Self-talk works


The simple act of talking to yourself by using your own name may help you more easily control difficult or painful emotions. Studies done at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan and published online in Scientific Reports in July have shown that such third-person self-talk may constitute a relatively effortless form of self-control.  

Here’s an example. Robin is feeling angry and hurt after an argument with a former friend. Her ordinary thinking would have involved inchoate feelings that, put into words, would revolve around the pronoun “I”: “I’m so mad at her,” “She was horrible to me,” “I’m feeling sick about what happened,” “I’m going to give her a piece of my mind tomorrow,” and so on. If Robin has trained herself to talk to herself in the third person, however, she might ask, “I see that Robin is very upset. How can I help her understand what happened?” “How can I help her feel better about this?” “What’s my advice to her?” Here, Robin is giving advice to herself as she would a friend. This helps her gain psychological distance from her experience, which can be helpful in regulating emotions.

The researchers, who were funded by the National Institutes of Health and the John Templeton Foundation, carried out two experiments to test the hypothesis that third-person thinking would help with stress. Participants—mainly healthy young men and women—viewed neutral and then disturbing images and reacted to the images in both the first and third person while an electroencephalograph monitored their brain activity. In reacting to a frightening image, their emotional brain activity decreased almost immediately when they referred to themselves in the third person. The researchers found that using the third person was no more effortful than using first-person self-talk in terms of effort-related brain activity.

In the second experiment, participants reflected on painful experiences from their past, using first and third-person languages while their brain activity was measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging. When they used third-person self-talk, their brains showed less activity in a region commonly implicated in reflecting on painful emotional experiences. Again, third-person self-talk required no more effort-related brain activity than using first-person selt-talk. University of Michigan psychology professor Ethan Kross, who directs the Emotion and Self-Control Lab, had this to say: “What’s really exciting here is that the brain data from these two complementary experiments suggest that third-person self-talk may constitute a relatively effortless form of emotional regulation. If this ends up being true—we won’t know until more research is done—there are lots of important implications these findings have for our basic understanding of how self-control works, and for how to help people control their emotions in daily life.” The teams are continuing to explore how third-person self-talk compares to other emotional regulation strategies.

I’ve been trying self-talk since reading about these studies, often silently, as I experience painful emotions. It’s interesting to give yourself soothing and practical advice, and I’ve found I can achieve balance with less despair or upset. Give it a try!  


Sadja Greenwood lives in Bolinas.