Many of us use self-talk to motivate ourselves or to manage our nerves before stressful situations such as job interviews, first dates, or giving presentations at work. Scientists at the University of Michigan examined these internal dialogues and found that how we use self-talk determines its psychological usefulness.
In a series of studies, they gave participants a task many of us would find stressful—to deliver a five-minute talk about why they are qualified for their “dream job." To make things even more stressful, participants were told that they would be giving their talk to a panel of expert interviewers and that they would be videotaped while doing it. And to make sure the poor participants were indeed totally stressed out, they were given only five minutes to prepare—during which time they were not allowed to take notes.
The participants had been divided into two groups. Both were told that people tend to use self-talk to prepare themselves psychologically for stressful situations and to reflect on how they’re feeling. But the first group was instructed to use first-person pronouns when preparing themselves (I feel super stressed and anxious) while the second was asked to use second- and third-person pronouns (You feel super stressed and anxious, or Bill feels super stressed and anxious).
The researchers then examined how successful participants were in delivering their talks, using ratings by objective judges; how distressed participants felt before and after the task; and how participants assessed potential future anxiety-provoking situations.
They found that participants who used second- and third-person pronouns performed the task significantly better than those who used first-person pronouns. Pronoun use also impacted how the participants managed their emotions. Those using second- and third-person pronouns were less emotionally distressed both before and after the task than those who used first-person pronouns—and they appraised future anxiety-provoking situations as more challenging than threatening.
By using second- and third-person pronouns as opposed to first-person pronouns, the participants created psychological distance, removing themselves from the stressful situation by referring to their self as an "other," a technique used in several psychological therapies such as Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP) and NLP. Creating psychological distance from an anxiety-producing or stressful event allows us to manage our anxiety and distressing feelings more efficiently, and to reduce the detrimental impact of such feelings on our behavior.
I describe a similar technique in this article in this article about managing emotional pain, which is based on the work of the same researchers. However, this series of studies demonstrates its application to something we all do before stressful and distressing events—self-talk.
Editing our internal monologues does take some getting used to, but when we face tasks or events that are especially anxiety-provoking, using second- and third-person pronouns could give us an edge.
View my short and quite personal TEDx talk about Psychological Health here:
For more examples of how to use psychological distancing techniques, check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).
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Copyright 2014, Guy Winch
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