Self-talk is extremely powerful, research shows.
When you’re faced with a difficult decision, stressful situation, or an upsetting event, how do you talk to yourself about it? Do you think things like this: “I’m so unhappy” or “I just don’t know what to do”? If the answer is yes, you can help yourself a lot with a small but significant change to your mental vocabulary. When thinking to yourself about a problem you’re facing, stop using the word “I.” Using a different word will help you step back, see the big picture, empathize with others, and generally tap into your own emotional intelligence. It can give you the perspective to find solutions to the biggest problems facing you and your business.
This may sound silly, but making this simple change has very real benefits backed up by scientific research, explains Noam Shpancer, PhD, a psychologist and professor at Otterbein University in Ohio. In a post for Psychology Today, Shpancer reviewed research into “distanced self-talk,” that is, the practice of distancing yourself from your own negative emotional reactions by talking to yourself in the second or third person.
It works like this. When faced with a dilemma or an upsetting event, rather than thinking, “How will I ever solve this?” ask yourself, “How will you solve this?” Or you could put the question in the third person. For example, Shpancer sometimes asks himself, “How is Noam going to solve this problem?” Another approach is to ask yourself how an outside observer would see this problem.
Switching your inner monologue from “I” to “you” or using your own name may seem trivial or even silly. But a surprisingly large number of experiments have demonstrated over and over how powerful it can be. For example, in one study, participants were asked to explore their feelings about worrisome issues in their lives, using either “I” or their own names as they reflected on the problem. Those who used their names had measurably less negative emotions, and were calmer than those who used the word “I.”
Become a better public speaker
Using distanced self-talk doesn’t just help you feel better, it actually helps you perform better. In another experiment, researchers prompted some subjects to either explore their feelings in the first person or use distanced self-talk before a “socially demanding” task such as public speaking. Objective observers found that those who prepped by talking to themselves in the second or third person performed better than those who used “I.”
Beyond making you more relaxed and confident, distanced self-talk can also help you make better decisions. This is especially true if something or someone has made you angry. In one experiment, subjects were asked to think about something that had provoked them using distanced self-talk. Those who did got past their anger more quickly, and displayed less aggressive behavior. Yet another experiment showed that those who use distanced self-talk are better able to cooperate with others in stressful situations.
Do you think distanced self-talk could help you next time you face a stressful situation or a tough decision? I know I do. When talking to myself, I already most often use “you” as a default. I tend to think of it as my late mother‘s voice — she and I were a lot alike — which lodged itself in my brain when I was young and has been there ever since. But, reading Shpancer’s post, I realize that there are times when I talk to myself using “I” instead of “you.” Those are the times that I’m saddest, or angriest, or sinking into despair. They’re the times when my problems seem insurmountable and I find myself wishing I were somewhere else or someone else.
It never occurred to me until I read Shpancer’s post to try switching from “I” to “you” in my mind. But next time I find myself overwhelmed with unhappiness or frustration, that’s what I’m going to do. Switching to “you” means taking a step back, looking at the bigger picture, and using my analytical mind to find a solution to what seems like an insurmountable problem.
What about you? Will you give it a try?