The Three Contexts of FACT: Sociocultural, the Mind, and the Observing Self

The following article has been adapted  from an excerpt of Brief Interventions for Radical Change  by Kirk Strosahl, PhD, Patricia Robinson, PhD, and Thomas Gustavsson, MSc

Behavior cannot be understood in isolation from its context. There are three principal contexts we deal with in focused acceptance and commitment therapy (FACT): sociocultural context, the ongoing processes of the mind, and the observing self.

Sociocultural Context

Sociocultural context is the world outside the individual’s skin. It contains a variety of influences, both positive and negative.

For example, to understand a depressed client’s reality requires that we understand the impact of the client’s depressive behaviors on others and how the behaviors of others impact the client.

Cultural practices are another powerful feature in the sociocultural context. Certain depressive behaviors might not be tolerated in one cultural milieu but may be actively supported and reinforced in another.

If you are a fan of family systems theory, think of the family system as another type of context the client is both influencing and being influenced by.

Ongoing Processes of the Mind

To be more accurate, we should probably use the term “minding,” rather than ongoing processes of the mind, because the mind is not a thing. The brain is a thing with known structures created by specific cellular material. The process of minding, however, is a dynamic, ongoing enterprise.

The mind is running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Wake up from a good night’s sleep, and there it is. Fall asleep, and there it is in a different form. An analogy one client used says it best: “My mind is like an operating system on a computer. There is always processing going, and there is always a message on my monitor when I look at it.”

The Observing Self

If the mind is an operating system continuously processing information and displaying output on a screen, then who or what is looking at the screen? In FACT, we call that entity the observing self. It is the very foundation of consciousness.

Like “the mind,” consciousness is not a thing; it has no boundaries or edges. The qualities of consciousness are continuous, even if we experience consciousness in qualitatively different ways (for example, sleeping, intoxicated, or meditating).

Ultimately, we inhabit consciousness, and it is from this perspective that we see the products of the mind as if we were observing them on a computer monitor. This is the perspective from which we can see thoughts as just thoughts, feelings as just feelings, and memories as just memories.

See also: The ACT Matrix: Mindfulness Without Mindfulness

A key principle of FACT is that humans actively relate to and interact with all three contexts more or less simultaneously. We interface with the external world, read output from the mind, and see through the eyes of basic self-awareness. When these three contexts are relating harmoniously, human behavior is incredibly flexible. When the relationships between them are distorted or imbalanced, behavior becomes rigid and ineffective. One important clinical implication of this principle is that a therapy itself is really the interaction of these three contexts for both therapist and client. For example, a FACT therapist might say, “There are really four of us in the room right now: you, me, your mind, and my mind.”

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