The wonderful perks of talking to yourself in the third person

As annoying as it may be, talking to ourselves in the third person may actually help us better manage our thoughts, emotions, and actions in heated situations – ultimately leading to a stronger overall performance.

Let’s take a look at the why and how.

Self-distancing

Research suggests that a psychological strategy called “self-distancing” can aide us in better controlling our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. From boosting our self-control in times of temptation to helping us reflect on harsh past experiences without getting thrown into a downward spiral of negative thinking, the ability to step back from ourselves a little can be a highly useful psychological skill.

Wanting to find out more about this strange phenomenon, researchers from the University of Michigan, Michigan State, and UC Berkeley joined forces in a series of seven studies to understand just how much of an impact self-talk could have on our ability to deal with heated situations.

The mental approach contrast

A number of 89 graduate students took part in this study and were asked to give a speech on “why they are qualified for their ‘dream’ job.” They were given only a few minutes to prepare and no note-taking was allowed.

After being given 5 minutes to prepare their speech, they were given a few more minutes to mentally prepare with one of two sets of instructions:

The first group was asked to make an analysis on how they were feeling about their upcoming speech from a first-person perspective using “I” and “my” pronouns.

The group with the non-first-person perspective was asked to analyze their feelings about the upcoming speech by only using “you,” “he or” she,” pronouns and their own name as much as possible. For instance, “Why does Jessie feel this way? What caused Jessie to feel this way?”

After completing this task, they were escorted to a room where the judges were waiting to hear their speech.

Right after the speech, they were assessed for their levels of pride and shame, as well as for a more generalized mood.

They were then left in solitude for 5 minutes so the experimenters could see what participants would be thinking about when left alone right after their speech. After the 5 minutes passed, the participants were given a writing exercise and rumination assessment designed to measure how much self-criticism and speech rehearsing they engaged in.

Feeling better

The speeches were videotaped and two coders rated the recordings in three areas – nervousness, confidence, and general performance. Overall, the non-first person participants performed better than the first-person participants.

The participants were additionally asked to take mood assessments before and after their speeches. While the first-person group felt significantly worse after their speech, the other participants’ moods remained normal. Unsurprisingly, the non-first person folks even felt slightly more positive after their speech than they did before, while also reporting feeling less ashamed than the first-person group.

The third-person people also engaged in less thinking about how bad things went, and how awful it feels after their performance.

This only shows that the practice of reflecting on your own thoughts and feelings from a third-person perspective may also be helpful in other vital areas of life, such as job interviews, dating, and other situations where a strong first impression is key.

Additionally, the researchers also observed how nervous the participants looked, and how well they performed in a stressful situation – specifically, being asked to make a favorable first impression on an opposite-sex stranger. 

Here also, the people who spent 3 minutes reflecting on their feelings and thoughts before talking with the stranger using third-person language performed better in the situation than those who did not.

Taking Action

As a whole, the studies discovered that talking to yourself using your own name, or “you” and “he/she” pronouns in contrast to “I” or “me,” results in better performances, reduced levels of anxiety, and less negativity, shame, and rumination later on.

Below are two samples of how participants described what they were thinking and reflecting on.

First-person self-talk

“I am afraid that I won’t get a job if I mess up during an interview. And I always mess up in some way. I never know what to say, and I am always incredibly nervous. I end up in a feedback loop of nervousness causing bad interviews causing nervousness. Even if I got a job, I think I would still be afraid of interviews.”

Non-first-person self-talk

“You worry too much about what other people think. You need to focus on what needs to be done, and what you can do to execute it. The simple fact that other people will be around does [not] change what you need to do. Focus on you, and you will be fine.”

While this may sound a bit strange, the studies provide convincing evidence that this linguistic tweak could give an edge to all of us, in the moments prior to, during, and after high-pressure performance situations.

As long as we keep it to ourselves and don’t annoy the people around us, of course.

Have you tried talking to your self in the third-person before? How did it make you feel afterward? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section below. 

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