The Embodied and Relational Self in Context

Who are we really?  And what does it mean when we say, “this is me”?  What is the “this” that we call “the self”?  And why are so many studies revealing that in our modern life people are feeling ever more isolated even though they are more digitally connected?  How can we be “together” yet feel so alone?  One way of understanding this is that a sense of a “self” is being created from our cultural contexts that in fact is being reinforced as individual, alone, isolated, disconnected, and encased in a body without real closeness with others.  What is sorely lacking is a needed experience of belonging – of being a part of something much larger than what is defined by the body alone.  Studies show that this isolated “me” is filled with stress and despair, and it does not create happiness, health, or longevity.  Other studies suggest that the more disparity a society has between the income levels of the poor and the wealthy, the more mental disorders, drug addiction, mistrust, and impaired medical health and longevity for all people living in that social environment.  We are profoundly influenced by the cultural and economic settings in which we live, when we live with a sense of injustice, of mistrust and disconnection, all suffer… 
(Siegel, 2012, pp. 42.1-42.2)

Though many may not recognise it nor appreciate it, we are designed as dynamic beings seeking connection, belonging, and communicative meaning-making (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Genesis 1:26; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2013; Romans 1:6).  Anthropologically and ecologically, we are created as a sentient Self who is an open, nonlinearly affected being, that is recursively shapes and is shaped by a flow of energy and information across time.  Indeed, we are ever-emerging, self-organising creatures who are a part of an ever-emerging, self-organising universe: complex systems within complex systems (Siegel, 2012).  Moreover, even when something may appear to be an insentient or irrelevant aspect of Self, Other, or environment, in actuality all is interconnected.  This is an intra- and inter- personal fractalated phenomenon.  A phenomenon that is embodied, embedded, spatiotemporally patterned with meaning, and importantly, fundamentally holds the faculty to move toward coherence (Siegel, 2012).  Paradoxically, whilst as complex systems we hold the inherent capacity to move toward coherence and thus health and well-being, as complex systems we also hold the capability to enter chaotic disintegrative states (Siegel, 2012): whilst we are designed for integration, without connection, belonging, and communicative meaning-making our systems move into un-health and ill-being (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2013).  Pertinent to this paradox is the notion that coherence is contextual.  As such, when looking at the full complexity of Self and Other in environment, specifically Self (client) and Other (therapist) within a therapeutic dyad designed to bring about integration, one must consider contextuality elements.  Indeed, the full complexity of the spaciotemporal patterns that affect the Self’s (client) diachronic sense, meaning-making capacity, way of being and doing, and thus the Self’s capacity to create change within, can only be understood in context (Siegel, 2010).  As a therapist devoted to co-regulated connection and compassionate collaboration, I believe it imperative to explore in detail the elements that contribute to and impact the creation of contextual coherence.  Thus, hereafter I shall outline a definition of context and its relevance to therapy.

Context and Therapy

As somewhat deduced above, in order to holistically conceptualise the complexity of the Self who seeks health and well-being, one must understand context and its relevance to therapy.  Broadly speaking, context can be defined as the interrelated conditions in which something exists (Mirriam-Webster Inc, 2022).  More specifically these conditions are the internal and external situational/structural constraints or the circumstances that shape how a flow of energy and information emerges within and between the Self, the Other, and the environment (Badenoch, 2018; Cozolino, 2002; Siegel, 2010).  This is the open, nonlinear affected aspects of experiencing – an intricate web of reciprocal influence belying the notion of direct cause and effect (Lapworth & Sills, 2010; Siegel, 2012).  Indeed, a definition of context as relevant to therapy must move beyond content and toward an emphasis on understanding the unique conditions in which that content was acquired (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).  Along with how its nature has changed spatiotemporally as a function of the environment (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).  Such understanding contains the objective and subjective, cognitive and emotive, verbal and non-verbal appraisals and expressions of the Self (Leslie, 2020).  As well as a dynamic of discourse between Self and Other that holds the communicative potentiality of connective integration (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Mirriam-Webster Inc, 2022; Siegel, 2012). 

To clarify this notion with concreteness, context is an emergent set of boundaried concentric systems and sub-systems serving differentiated functions (Leslie, 2020; Siegel, 2012).  These are bound within an overarching spaciotemporal system, which paradoxically defies space and time (Davis & Wallbridge, 1991).  Each concentric system is complex (Siegel, 2012), phylogenetic (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Siegel, 2012), interrelational (Bronfenbrenner, 1979), and each is substrative (Savard & Mizoguchi, 2019) of the next (see figure 1).  This notion of context highlights an embracing systematic perspective that encompasses the foundational nature of the Self (client) as one who seeks a sense of connection, a belongingness within and between Self, Other, and environment.  Succinctly put by Winnicott (1949), “Spontaneity only makes sense in a [boundaried] setting.  Content has no meaning without form” (cited in Davis & Wallbridge, 1991, p. 140).

More aptly, therapy in and of itself is a boundaried setting in which the Other holds a safe spontaneous space for content to emerge ready for the Self to re-experience it with connected, communicative meaning and thus in an integrated multidimensional manner (Capuzzi & Stauffer, 2016).  Indeed, such spontaneous space, as held in safety by the Other, opens an opportunity for the Self to understand how energy and informational patterns have previously been spatiotemporally shaped and shared within and between the complex concentric systems (Siegel, 2012).  This opportune space thus brings form to what was and is with connection and belonging, which in turn cultivates Self-acceptance through rich understanding to communicative meaning (Charuvastra & Cloitre, 2010; Leslie, 2020).  Moreover, with a rich awareness of the contextual significance of Self’s way of being and doing, a sense of coherence begins to unfold, moving the Self from disintegration and toward integration (Siegel, 2012).  This is the movement toward the cultivation of the Self’s ability to see contextual influence (Self, Other, environment) and impact, to see sources of stress, and importantly to see and utilise available internal and external resources more spontaneously in new forms (Harms, 2007).  With this in mind, the relevance of contextual influences to therapy becomes more evident: the full complexity of the spaciotemporal patterns that affect the Self’s diachronic sense, meaning-making capacity, way of being and doing, thus the capability to create change within and move from disintegration to integration, can only be conceptualised in context.  As such, I now illustrate the above-defined understanding of context through a model of ecological contextual influence.

An ecological model of contextual influence and its application within a therapeutic setting.

As clarified above, and as illustrated below, from a therapeutic perspective context is vital in conceptualising a robust understanding of the Self who seeks health and well-being.  Interestingly, although a plethora of contextual perspectives are highlighted within most frameworks of therapy, I have personally found the thoroughly articulated model of ecological development as proposed by Bronfenbrenner in 1979 to be a substantive foundation for my understanding of context.  Whilst Bronfenbrenner’s model has been more extensively applied within educational settings, I have found ease in juxtaposing it with existent therapeutic conceptual and assessment models (for example, diverse and socio-culturally infused practice that understands the anthropological nature of the client) and in developing an application of the contextual knowledge within therapeutic settings.  As such, below is an illustration of an ecological model of context with brief definitions as emphasised by Bronfenbrenner (1979).  It is my hope that through this model I emphasise the interrelated nature of context and its influence on the therapist and client’s ability to see sources of stress, as well as to see and utilise internal and external resources for change.


A microsystem is a pattern of activities, roles, and interpersonal relations experienced by the developing person in a given setting with particular physical and material characteristics…. A setting is a place where people can readily engage in face-to-face interaction – home, educational setting, religious setting, community groups/settings, and so on.  The factors of activity, role, and interpersonal relation [including power and rank dimensions] constitute the elements or building blocks of the micro-system (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 22).


A mesosystem comprises the interrelations among two or more settings in which the developing person actively participates (such as, for a child, the relations among home, school, and neighbour-hood peer group; for an adult, among family, work, and social life).  A mesosystem is thus a system of microsystems. It is formed or extended whenever the developing person moves into a new setting. Besides this primary link, interconnections may take a number of additional forms: other persons who participate actively in both settings, intermediate links in a social network, formal and informal communications among settings, and, again clearly in the phenomenological domain, the extent and nature of knowledge and attitudes existing in one setting about the other (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 25)…  The positive developmental effects of participation in multiple settings are enhanced when the settings occur in cultural or subcultural contexts that are different from each other… (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 213)…  The developmental potential of a mesosystem is enhanced to the extent that there exist indirect linkages between settings that encourage the growth of mutual trust, positive orientation, goal consensus, and a balance of power responsive to action in behalf of the developing person …  The developmental potential of participation in multiple settings will vary directly with the ease and extent of two-way communication between those settings …  The developmental potential of setting is enhanced to the extent that the mode of communication between them is personal (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 216-217).


An exosystem refers to one or more settings that do not involve the developing person as an active participant, but in which events occur that effect, or are effected by, what happens in the setting containing the developing person (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 26).


The macrosystem refers to the consistency observed within a given culture or subculture in the form and content of its constituent micro-, meso-, and exosystems, as well as any belief systems or ideology underlying such consistencies (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 258).

Final Thoughts

Importantly, it is through an understanding of Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Model that I have come to truly fathom the depths of complexity that exists within and between the Self, the Other, and the environment.  Such complexity will enable me to understand just how vital it is to continually connect to one of my strongest values: that we are designed as dynamic beings seeking connection, belonging, and communicative meaning-making – we are not limited to a body and cannot be understood without an all-encompassing, complexity embracing perspective.  It is through my journey’s with various clients that I have come to understand the layers of complexity that pertains to the spaciotemporal patterns that affect someone’s diachronic sense, meaning-making capacity, way of being and doing, and thus their capacity to create change within.  With the exploration of the micro-, meso-, exo, and macrosystems that contribute to, and impact the development of a client’s current disintegrated state – specifically, I have come to see just how a client’s expectations, expressions, and hidden affects are an intricate web of reciprocal influence belying the notion of direct cause and effect.  Moreover, as I have sought to understand the systems’ interrelationship and their complexity I have come to a deeper place of trust in the power of connection, belonging, and communicative meaning to move systems toward coherence and thus health and well-being.  This trust is inseparable from patience, courage, and the ability to unpretentiously meet a client with an authentic awareness of my own limitations in knowledge.  Finally, I am in no doubt that understanding context in its full systematic complexity is an ongoing personal and professional endeavour that shall involve a continual dedication to reflective and supervised practice.  In the words of Skovholt & Trotter-Mathison (2016), “As the circle of knowing grows, the circle of not-knowing also grows…  The resilient practitioner must learn how to ride the wave of uncertainty while homing in on relative truths and effective ways of helping” (pp. 119-120)

Welcome, my name is Chele, I am a therapist primarily specialising in Trauma &  Burnout.   As a psychotherapist & PACFA registered Counsellor I work individually with beautiful humans such as yourself who feel alone, lost, confused, & overwhelmed; those of you who are longing for something different.

As such, I offer my knowledge, skills, and inherent gifts with ears that listen to hear, and a heart open to receive who you are, no matter the suffering you bring; to support you in an exploration of how your past has impacted you and the ways that shows up presently. Together we will rediscover your hope and your sense of Self; we will reconnect you to what matters reclaiming the joy and delight in life you so deserve.

I welcome you to view my services or connect with me to explore how I can assist you in your journey.


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