If done strategically, research says talking to yourself can lower stress and boost achievement.
Many of us use self-talk to motivate ourselves or to manage our nerves before stressful situations such as job interviews, first dates, or giving presentations at work. Scientists at the University of Michigan examined these internal dialogues and found that how we use self-talk determines its psychological usefulness.
In a series of studies, they gave participants a task many of us would find stressful—to deliver a five-minute talk about why they are qualified for their “dream job.” To make things even more stressful, participants were told that they would be giving their talk to a panel of expert interviewers and that they would be videotaped while doing it. And to make sure the poor participants were indeed totallystressed out, they were given only five minutes to prepare—during which time they were not allowed to take notes.
The participants had been divided into two groups. Both were told that people tend to use self-talk to prepare themselves psychologically for stressful situations and to reflect on how they’re feeling. But the first group was instructed to use first-person pronouns when preparing themselves (I feel super stressed and anxious) while the second was asked to use second- and third-person pronouns (You feel super stressed and anxious, or Bill feels super stressed and anxious).
The researchers then examined how successful participants were in delivering their talks, using ratings by objective judges; how distressed participants felt before and after the task; and how participants assessed potential future anxiety-provoking situations.
They found that participants who used second- and third-person pronouns performed the task significantly better than those who used first-person pronouns. Pronoun use also impacted how the participants managed their emotions. Those using second- and third-person pronouns were less emotionally distressed both before and after the task than those who used first-person pronouns—and they appraised future anxiety-provoking situations as more challenging than threatening.
By using second- and third-person pronouns as opposed to first-person pronouns, the participants created psychological distance, removing themselves from the stressful situation by referring to their self as an “other,” a technique used in several psychological therapies such as Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP) and NLP. Creating psychological distance from an anxiety-producing or stressful event allows us to manage our anxiety and distressing feelings more efficiently, and to reduce the detrimental impact of such feelings on our behavior.
I describe a similar technique in this article in this article about managing emotional pain, which is based on the work of the same researchers. However, this series of studies demonstrates its application to something we all do before stressful and distressing events—self-talk.
Editing our internal monologues does take some getting used to, but when we face tasks or events that are especially anxiety-provoking, using second- and third-person pronouns could give us an edge.
Guy Winch, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, keynote speaker, and author whose books have already been translated into thirteen languages. His most recent book is Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013). The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem (Walker & Company) was published in January 2011.
Dr. Winch received his doctorate in clinical psychology from New York University in 1991 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in family and couples therapy at NYU Medical Center. He has been working with individuals, couples and families in his private practice in Manhattan, since 1992. He is a member of the American Psychological Association.
In addition to the Blog on this site, Dr. Winch also writes the popular Squeaky Wheel Blog on Psychology Today.com, and blogs for Huffington Post.