Talk to yourself in the third person

Talk to yourself in the third person

April 11, 2021 0 By Rick

You may be able to calm your anxiety — and actually do better — simply by talking to yourself in the third person, a new study suggests. Researchers found that people create distance between themselves and whatever is causing negative emotions, like fear or anxiety, when they self-talk in the third person. While it might seem a bit strange, that’s precisely what the results of a new study by psychology researchers at the University of Michigan (UM) and Michigan State University (MSU) indicate. 

Talk to yourself
According to the researchers, “talking to yourself in the third person during stressful moments may work better than giving yourself a first-person talk.” Jason Moser, associate professor of psychology at MSU, says when we talk to ourselves in the third person, we put a bit of psychological distance between ourselves and our experiences. Using non-first-person pronouns or even your own name when thinking about or reviewing painful past experiences can help you stay calm and collected. A wide range of studies has found that using this technique can help you regulate your emotions and self-control.  

The study
The study consisted of two experiments. In one test, participants were asked to respond to neutral or disturbing photos in the first person and then the third person while their brains were monitored by an electroencephalograph. When viewing disturbing images, such as a man holding a gun to their heads, “their emotional brain activity decreased within one second when they referred themselves in the third person.” The researchers also pointed out that talking to yourself in the third person required less mental effort than other emotional regulation types, such as mindfulness. 

My own experience
I can vouch for the effectiveness of this technique. At BUD/S, I used it regularly, although I didn’t realize what it was and couldn’t put a name on it back in the 60s. I refused to conduct a first-person negative dialogue with myself when things were at their most challenging. I banished thoughts, such as “I can’t do this. I’m tired and hurting. I can’t take this anymore.” Instead, I became my own coach, saying, “You’ve got this, Rick! You’ve got to keep going. You’re never going to give up, Rick! Get your ass in gear!” There were a few other comments I made to myself, of course, but those are probably best left unmentioned here. I still talk to myself in the third person.

More research required
University of Michigan professor Ethan Kross says, “the brain data from these experiments suggest that talking to yourself in the third person may constitute a relatively effortless form of emotion regulation.” More research is required, of course, Kross added, “but if this turns out to be true, these findings have lots of important implications for our basic understanding of how self-control works and how to help people control their emotions in daily life.” You can read the complete study at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-04047-3 . 

A term
You may not believe this, but there’s a term for talking to yourself in the third person. It’s called illeism. Many people begin talking to themselves when trying to solve a problem, navigating daily situations or reflecting on the past. And when they do, the pronouns I, me, mine and my come to the forefront. There’s something about distancing yourself that allows you to assess a situation more objectively. It also helps you control your emotions, preventing them from clouding your thinking. While this suggestion might seem strange or even idiotic, decades of research now show that talking to yourself this way, also called “distanced self-talk,” can help foster self-control and deal with negative emotions better.

Introspection
Our ability for introspection helps us solve problems and plan the future. Nevertheless, it can quickly transform into rumination when bad things happen or intense negative emotions arise. This is when we end up dwelling over thoughts and worrying ourselves in circles. And when that happens, we tend to forget to take the big picture into account and instead zoom in on whatever is worrying us. Beware of talking about yourself in the third person out loud, however, as people could perceive you as a narcissist. The take-home message is that you should find and use a method of distanced self-talk that works best for you. Give it a try. You’ve got absolutely nothing to lose.