To Keep Emotions in Check, Talk to Yourself in Third Person

Talking to yourself, especially in the third person, can be a little embarrassing. It's no wonder when you think about the fictional characters who do it: villains like Smeagol from "Lord of the Rings," simpletons like The Incredible Hulk, egomaniacs like "The Simpsons'" Duff Man, and childish figures like "Sesame Street's" Elmo. But it's time to shake off those old stereotypes. According to research, talking to yourself in the third person is great for your mental health.

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For a 2017 study published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports, researchers from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan set out to determine how volunteers' emotions were affected by the way they talked to themselves during negative experiences. In the first experiment, the volunteers looked at a series of negative and neutral images while researchers recorded their brain activity on an electroencephalograph (EEG).

While they looked, half of the volunteers asked themselves, "What am I feeling right now?" The other half asked the same question, but used their own names in the third person — for instance, if The Incredible Hulk was a study participant, he'd say, "What is Hulk feeling right now?" In the second experiment, participants recalled negative past experiences and asked themselves the same questions while researchers watched which areas of their brains were active via an fMRI brain scan.

They found that when people spoke to themselves in the third person, the emotional activity in their brains dropped off much more quickly than the people who analyzed their feelings in the first person. The third-person participants also showed less activity in the area of the brain that's usually on high alert while reflecting on painful memories and used less brainpower overall than the first-person participants. This all adds up to suggest that analyzing your feelings in the third person gives you a better handle on them and keeps them from going to extremes.

A first-of-its-kind study led by researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan indicates that talking to yourself in the third person may constitute a relatively effortless form of self-control.

Man in the Mirror

Feeling better isn't the only benefit to talking to yourself with your own name. Ethan Kross, a co-author on the 2017 study, has also studied what self-talk can do for confidence. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, he described how participants of one study who referred to themselves in the third (or second!) person when preparing for a speech felt calmer and more confident and performed better than those who used the first person. They also felt better about the speech when it was over.

But why? Co-author Jason Moser explains in a press release, "Essentially, we think referring to yourself in the third person leads people to think about themselves more similar to how they think about others, and you can see evidence for this in the brain. That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions." When you need a pep talk, who knows you better than yourself?

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For a deeper dive into your feelings, check out "How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain" by Lisa Feldman Barrett. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer August 17, 2017

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