By Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, published on September 6, 2011 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
When I was in graduate school, a campus police officer stopped me from entering the psychology building. "This is for people from Columbia University only," he said. I told him my office was inside—that I was a Ph.D. candidate—but it came out in adrenaline-filled shouts. Since my reaction only confirmed to him that I wasn't university material, the guard turned me away.
Prejudice—a series of small, and sometimes large, insults that accumulate over time—can chip away at self-esteem and lead to depression, inflammation, and cardiovascular trouble. But new research shows a way to revisit negative experiences, whether discriminatory or just plain unpleasant, without wallowing in the hurt.
Until my incident with the guard, I'd only heard tales from other minority students (at 10, I moved here from Mexico). Now I understood how they felt. I wish I'd reacted calmly, but composure was impossible given the hurt and anger coursing through me. Seventeen years later, my heart still races when I think back—but it slows when I remind myself of the complex processes involved in racial profiling.
Popular belief holds that to grow from trauma or pain, we need to work through our emotions by reliving them. But wading back into highly emotional territory without gaining some analytical distance from it can backfire. A series of studies conducted by Ethan Cross of the University of Michigan and Ozlem Ayduk of the University of California, Berkeley, reveals that revisiting stinging remarks can send our confidence spiraling—and that a more self-preserving approach may hinge on something as mundane as pronouns.
Researchers have identified two ways we analyze memories of events like a spat with our partner or getting called a bile-filled racial slur. If we take a self-immersed perspective, we look back in first person and ask, "Why did that happen to me, and why did it get to me so much?" By contrast, using a self-distanced lens means analyzing the same event as if we were a third-party observer: "Why did that bigoted comment get to him so much?"
Surprisingly, that one simple word change can quiet emotions. Participants who recalled in first person an upsetting event felt awful while remembering. One rattled off a list: "Adrenaline infused.... Betrayed. Angry. Victimized. Hurt. Shamed. Stepped-on." Bad memories stayed vivid and raw.
By simply switching perspectives—playing the memory as if it were a film scene—subjects grew calmer and more analytical. "I was able to see the argument more clearly," one reported. "I understood my friend's motivations." When we think of a negative experience more like a puzzle and less like a personal burn, we automatically protect ourselves from pain.
Self-distancers may also handle conflict more effectively in love relationships. Self-immersers who take personally any hostility from their partners tend to respond in a way that escalates tensions. On the other hand, research shows that distancers stay cool and constructive, even when partners get snippy.
The benefits of stepping back aren't just emotional, either. People who kept it personal showed greater spikes in blood pressure while analyzing their emotions compared with those who created distance. More important, only the blood pressure of the fly-on-the-wall group returned to baseline levels once the study was over.
And those who naturally analyzed unresolved negative experiences in third person—that is, without receiving any instruction—showed less harmful reactions to the memory an entire month and a half later. During those weeks they also ruminated less, whereas people stuck in first person reported having intrusive, unwanted thoughts about the event.
What's more, shifting out of the crosshairs can enhance our worldview. When we think back on bad moments from outside of ourselves, perpetrators of discriminatory or hurtful behavior become more than two-dimensional evildoers; targets of ill-will take on a role beyond victim.
Barack Obama, known for his ability to see all sides, seems to have consistently brushed off hateful actions while growing up. In Indonesia, kids lobbed rocks and shouted racial epithets—but he stayed outwardly unfazed. Now, that famously cool-under-pressure demeanor suggests that the president strategically deploys self-distancing. As New York Times columnist David Brooks highlighted during the 2008 election season, then-candidate Obama always faced tough questions by zooming out. "At every challenging moment," Brooks reports, "his instinct was to self-remove and establish an observer's perspective."
When responding to something as grave and deeply rooted as discrimination, some argue, creating a buffer means sanitizing the experience. But distancing doesn't mean sugarcoating. That run-in with the university guard motivated me to study prejudice; yet I wouldn't get much work done if the anger that spurred my career remained my dominant mind-set.
Carving space between ourselves and an incident is vital to mental and physical health. For some of us, it even allows a lifelong investigation into why slurs and stones are hurled in the first place.
Read Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Ph.D.'s, PT blog: "Are We Born Racist?"