A Simple Mind Trick That Reduces Emotional Pain

How to reduce the pain associated with distressing experiences.

Posted Sep 11, 2013 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan

Recent studies have demonstrated how a simple mind trick can significantly reduce the emotional distress we feel when reflecting on painful experiences or memories from our past.

Ozlem Ayduk from the University of California and Ethan Kross from the University of Michigan conducted a fascinating series of studies which investigated the factors that distinguish adaptive from maladaptive self-reflection (read about the surprising dangers of brooding here). They discovered that the perspective via which we recall an experience determines how much pain its memory evokes.

When we replay and analyze painful experiences in our minds, our natural tendency is to do so from a first-person or self-immersed perspective—where we see the scene unfolding through our own eyes. Using this perspective usually elicits significant emotional pain, as it makes us relive the experience.

Ayduk and Kross instead had participants replay emotionally painful memories from a third-person perspective—which involves visualizing ourselves within the scene as if we were watching it from the perspective of an outside observer.

The difference between the two types of perspectives was profound. Participants reported feeling significantly less emotional pain when they envisioned the memory using a third-person perspective than when using a first-person perspective. Further, utilizing a psychologically distant vantage point also allowed them to reconstruct their understanding of their experiences and reach new insights and feelings of closure.

The results were even more impressive because in addition to eliciting far less emotional pain, third-person perspectives also caused significantly lower activation of stress responses and participants’ cardiovascular systems—participant’s blood pressure rose less than those who reflected on painful experiences using first-person perspectives, and it returned to its normal rate more quickly as well.

Lastly, follow-ups one week later indicated that people who used third-person perspectives when reflecting about painful experiences brooded about them far less often and felt less emotional pain when doing so than people who used first-person perspectives when reflecting on their experiences.

How to Change Perspectives When Reflecting on Emotionally Painful Experiences

  1. Make sure you are sitting or lying comfortably.
  2. Recall the opening scene of the experience or memory.
  3. Zoom out until you see yourself within the scene, then zoom out even further so you can see the scene unfold as if you were a stranger that happened to pass by.
  4. Play out the scene while maintaining the third-person perspective.
  5. Make sure to employ a third-person perspective whenever you find yourself reflecting on the experience.

Update: Read about the strong reaction to this article and the steps I then took to address that reaction here: NLP Experts Speak Out.

For more techniques for overcoming emotional pain, check out my new book, Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries as well as my TEDx talk.

Copyright 2013 Guy Winch


O. Ayduk, & E. Kross, “From a distance: Implications of spontaneous self-distancing for adaptive self-reflection,” Personality Processes and Individual Differences 98 (2010): 809-829.