Art Therapy and Non-First-Person Narratives

Shifting a pronoun can make all the difference.

Posted Aug 31, 2017

"Worry Tornado," worry drawing from the collection of C. Malchiodi, PhD @2014
Source: "Worry Tornado," worry drawing from the collection of C. Malchiodi, PhD @2014

Can talking or writing about art expressions in the third person rather than first person pronouns be a better strategy to reduce stress? Some recent studies about self-talk may be providing important information for how therapists should direct individuals to speak or write about their art expressions. In brief, a growing number of studies have found that non-first-person self-talk improves emotional regulation through self-distancing and reducing self-focus.

To be clear, first person talk involves using pronouns such as “I,” “me,” or “my.” In contrast, non-first-person pronouns are “you,” “it,” or a name (including your own name). A good example of non-first-person positive self-talk would be “Keep going, Cathy, you are doing great. You have this” (something I say to myself before facing an audience of 500 or 1000 people to prevent stage fright). While athletes and others have applied non-first-person self-talk to enhance performance and support confidence, variations of this type of talk may be effective in other situations, particularly those that involve painful memories or distressing events.

Two recent studies demonstrate how this simple strategy may help us to self-regulate and reduce stress. One study conducted at Michigan State University (MSU) indicates that referring to oneself in the third person may lead people to perceive themselves in ways more similar to how they think about or perceive others. In other words, this simple shift can help individuals get a bit of psychological distance from stressful experiences and thus can be helpful in emotional regulation. Moser, key researcher in the MSU study, demonstrated this finding using brain scan technology to measure and compare differences between first person and non-first-person self-talk.

Another experiment at the Emotion and Self-Control Lab at the University of Michigan (U-M) evaluated how brain activity (functional magnetic resonance imaging or FMRI) differed in participants who reflected on distressing experiences using first and third person language. When using third person language, participants showed less activity in the brain region related to distressing emotional memories when using third-person self-talk, indicating better emotional regulation. In both the MSU and U-M studies, researchers concluded that third-person talk is an accessible form of emotional regulation. These outcomes also complement previous research that demonstrated third person self-talk improves heart rate variability which results in a healthy vagal tone, a physical response relevant to trauma intervention, positive attachment and emotional regulation.

How does this translate to art therapy practice? Expressive arts and imaginative play easily support opportunities to shift perspectives as needed through how we assist individuals in talking about these experiences. Refraction, a form of parallel communication developed by Milton Erickson, is one way to encourage a shift without direct confrontation. In the field of art therapy, the term projection has been used to describe a shift in perspective from a first-person narrative to a third-person one. It is an accepted way of encouraging a child or adult to communicate uncomfortable memories in a safe manner; for example, I may ask a child to show me a “worry” through a drawing or clay sculpture, then ask, “if that worry could talk, what would that worry say?” I am not requesting first person disclosure; I am instead encouraging the child to develop a safe distance from the experience being conveyed. Similarly, I may ask an adult to write down five words that come to mind after completing a drawing or movement experience; the five words can be used to create a story or poem to verbalize an experience or perception from a third person stance.

So art therapy colleagues and other professionals who introduce art expression into a session, consider how you ask individuals to speak about their creations and why you may make the choice to use one form of talk or writing (first person v. non-first-person) over another. Clearly, using a non-first-person approach is not always the most effective strategy to meet therapeutic goals. Direct (first person) ownership of specific experiences, perceptions and feelings is a key part of discovery and growth within the context of any therapeutic alliance. But when the goal involves supporting self-regulation and reducing emotional distress due to traumatic memories, loss or other challenges, taking a non-first-person stance is proving to be a good strategy to decrease distress, at least in the short-term. I believe we can all look forward to future studies on this approach, perhaps introducing arts expression into the mix, to determine just what type of “talk” is best to use to support reparation and recovery as well as to enhance self-regulation for health and well-being.

Be well,

Cathy Malchiodi, PhD

Resource (and more References below):

Cathy Malchiodi, "Art Therapy Approaches to Facilitate Verbal Expression: Getting Past the Impasse." What to Do When Children Clam Up in Psychotherapy, 2017, Guilford Press

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Jason S. Moser, et al. "Third-person self-talk facilitates emotion regulation without engaging cognitive control: Converging evidence from ERP and fMRI." Scientific Reports, 2017; 7 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-04047-3

Ethan Kross, et al. "Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: How you do it matters." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 106(2), Feb 2014, 304-324. DOI: 10.1037/a0035173

Igor Grossmann, Baljinder K. Sahdra, and Joseph Ciarrochi. "A Heart and A Mind: Self-distancing Facilitates the Association Between Heart Rate Variability and Wise Reasoning." Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, April 2016 DOI: 10.3389/fnbeh.2016.00068

Cathy Malchiodi, "Neurobiology, Creative Interventions and Childhood Trauma." Creative Interventions with Traumatized Children, 2015, Guilford Press

Cathy Malchiodi, "Art Therapy Approaches to Facilitate Verbal Expression: Getting Past the Impasse." What to Do When Children Clam Up in Psychotherapy, 2017, Guilford Press