The Self + Perspective Taking: An Interview with Louise McHugh, PhD

photo illustration of girl drawing herself

Editor’s note: The following is an interview with Louise McHugh, PhD. Dr. McHugh is a researcher and co-author of The Self and Perspective Taking: Contributions and Applications from Modern Behavioral Science. Her research interests include perspective taking, autism, acceptance and change therapies and the development and training of complex cognitive skills. She has published more than thirty papers in peer-reviewed journals.

Dr. McHugh will be presenting a webinar about self-as-context and perspective taking on October 13, 2016.

Praxis: Why is the self so important in the psychotherapeutic context?

LM: The most important relationship any individual has is the one with themselves; any challenges you have with yourself will leak into your relationships with others. A healthy self is pretty much universally seen as a prerequisite for sound mental functioning, while dysfunctional or underdeveloped aspects of self are understood to contribute to poor mental health.

When a therapist is working with a client, one key aim is to help the client to have peace of mind (from a relational frame theory point of view ‘mind’ is a metaphor for verbal behavior – relation framing). In order to have this, we cannot avoid our self. We cannot walk away from our self. Our self is with us no matter where we go.

Praxis: Why do you think the self and the process of perspective taking is so fascinating to you? How and/or why did you become interested in this very specific area of research and study?

LM: I became interested in the area of perspective taking seventeen years ago when I was working as an applied behavior analysis (ABA) tutor with a child with autistic spectrum disorder who struggled to take the perspective of others.

As I read about his difficulty in this area, I realized that this was not unusual for individuals with this diagnosis. At that time, I was starting a PhD in behavior analysis and wanted to be able to develop an intervention that could help individuals, like this child, who were locked out of touch with others.

While completing my PhD, I became interested in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and mindfulness-based Interventions. As I delved into the emerging literature in these areas, it became apparent that mindfulness and spirituality are ultimate products of perspective taking ability.

When a child becomes good enough at perspective taking, then she can begin to notice that she consistently uses the word ‘I’ to describe her own behavior and she may see that this is always the case in everything she does. Everything else changes, but the ‘I’ remains there, always. The ‘I’ is the one constant throughout one’s life.

The Self and Perspective Taking bookcoverThis is what relational frame theory (RFT) refers to as “self as context”. Most of the time, we are only dimly aware of the fact that we are relational framing about ourselves and our processes; that we are thoroughly engaged in (fused with) this verbal chatter; or that we can become aware of ourselves as a perspective from which to observe this activity. With mindfulness, we become more aware of ourselves as observing from the perspective of self as context.

When we practice mindfulness, the verbal chatter that we are usually caught up in begins to be seen for what it is (merely our own relational framing) rather than as a true or accurate depiction of the way things are. If a person practices this often enough, the usually powerful influence of her own relational framing behavior weakens, and the potentially problematic affects of this process also weaken.

One of the metaphors that ACT uses to explain this is the metaphor of chessboard. Events in my life, including my thought and feelings, are like the black and white pieces — good thoughts and bad thoughts. “I” am the chessboard that can observe all of these — both good and bad. “I” am the context in which the game happens.

Praxis: What are some of the ways that challenges with relating to the self and taking perspectives of others manifest in terms of behavior and how people are in the world?

LM: So many challenges that come up — whether in the therapeutic setting, coaching relationship, workplace, personal relationships, or otherwise in life — reside in struggles of self.

When things go wrong with perspective taking in adults, we typically assume that it has to do with a lack of perspective taking with the other, and their ability to take another person’s point of view. But when relationship challenges occur, it is useful to check in with what we are personally doing, rather than to focus exclusively on the other person.

Imagine for example, Jenny is getting negative feedback from her supervisor about how her work is not up to scratch. If Jenny focuses on creating a coherent story on how wrong the supervisor is and does not consider her own role, this will impact her behavior towards her supervisor in potentially non-useful ways.

Praxis: Is it necessary for one to have an understanding of RFT in order to fully understand the self and the role of the self in psychological diagnoses, treatment, and treatment assessment? 

LM: To me, this question is similar to the question about whether it is necessary to understand RFT to understand ACT. To understand the connection between RFT and ACT, let’s imagine ACT is like driving your car and RFT is like understanding the car’s engine. You can be a great car driver knowing nothing of the car engine. This works well until the car breaks down. Then you’ll need AAA and a trustworthy mechanic.

There are, however, benefits to understanding the car engine yourself. You can figure out what’s wrong with the car, and get it working again. Not only that, you can also protect yourself from the sneaky mechanic who always finds more wrong than you came in for.

If you were going on a long car trip across Europe, which driver would you prefer; one who knew a lot about the engine and how to repair it, or one who knew nothing whatsoever about it? Which driver would give you the greatest confidence?

Being a therapist is sort of like being a driver. You can be a great therapist, really knowing what to do to change behavior and implementing it with skill, and not understand how what you do works. And, you’ll be the best therapist you can be if you do.

By developing a working knowledge of RFT, you’ll be the best ACT therapist you can be. You’ll have a greater understanding of the role of the self in psychological diagnoses, treatment and treatment assessment.

Praxis: For someone who has never heard of ACT, how would you describe the concept of self-as-context?

LM: Self as context is the stable perspective from which all self-relevant processes, including both problematic self-labeling as well as helpful self-based values, can be seen. Self as context is used to help clients disentangle their ‘self’ from their descriptions and evaluations. Self as context involves the client seeing themselves as the thinker, not their thoughts, and to be the feeler, not their feelings. Self-as-context is the invariant in all perspective discriminations [i.e., ‘here and now’]. It can be thought of as a transcendence of psychological content that allows acceptance of that content.

Think of it like when a cameraman uses a camera to photograph natural patterns, in which the camera is left on and in position for hours or days. Later, the cameraman can speed the time up and see patterns of activity, of birds, animals, or patterns of light that might otherwise not be visible. The camera is like the stable sense of perspective that exists even though what it takes pictures of change across time.

Praxis: What are some of the more common ways that teaching self as context to clients in sessions can be tricky or confusing? And do you have advice on how to overcome these common obstacles?   

LM: Self as context is an unusual way of looking at your ‘self’ for the client. From an RFT point of view, you want therapeutic techniques that foster variability, stability, functional coherence and a flexible sense of responsibility.

Any techniques that do the following can help foster a sense of self as context:

1. Find variability in the process of awareness

This can involve stabilizing the clients perspective, (e.g., repeatedly directing the client’s attention to the present, so as to help her notice the changes in her experiences. How do you feel now, and now and now?i) Or getting the client to notice changes in perspective, (e.g., recall different situations and moments of her life).

2. Find stability in a sense of perspective

This can involve noticing the common perspective across experiences (e.g., who is noticing thoughts, sensations and feelings across a variety of experiences, and noticing the common perspective across points of view (e.g.,notice who is noticing the experiences of you today, yesterday, in a years time).

3. Find coherence in context

This can involve emphasizing the hierarchical dimension of self (e.g., you are the container of all your experiences) and emphasizing the distinction between self and the experiences (i.e., separate experience from action).

4. Finding the ability to respond in the interaction

This can be achieved by helping the client become aware of the influence of contextual variables on her actions (e.g., given your history it is not surprising that you made these choices) and bringing the client’s attention toward the impact of her actions on the contextual variables (and now with this knowledge what can you do that is in line with what matters to you?).

For more about self as context and perspective taking, check out Dr. McHugh’s upcoming webinar, Self as Context: The Power of Perspective Taking. 

Register now for an ACT I: Introduction to ACT training event near you!