Me and You: A Behavioral Account of Self and Other and Implications for Mental Health and Well Being

In this month’s blog I am delighted to have RFT and adolescence expert Orla Moran talking about behavior analysis and self vs. other. Orla was my first PhD student when I moved to Dublin and I’m very proud of all the work that she has done. Thank you Orla for joining the ABAI Symbolic Language and Thought Blog series. -Dr. Louise McHugh, University College Dublin, ABAI Symbolic Language and Thought Blog series host 2020

Orla Moran Bio: I completed my PhD at the UCD CBS lab with Louise McHugh on the CBS account of self and perspective-taking and it’s applications for adolescent mental health. I joined the NetwellCASALA research team at Dundalk Institute of Technology in 2017 as postdoctoral researcher on the Changing Lives Initiative where I carried out a process and cost-effectiveness evaluation of an ADHD parenting programme. My current research involves the development of digital health interventions for improving self-management behaviors and distress in older adults with chronic heart failure using evidence from Contextual Behavioral Science.

If you were to hold your stories and beliefs about yourself, others, and the world a little more lightly, what would your life look like?

When I was first asked to write this blog post, my mind had a lot to say about it. It started to offer me lots of feedback on my ability to write, ranging from “I’m not good enough” to “I’m boring and no-one is interested in what I have to say.” Luckily, for me I was able apply some knowledge that helped me to hold my unhelpful self-evaluations such as these more lightly and not allow them to dictate my behavior (hence why you are reading this right now!) In the blogpost, I’m going to chat a bit more about how specifically Contextual behavioral science (CBS) can teach us to hold rigid beliefs about ourselves, others, and how we view the world more flexibly.

CBS Account of Self

CBS provides an indepth, theoretically coherent account of complex human behaviors, including having a sense of self. According to CBS, deictic relating or perspective-taking gives rise to the human experience of self and on this basis it pragmatically describes the self in terms of three selves- Self-as-Story; Self-as-process; and Self-as-Context, each of which has important implications for a healthy, functional sense of self (Hayes, 1995; Hayes & Gregg, 2000; Hayes et al., 2001).

Self-as-Story refers to one’s descriptions and beliefs about the self, and how one relates to them. As these beliefs become rigid and conceptualized, they may be treated as literal truths and thereby exert some control over one’s behavior. In order words if we overly buy into our unhelpful comparisons and evaluations,  this may lead to us behaving accordingly and allowing them to become self-fulfilling prophecy (E.g. “I’m not intelligent therefore I won’t apply for that job”).

Self-as-Process is the ongoing awareness and monitoring of one’s moment to moment experiences of self that constitutes what refers to as the self- thoughts, feelings, experiences and can be used to guide behavior in the moment (e.g. “I’m hungry”). The ongoing awareness of our bodily and emotional sensations that occurs during Self-as-Process can contain important clues as to where our values lie (e.g. “I feel happy when I’m with friends”).

Self-as-Context refers to a transcendence of one’s own psychological content (i.e. thoughts, feelings etc.), facilitating acceptance of that content. This includes acceptance of painful or unwanted psychological content, thereby facilitating a number of processes such as awareness, willingness, and compassion (E.g. “I’m observing , as if I am the container in which those experiences occur”).

In recent years, a number of studies into the CBS account of self have given empirical support to the relationship between a more flexible self repertoire and greater mental health, and well being, and  psychological flexibility (Atkins & Styles, 2016; Moran et al., 2019, Yu et al., 2017). CBS also postulates that a flexible self-repertoire is important for self-rules which, are a class of rule governed behavior used to guide one’s own actions in various life situations (see Alison’s blog from a few months back for more on Rule Governed Behavior).  Specifically, by increasing Self-as-Context and Self-as-Process and reducing a conceptualized Self-as-Story, more effective behavior regulation occurs and consequently more engagement with personally meaningful behaviors (E.g. “I will engage in a healthy lifestyle as it is personally important to me even though I may experience feelings of discomfort and thoughts such as “I’m just going to fail””) (Luciano et al., 2012; Atkins & Styles, 2016).

Senses of other

According to CBS the same verbal relating facilitating three senses of self, also gives rise to three senses of other (Other-as-Story; Other-as-Process;  Other-as-Context) which may have implications for how one relates to others (Barnes-Holmes et al., 2001; Atkins, 2013; Atkins & Styles, 2015).

Other-as-Story refers to our conceptualisations of others and how this is applied to evaluate them. While useful in social interactions, holding onto rigid evaluations about another can impact ability to empathise (“this person is selfish and rude”) (Atkins & Parker, 2012).

Other-as-Process refers to a person’s ongoing experience of another in the present moment and is an important component of both empathy and understanding the other person’s perspective (“I’m noticing this person seems anxious”).

Other-as-Context is a rather uncommon occurrence, described as “when the speaker is psychologically connected to the listener as a purely conscious person. In this aspect, the speaker and the listener are one, (Barnes-Holmes et al., 2001, p.135). This is typically seen in religious, intimate, or therapeutic interactions (“I’m aware of their bare awareness of their ongoing experience”).

When we buy into a highly conceptualised other-as-story, and only view others in terms of our stories and evaluations about them, we are more likely just to view them at a surface level which can frequently lead to us just seeing flaws (“They are inconsiderate”). Other the hand when we operate in other-as-process and other-as-context, we engage with another person with a sense of openness and awareness and observe them and their moment to moment behavior as it actually is, rather than what our mind says it is (“Why are they behaving this way and saying the things that they are saying? What thoughts and feelings might they be having right now?”) Just as a flexible self has important implications for how we view and treat ourselves, how flexibly we relate to others has implications for connecting with others, building relationships, and having compassion and empathy for others.

Empirically examining self and other

The CBS account of self, and Self-as-Context in particular, is widely considered a rather abstract concept to understand (Foody et al., 2012; Stewart & McHugh, 2013). Self-as-Context is described as rare, contentless, and difficult to contact (Foody et al., 2012), and therefore, unsurprisingly, it is difficult to empirically measure and examine. While self-report measures of the CBS account of self have been shown to have good reliability (Moran et al., 2018; Yu et al., 2017; Zettle et al., 2018), more objective, naturalistic observations of one’s experience may provide more accurate understanding of the three selves (Kahneman & Riis, 2005). One way in which to capture one’s moment to moment experience of self, is to measure how it naturally occurs in language.

As part of my PhD research, myself and Prof. Louise McHugh investigated the role of self and other in relation to adolescent speech using the coding frame developed by Atkins and Styles (2016). A group of 76 teenagers reported on times when both they themselves, and people they knew, experienced various emotions. As expected, findings indicated that not only did does how we relate to ourselves but how we relate to others has implications for our mental health, well-being and psychological flexibility.

Specifically, more rigid Self-as-Story (“ I was unwanted and alone”), inflexible Self-rules (“Totally humiliated, I’d never want to walk outside or leave my room”) and Null codes, wherein participant reported not having experienced a particular emotion (“I didn’t have a situation like that before”)  were linked to lower levels of mental well-being and higher depression and experiential avoidance. On the other hand, higher levels of Self-as-Context (“I felt lots of bad thoughts about myself show up..”), Self-as-Process (“I remember being alone and scared, fearing that my parents would not return”) and Other-as-Process (“they felt upset, and confused as to why it was happening to them”) were associated with higher well-being and psychological flexibility as well as lower depression and anxiety.

These findings indicate the importance of holding stories lightly and observing the ongoing experience of both ourselves and others with openness and awareness. This may have important applications not just in a therapeutic context but for helping increase meaningful behaviors, improving interpersonal relationships and even reducing prejudices/biases on a larger scale, all of which would be make for exciting avenues for exploration in future studies.


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Atkins, P. & Styles, R. (2015). Mindfulness, identity and work: mindfulness training creates a more flexible sense of self. In: J. Reb, & P.. Atkins (Eds.), Mindfulness in organisations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Atkins, P. & Styles, R. (2016). Measuring self and rules in what people say: exploring whether self-discrimination predicts long-term wellbeing. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 5, 71-79.

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Luciano, C., Valdivia-Salas, S. & Ruiz, F.  (2012). The Self as the Context for Rule Governed Behavior. In L McHugh & I Stewart (Eds.), The self and perspective taking: Research and applications. Oakland, CA: Hew Harbinger.

Moran, O., Almada, P., & McHugh, L. (2018). An investigation into the relationship between the three selves (Self-as-Content, Self-as-Process and Self-as-Context) and mental health in adolescents. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 7, 55-62. DOI: 10.1016/j.jcbs.2018.01.002

Moran, O., & McHugh, L. (2019). Patterns of relational responding and a healthy self in older adolescents. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 12, 74-80. DOI:

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Yu, L., Norton, S., McCracken, L. M. (2017). Change in “Self-as-Context” (“Perspective-taking”) Occurs in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for People with Chronic Pain and is Associated with Improved Functioning. Journal of Pain. DOI: 10.1016/j.jpain.2017.01.005

Zettle, R. D., Gird, S. R., Webster, B. K., Carrasquillo-richardson, N., Swails, A., & Burdsal, C. A. (2018). The self-as-context Scale. Development and preliminary psychometric properties. Journal of contextual behavioral science, 10, 64–74. https://doi. org/10.1016/j.jcbs.2018.08.010.