According to the Bible, King Solomon, the Israelite king, was an incredibly wise man. People traveled far and wide just to ask for his advice, including two women who claimed to be the mother of the same baby. Solomon devised a clever way to solve the dispute.
Solomon's wisdom, though, only applied to matters external to himself. His own life “was a shambles of bad decisions and uncontrolled passions,” wrote Wray Herbert in The Association for Psychological Science. “He kept hundreds of pagan wives and concubines, and also loved money and boasted of his riches. He neglected to instruct his only son, who grew up to be an incompetent tyrant. All these sins and misjudgments contributed to the eventual demise of the kingdom.”
This is referred to as Solomon's Paradox. Whether the tales of Solomon are rooted in historical fact or not, they describe how we are often more wise when it comes to helping others than we are with ourselves. There's something about the distance between yourself and another that provides the space to assess a situation more objectively, and control your emotions, rather than letting them cloud your thinking.
But there might be a remarkably simple way to access this kind of distance, and approach your own emotions, stress, and problems with a Solomon-esque distance: Talk to yourself in the third person.
Now, this suggestion might garner a certain gut reaction: that talking to yourself in the third person is strange at best, and annoying, narcissistic, or idiotic at worst. "Just think of Elmo in the children’s TV show Sesame Street, or the intensely irritating Jimmy in the sitcom Seinfeld—hardly models of sophisticated thinking,” wrote science journalist David Robson in The British Psychological Society Research Digest.
Yet decades of research now show that talking to yourself this way inside of your head—also called "distanced self-talk" can help foster psychological distance, a phenomenon that leads to better emotional regulation, self control, and even wisdom.
A recent study in Clinical Psychological Science is the latest in a robust body of work from University of Michigan professor of psychology Ethan Kross, Bryn Mawr College assistant professor of psychology Ariana Orvell, and others. It cemented the findings that when people use words for themselves that they usually reserve for others—their name, and third- and second-person pronouns—they are better able to deal with negative emotions, even in emotionally intense situations, and even if they have a history of having a hard time managing their emotions.
Distanced self-talk also raises interesting questions about the ways that language influences our emotions, and highlights the importance of psychological distance overall—if you're feeling overwhelmed, see if getting a little distance from yourself helps.
Humans have the ability for introspection, which helps us solve problems or plan for the future. But when bad things happen or intense negative emotions arise, this introspection can transform into its darker cousin: rumination. That's when we end up incessantly turning over thoughts or are plunged into negative emotions, worrying ourselves in circles.
“Why does that happen?” Kross said. “And are there ways of making introspection work for us better?”
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When we're struggling with this kind of distress, we tend to zoom in, “almost to the exclusion of everything else. We lose the ability to take the big picture into account,” Kross said. Then, we might have a hard time coping with strong emotions, or finding ways to emotionally regulate. Emotional regulation, simply described, is the broad set of strategies that people use to change or modify what they're feeling.
In those situations, being able to think about your experience from a more distanced perspective can be helpful. Psychological distance is a construct that’s been around for a long time, said Kevin Ochsner, Professor and Chair at the Department of Psychology at Columbia University.
There are many different strategies studied that create distance: You can picture a person or scene moving away from you, into the distance, like the opening lines in Star Wars. Even the act of physically leaning back has been shown to help more easily perform a difficult task.
“All those things will decrease the emotional punch,” Ochsner said.
Kross stumbled across talking to yourself in the third person about 10 years ago while exploring other distancing methods. By talking to yourself in the third person, or even second person (the pronoun "you") he found that people bypassed a lot of the effort that’s usually put into trying to change your perspective to a more distanced one.
“The idea was—which continues to be fascinating to me—that we all have these tools that are baked into the structure of language that can serve this perspective shifting distancing function,” Kross said.
The official term for talking in the third person about yourself is illeism. Many people have an internal monologue that crops up, when we’re figuring out what to do, reflecting on the past, or guiding ourselves through day-to-day situations, but we frequently use the pronouns I, me, mine, and my.
In Kross and his colleagues' work, they set out to see what would happen if they told people to modify that. In one study, they found that third person self talk could help people manage the emotional distress that accompanies public speaking. They’ve also found that distanced self talk can be effective for people with social anxiety, who can be especially prone to stress and struggle with emotional regulation.
Other researchers have had similar results. Erik Nook, a clinical psychology Ph.D. student at Harvard University and intern at Weill Cornell Medical College, said that in his work, he and his colleagues asked people to reappraise or reinterpret negative images in order to make themselves feel better. Some of his subjects spontaneously stopped or reduced their use of words like I, me, mine and mine.
“I was familiar with what Ethan had been studying, so I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, they're spontaneously distancing their language!” Nook said. The participants who distanced their language more strongly were more successful at regulating their emotions.
There’s now evidence that distanced self talk might enhance physical performance, as shown in a study where cycling time improved in people who talked to themselves in the second person. Distanced self-talk could also help people make healthier food choices.
In 2017, Breena Kerr wrote in The Cut how she started to talk about herself in the third person when she was in the initial stages of her divorce. “If I was going to get through it, I was going to have to imagine myself as someone else,” she wrote. “Thinking of myself as ‘me,’ a person wracked with guilt and sorrow, wasn’t working. So I switched things up: I started making a plan of action as if I was advising a friend — someone who I knew deserved to be cared for, someone who I loved, who happened to also have my name. It worked.”
One of the most intriguing aspects of distanced self-talk is that as a strategy for emotional regulation, it seems to take very little effort. In brain imaging studies in collaboration with Jason Moser, a Michigan State University associate professor of psychology, Kross and his colleagues found that not only did third-person inner talk reduce emotional overwhelm, but the brain areas associated with cognitive control weren’t sent into overdrive.
Of course, when you talk about yourself in the third person, it’s not so dramatic that you forget you’re reflecting on yourself and your own experiences. But this is a good thing, Orvell said. You retain the privileged access to all the details of your emotions and situations, it just provides the ability to take a slightly more objective view.
And even though self-distanced talk may be just one way to get psychological distance, the various types of psychological distancing could be interconnected. The Construal-Level Theory of Psychological Distance, proposed by Yaacov Trope and Nira Liberman, suggests that there are different types of psychological distance, and they are related to one another. Psychological distance can be through time, distance in space, social distance, and distance by abstraction. They theorized that when you distance in one arena, the other areas become more distant too.
Nook’s work backs this up: when people spontaneously stopped using as many first person-pronouns, they also used fewer verbs in the present tense,increasing their temporal distance. They used past tense and future tense verbs instead.
Ochsner said that we still need more research on how short-or-long term the effects of different kinds of distancing are. Does talking about yourself in the third person offer immediate gratification, but little longer term relief? Are there certain kinds of distancing—perhaps ones that do require more effort—that are more helpful for other situations? Or if they're all interconnected, is distanced self-talk a great way to achieve distancing overall?
“It’s a really fascinating question,” Ochsner said. “Why is that if I say, 'What does Kevin want?' it’s as if I’m talking about somebody else? Just by itself, it puts us into this mode where I’m not talking about me anymore. I’m not appraising this in respect to me. I'm appraising the meaning of this with respect to someone else.”
These psychological effects of switching up your pronouns suggest that language can somehow shape our emotional experiences.
Orvell has tried to explain this by examining pronouns like “you,” which is one of the most common words in the English language. These pronouns—like you, he, she, or they—are already flexible when we use them in everyday speech, Orvell said. In linguistics they’re called shifters, because they easily change meaning depending on the context. That may be one of the underlying mechanisms for how this psychological distancing can occur with so little effort, and through the use of language. "You" is a malleable word: it can refer to any other specific person, but also people in general. It might be that using the pronoun “you," about yourself, helps to normalize your own stressful experiences.
“We’re so used to constantly shifting perspectives when it comes to our interpretation of those pronouns, it may be that when we use them to reflect on the self, it instigates this very seamless shift in perspective away from our egocentric immersed point of view, to a more distanced one—where we might be thinking about the self more similar to how we think about other people,” Orvell said.
It’s vaguely reminiscent of a controversial linguistic theory called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which proposed that a person’s experiences, thoughts, and actions were directly determined by the language they speak, meaning that a person can’t think or experience things that they don’t have the language for. This is known as linguistic determinism.
Nook said that while this research on distanced self-talk suggests that shifting your language can change the way you feel, it’s not as extreme as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis implies. It’s not as if, for instance, the people who are using distanced self-talk are gaining access to an experience that people who don't can’t. Instead, while distancing can be accomplished in a myriad of ways, subtle shifts in language seem to be one easy access point.
So what about people who speak in the third person… out loud? “In the popular imagination, the usual context in which illeism appears is when people are signalling their own power or status,” wrote Chris Bourn in Mel Magazine.
It’s important to note that the research has only been done on internal distanced self-talk, not self-talk that happens out loud. But Kross speculates that while we might regard third-person talk as a narcissistic trait, illeism in culture and media reveal it’s more complex than that.
People we regard as having very different personalities and motives have reached for the third person: While Donald Trump has referred to himself in the third person, so did Malala in an interview with Jon Stewart. Julius Caesar wrote a book about himself in the third person. LeBron James talked about himself at a distance in a television interview. When we write resumes or bios in the third person, it can feel more comfortable to do so instead of using the first person. “It’s easier to talk about someone else's accomplishments,” Kross said. “If that’s true, and this is all speculation, that would be the opposite of narcissism motivating a person to do that. It speaks, I think, to the complexity of this phenomenon.”
Orvell thinks that while people can use the third person in different ways, she wouldn’t be surprised if there are underlying commonalities. There is some effort being made to distance the self when Trump tweets his own name and when Jennifer Lawrence, in an interview with The New York Times, starts to get anxious, and says, "Get ahold of yourself, Jennifer."
“Basically, I think it’s complicated,” Kross said. “I don’t think we understand what is motivating the externalized speech. And that makes it really exciting for us because it's something we could study.”
All these various uses of the third person reveals something about psychological distance and emotional regulation in general: They are tools that can be both helpful or unhelpful depending on how and when you use them.
Emotional regulation could be used to avoid difficult emotions rather than face them, as in the case of phobias where people avoid encountering what it is they’re afraid of. It’s what you choose to do after the distancing that matters, and what differentiates adaptive emotional regulation from avoidance. When you achieve that psychological distance, you could run from your emotions. Or, you could dive back into your experience and grapple with those emotions, but from a slightly removed perspective, Kross said.
“When you distance yourself, people are not feeling nothing,” Kross said. “It’s not like we’re turning emotions off. We’re just taking the edge off a little bit. We’re making it easier to confront really powerful negative emotions."
Orvell said that, like most mental health tools, distanced self-talk is not some magical cure for complicated disorders like social anxiety, but just one strategy that people might find helpful. Or not. For some people, talking about yourself in the third person might feel off-putting, and not the approach for them. Perhaps another kind of psychological distancing will be a better fit.
Many cognitive behavioral therapy approaches include methods for distancing, like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Mindfulness is also, at its core, rooted in creating distance between yourself and your thoughts. Ochsner pointed out that a component of Buddhism is increasing the gap between an impulse and an action. “A lot of insight based meditation or practices are about sitting with yourself and observing yourself in the third person," Ochsner said.
Find the distancing method that works best for you: That's the take-home message. At the moment, Kross said would not suggest talking about yourself in the third person out loud, simply because he doesn’t have any evidence about whether it’s helpful, harmful, or benign.
And Orvell said she wouldn’t recommend that people adopt a distanced perspective 24/7, even internally. It’s something to wield during times of intense emotional distress, when that kind of distance is helpful for getting perspective and not letting the emotions take over.
Still there may be times when we need more psychological distance than others. In a study from 2017, Kross, Orvell and their colleagues found that third-person self talk could reduce people’s worries and stress about the Ebola outbreak, and it had the most benefit for those who were the most anxious. This has compelling implications for people who might feel or continue to feel heightened anxiety about the current pandemic.
Besides feeling a little silly, you've really got nothing to lose by trying to talk to yourself in the third person, Nook said. "Whether they're doing it privately to themselves or in the mirror before work or in a journal," Nook said. "All of these are great strategies to try out and see if they work."
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