Fooling Your Ego

Writing in the third-person frees you to explore your story

Posted Jun 15, 2015

Imagine walking into a neighborhood bookstore and discovering a novel with a familiar picture on the cover. Flipping through the pages, you are struck by the eerie sense that you’ve read this before. As you begin to recognize characters and scenes, wincing at some and smiling at others, you realize this is the story of your life.

Would you feel love and compassion for the main character? According to the latest psychological research, you are more likely to view your life favorably at a distance than up close. Which is why, in my new book Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your LIfe (New World Library http://tinyurl.com/pczwyzk), I ask readers to imagine themselves as characters in a novel and write about their lives in the third person narrative.The third-person voice, also known as the omniscient narrator, gives them an elevated perspective, as if they were watching their lives on a movie screen, reading their story in a book, or having an out-of-body experience.

This is not just a gimmick; rather, it’s a therapeutic technique inspired by a growing body of research that shows that viewing your life as an objective observer can help you see yourself through gentler, more compassionate eyes. It is also aligned with narrative therapy techniques that put emotional distance between people and their storylines so they don’t overidentify with their problems. 

What Research Says about the Third-Person Voice

The third-person voice is one of three types of points of view typically found in literature: First-person narrative uses the pronoun “I” and is used when the narrator tells his or her own story. Second-person narrative uses the pronoun “you” and is used when the narrator speaks directly to the reader, like I am speaking to you right now. Third-person narrative uses the pronouns “he,” “she,” and “they,” and it is used when the narrator describes someone else’s story, often from a neutral or all-knowing perspective; for this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the omniscient narrator.

Several studies suggest that the psychologically distant vantage point of the third-person voice diffuses emotinally charged sitautions, enabling people to reconstruct an understanding of their experiences and gain new insights without feeling overwhelmed.

Consider the following:

  • Stanford University psychologists studying emotion regulation asked a group of women who were hooked up to a machine measuring heart rate, pulse, and perspiration to recall a scene that made them angry. At first, the women’s ruminations set their nervous systems into overdrive. Then the women were asked to visualize the incident as a neutral observer, or to assume the perspective of another person, and their bodies became calmer and their anger diminished.
  • University of California and University of Michigan researchers used a psychologically distancing vantage point when asking participants to reflect on negative memories. Not only did participants report less emotional pain, less rumination, improved problem solving, and greater life satisfaction, they also gained new insights into those memories without feeling as emotionally overwhelmed.
  • In a Ohio State University study, students who recalled humiliating moments in high school in the third-person narrative were more likely to describe themselves as having overcome obstacles than those who recalled similarly embarrassing moments from a first-person perspective. Participants in this group often portrayed themselves as victims. The study concluded that feeling like you’ve changed gives the confidence and momentum to act in ways that support a perceived new and improved self.
  • In a Columbia University study, students were asked to describe recently upsetting thoughts or feelings, and these bad memories were recalled with less hostility by those using the third-person perspective.
  • A University of Michigan study was done through the use of a six-day worry log. Results showed people writing in the third person reported higher life satisfaction. Researchers concluded that “self-distancing . . . provides a valuable framework to help people reframe stressful events in adaptive ways.”

Tricking the Censoring Ego

In my writing workshops that inspired the book, participants often give me strange looks when I ask them to describe a chapter of their life in the third person, the results are always affirming. Everyone is always surprised at how much easier it is to express themselves.

Why is this technique so effective? Our challenge often lies in getting past our ego – the big “I.” A good, healthy “I” is necessary for establishing relationships, launching enterprises, and navigating life’s ups and downs. If we didn’t have a healthy sense of “I,” we might find it difficult to distinguish our thoughts and feelings from those of the people around us, so that we mostly mimicked or reflected our parents, peers, and society while losing our sense of individuality and autonomy. For these reasons, our “I” perspective is very important to us, and it can be hard to see past it.

And yet, sometimes we invest so much in our “I” that we easily succumb to its dark companion, the inner critic, which I like to refer to as the "negating narrators."

The first type of negating narrator, and the least harmless, is like a worried helicopter parent who keeps you from straying too far outside your comfort zone. The motivation of the “censoring ego” is to keep you safe, free from self-discoveries that can potentially overwhelm you by contradicting your preconceived self-image. One of the challenges of this narrator is that it often underestimates the strength and bandwidth of your character.

The other type of negating narrator, the inner critic, is like a parent for whom nothing is ever good enough. When this negating narrator takes charge, self-exploration can easily degenerate into criticism. It reads your story through the lens of judgment, pointing out your mistakes and shortcomings. Its motivation is to keep you small, and it often leaves you feeling deflated.                                       

Because they’re protecting our ego, negating narrators tend to show up when we write or think about ourselves in the first-person voice. When we declare “I am this” or “I think that,” our negating narrators can guide and cling to the descriptors that follow. For example, if we say “I am a successful stockbroker” or “I am a stay-at-home mother,” we may be misled into believing that is all we are while discounting other valuable parts of our personality. Such distorted thinking may trigger an identity crisis if that label is challenged by external circumstances, like the market crashing or children leaving the nest.

The genius of writing in the third person is that it sneaks us past our negating narrators, who think that we are describing someone else’s life. After all, you’re not writing about yourself (wink, wink), you’re describing the character of your first, second, or third novel! Writing about yourself in the third person creates an opening to be more curious about the direction of your own unfolding story. For example, instead of fearing the unknown, you might wonder what this protagonist will do next — will she accept the marriage proposal or join the Peace Corps and go to Africa?

Reflecting on your life in the third person is also a remedy for tunnel vision. By tapping into the more expansive, omniscient voice deep inside yourself, you can explore emotionally charged situations with more emotional distance. Such a viewpoint can increase your sense of satisfaction and compassion toward yourself, or alternatively, it can serve as a wake-up call if the character you are playing doesn’t fit the picture of who you imagine yourself to be.