science of us

To De-stress, Try Talking About Yourself in the Third Person

Photo: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

I began talking about myself in the third person earlier this year, when I was going through the initial stages of a divorce. While I’m certain many divorces have been uglier and more stressful, mine was bad enough. And I found myself paralyzed by the anxiety of it, to the point where I ended up taking a day off to think because I was too distracted to work.

It was on that day, walking on the beach to clear my head, I realized that if I was going to get through it, I was going to have to imagine myself as someone else. 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.

Scoff all you want, but research backs me up. According to a study recently published in the journal Scientific Reports, talking about yourself as if you’re someone else is a relatively effortless way to quell strong negative emotions like stress and anxiety. And the technique, which is ignored by most conventional talk therapy, holds promise for people who find themselves battling waves of intense, unwanted thoughts and feelings.

Study co-author Jason Moser, an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State, says it’s exactly the same technique that scientists like him have been investigating for the past five years. It’s fairly simple to do: When emotional thoughts, feelings, and behaviors come up, just drop “I” and use “you,” he,” or “she,” instead.

This language tweak, Moser explains, helps people get something called psychological distance: “By using your own name, and possibly also second-person pronouns, it creates this little separation from the self. It makes you think about your feelings and thoughts like you’re looking at somebody else’s experience,” he says.

Moser also points out that many people are already using this technique, though it’s often misunderstood. Basketball legend LeBron James, for example, has been called out as an egoist for referring to himself in the third person, most memorably when James announced he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in 2010. “One thing that I didn’t want to do was make an emotional decision,” James replied when asked about Cavaliers fans’ angry reaction to the move. “And, you know, I wanted to do what was best for LeBron James and what LeBron James was going to do to make him happy.” Taken in context, his third-person talk may have also belied the star’s efforts to control his emotions in a charged situation.

And other public figures have used the technique without the same backlash. In an interview with Jon Stewart, for instance, Nobel Prize winner and human-rights activist Malala Yousafzai spoke about the moment she learned her name was on a Taliban hit list. She was afraid, but ruminated on how she’d respond if she encountered one of their militants: “I said, ‘If he comes, what would you do, Malala?’ … Then I would reply [to] myself, ‘Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.’”

But the evidence for this kind of self-talk isn’t just anecdotal. In their newest study, Moser and his colleagues ran two different experiments that measured what happens in the brain when people talk to themselves in the first person (using “me” or “I”) compared to when they use other pronouns or their own name.

In the first experiment, which focused on in-the-moment stressful stimuli, participants viewed stock photos and videos from violent, upsetting news stories or films. Afterward, they were asked to silently reflect on what they saw, first using “I” to work through their feelings (“I was scared”) and then using third-person pronouns (“Jason was scared”). When people used their own name in self-talk, the researchers found, the areas of the brain linked to emotions showed much less activity than when they used the first person. “They were experiencing less of an intense emotional reaction … (and) less negative emotion in the moment,” Moser said.

In the second study, which focused more on emotionally charged memories, the researchers asked participants to talk about an emotional event in their life, half the time recalling it in a straightforward way (“I got in a fight”) and the other half of the time positioning the event as part of a third-person narrative featuring their own name (“Jason got in a fight”). In a result similar to the previous experiment, Moser said, “We found that we saw reductions in the self-referential, emotional brain regions — the ones that light up when you experience an emotion that is relevant to you.”

Moser, who’s also a clinical psychologist and has worked with veterans suffering from PTSD, said he’s most excited to see the third-person technique incorporated into conventional therapy. He believes it could enhance traditional methods like cognitive-behavioral therapy that ask people to face their fears by recalling a traumatic event and reinterpreting what happened. Those methods, Moser noted, are often psychologically taxing; third-person self-talk can be an easier way to reach the same result.

“All of those other methods involve difficult tasks of interpretation,” he said.  “(This) is something that’s easy and could be just as effective, [and] could provide the distance necessary to face the anxiety more effectively, with more distance and perspective.” I can relate to that: Breena Kerr, in case you were wondering, is doing a lot better than she was a few months ago.

To De-stress, Try Talking About Yourself in the Third Person