pretty sure she would like friends! But somehow, somewhere along the way symbolic language has pulled her — as it pulls all of us — in the wrong direction. That direction is trying to be special rather than to belong.
In his recent book A Liberated Mind Steve Hayes[1] talks about a number of basic human motivations (motivational operations) one of which is yearning to belong. Symbolic language allows us to narrate a story about who we are. Unfortunately, rather than helping us feel that we belong, these self-stories about how we are right or better than others ultimately alienate us and make us feel alone.
In essence, we start to defend stories about ourselves or conceal aspects of ourselves that might reveal vulnerabilities. In moments that we are trying hard to be right or better, we should ask ourselves: ‘Is what I am doing trying to feel better than others or to belong?’
Relational Frame Theory (RFT)[2], known widely to ABAI folks, is an operant approach to symbolic language and thought that builds on years of behavioral research into derived relational responding. RFT suggests that we learn to relate things in our environment and that this relational activity can change the psychological functions of those things.
The way in which we verbally relate stimuli may be at the source of psychological suffering. Comparing ourselves to others is one form of verbal relating, such as “I am better looking than you.” Once we can relate ourselves in comparison to others we start to do it all the time.
We are a cooperative species and symbolic language skills evolved to help cooperation within groups. But when we get caught in the game of comparison we don’t see that belonging is what we really seek. For example, I may frame myself as only good when I am right, as my niece has done. Based on that framing, I may derive further relations such that ‘I should always show that I am right to other people’, even though that likely makes them want to run in the other direction.
Symbolic language and thought creates an issue for our basic motivation to belong. Once we are able to relate to ourselves in comparison to others we start being reinforced for relating to ourselves as better than others. Thinking we need to be special to be good enough becomes an issue.
We start defending our sense of self and believing that stories we tell about ourselves are truly who we are. We start to view ourselves as ‘my story’ in comparison to others and yet this makes us more separate and alone. To get out of the wanting-to-be-special game we need to move towards a greater sense of awareness and perspective of our experience.
Understanding that we are the witness of our own experiences rather than those experiences per se will result in a greater connection with ourselves and others as whole aware human beings. Dr. Lin Yu and Prof. Lance McCracken[3], at Kings College London, developed a measure of self-experiences called the Self Experiences Questionnaire (SEQ). On the SEQ higher scores on items such as ‘I can observe experiences in my body and mind as events that come and go’ indicate a broader self-awareness.
In 2019, Dr. Orla Moran and myself[4], at University College Dublin, employed the SEQ with adolescents. The results indicated that a broader awareness of self-experiences was linked to better wellbeing. Reducing our attachment to our self-story enhances our wellbeing and paves the way for us to move towards belonging rather than needing to be special or better than others.
Awareness of the experience of self rather than being dominated by the stories about who we think we are helps us contact that deep sense of belonging we yearn for.
I am looking forward to hosting the Symbolic Language and Thought blog for the next 12 months and am thankful for the sense of belonging I have found in ABAI.


1. Hayes, S., C. (2019). A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters. New York. Avery.
2. Hayes, S., Barnes-Holmes, D. & Roche, B. (Eds). (2001). Relational Frame Theory: A Post Skinnerian Account of Human Language and Cognition. New York: Plenum Press.
3. Yu, L., McCracken, L. M. & Norton, S. (2016). The Self Experiences Questionnaire (SEQ): Preliminary Analysis for a measure of self in people with chronic pain. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 5(3), 127-133.
4. Moran, O. & McHugh, L. (2019). Patterns of relational responding and a healthy self in older adolescents. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 12, 74-80.