It can be so easy to get lost in our own thoughts. Our inner monologue seems to never cease! Our minds are always running, that voice inside our head is always saying something. Getting wrapped up in our thoughts can easily create problems or at the very least can be distressing – especially when our thoughts are unhelpful or unrealistic. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy calls this problem “cognitive fusion”. Becoming so tied to our thoughts that we can’t see any other possibility, can’t seem to shake one particular thought, or don’t even realize that we are thinking and simply accept the words in our heads as truth, it’s as though we become “fused” with the thought. A simple thought of “Nobody likes me” can become so all-consuming and powerful that we really feel inherently unlovable, as long as we give our thoughts this kind of power. Accepting such a hurtful thought, of course, affects our emotions as well. Telling ourselves “Nobody likes me” over and over would make anyone feel down, depressed, and sad. We might not even make the connection between our emotional well-being and which thoughts we are attending to, because it can be that easy to accept our inner monologue as true.
Given the power that unhelpful thoughts can have over our emotions and daily lives, it may be unsurprising that recent research has also illuminated the positive power of helpful self-talk. Researchers Ethan Kross and Jason Moser (2017) looked at their subjects’ brain activity during two stressful situations. They were interested in whether third-person self-talk – silently talking to yourself and addressing yourself using your own name or third-person pronouns – would help calm people after experiencing distressing images or memories. The researchers tested one group of participants by showing them generally aversive images and asking them to reflect on their feelings about the images by using either “I” (first-person self-talk) or their name (third-person self-talk). Participants’ brain activity was measured and the results showed that those who addressed themselves by their first name (for example, “Marsha felt scared when she saw the image of the house fire”) reduced emotional reactivity very quickly without the participant having to exert too much cognitive effort. Similarly, another group of participants were tested while reflecting on personal negative memories. Again, the researchers either asked people to describe their emotional response using “I” or their name, and those who addressed themselves by their name reduced levels of emotional activation in the brain without increasing cognitive control efforts.
So – what do these results tell us, and how can we use them in our everyday lives? Kross and Moser’s research highlights the importance of psychological distance or self-distancing. It seems that by addressing ourselves by our first names, or pronouns such as you, he, she, or they, we can create some distance between ourselves and our experiences that results in noticeable brain activity differences. This can be especially useful during times of distress when we are feeling emotionally aroused.
Christopher Bergland, author and endurance athlete, describes how useful a third-person inner monologue can be during intense physical competitions such an Ultramarathon he ran through Death Valley in 120º F heat:
“Instead of psyching myself out by having a defeatist first person monologue such as: ‘There’s no way I can make it to the finish line. My body is overheating and the soles of my feet are on fire. I can’t take it anymore. I have to stop.’ I would flip the script of my silent inner dialogue and talk to myself…in a bold, third-person coaching voice: ‘You can do this, Chris!! You’ve lived through other painful experiences in your life, you’ll live through this…You have to keep going.’” (Source)
Researchers Kross and Moser propose that by talking to ourselves in this way, we think about ourselves similar to how we think about others, which allows for the psychological distance that helps us gain control over our emotions and experience. However, we don’t have to be professional athletes to need encouragement – anyone can try talking to themselves in the third-person during a difficult situation.
Another study that supports Kross and Moser’s theory that psychological distance helps during times of stress looked at the effects of journaling for adults going through separation in their marriages (Bourassa et al, 2017). One group utilized “expressive writing” – writing freely about strong emotions they were experiencing without any structure; another was given an emotionally neutral journaling exercise; the third group performed “narrative expressive writing” in which they created a clear narrative of their marital separation, including a beginning, middle, and end to their divorce story. Rather than brain activity, cardiovascular stress markers were compared before and after the different styles of journaling. The participants who utilized “narrative expressive writing” showed the greatest decrease in stress markers. Bourassa theorized that when his participants could create their own explanations in a personal but guided way, rather than re-experiencing or spinning around the same emotions, this allowed them to process their feelings in a way that was ultimately healthier. The narrative journaling allowed people to create enough distance between themselves and their experiences where they could calm themselves down without ignoring or numbing themselves to their experience. (Source)
It helps to acknowledge that our thoughts come from many parts within us – some worthy of our attention and others absolutely unworthy of it. Some of the voices are from our past, voices we heard so many times they sound real and true, other messages we swallowed whole without considering whether they really fit for us. Getting lost in all these voices inside our heads can be very distressing. Using tools like third-person self-talk during stressful or difficult times can help create enough psychological distance to calm us down, and then perhaps we can notice which thoughts are useful and deserve attention so that we don’t get lost in our own minds.