Increasing Emotional Regulation with 3rd Person Self-Talk

Most of us have heard of the cliché, and maybe even felt as if, “I can give great advice to others, but I can’t seem to take my own.” Ever wondered why that is? While this may be no surprise to some, it is related to the way we speak and think to ourselves. 

Recently, there has been a lot of research that has been done related to using narrative speech versus third-person speech. When most of us speak and think we tend to use a narrative form. We often use phrases such as “I’m going to do this,” “my feelings were hurt,” “That wasn’t fair to me,” etc. When you are utilizing pronouns such as “I, me, and my” research has shown that this can increase emotional distress and lead to unhelpful thinking patterns. If you’ve ever caught yourself in a state of spiraled thinking: “I can’t do this, I am so uncomfortable, this really doesn’t feel right to me, etc” it can be difficult to find a way out of this. One reason it can be so difficult to get out of downward-spiraled thinking, it is because it is difficult to get out of an ego-centric thinking pattern that will continue to increase your emotional response, for some, even activating your fight-flight-freeze response. Once here, it can feel as if there is nothing to do except ride the wave of emotion. While this is sometimes true, one effective way that has been proven to reduce your emotional dysregulation and increase your overall relationship with yourself is by using 3rd person also known as distanced, self-talk

Much research has shown whether verbally, silently to yourself, or with writing, you can increase your emotional regulation to any event by speaking in 3rd person. Researchers at Michigan State University, Ethan Kross and Jason Moser, conducted studies observing individuals using silent 3rd person self-talk with EEGs and MRIs, showing that when individuals used 3rd person self-talk to describe distressing situations, their emotional reactions were lesser than when they used narrative self-talk. Kross and Moser describe the use of 3rd person self-talk as “an effortless emotion regulation strategy” as evidenced by the neurological responses reflected by participants.  Some of these strategies have even been studied with survivors of traumatic events, and their studies also showed that there was less activation by the fight-flight-freeze response (your amygdala). What this means is that through the use of 3rd person self-talk, a person is able to create cognitive distance within themselves to increase not only their emotion regulation but their abilities to navigate life with increased ease and provide a more neutral, for those in DBT – WiseMind, view on their experiences. Additionally, this research has reflected that there is an increase in cognitive reappraisal. Cognitive reappraisal is a fancy clinical term we use to describe an attempt to reinterpret an emotion-inducing situation to have it change its meaning, which ultimately changes the emotional impact the situation has on you. Other research has shown that by using 3rd person self-talk, you can also increase your wisdom and humbleness. 

All of this sounds great, right? Who wouldn’t want to feel like they are able to break free of their thoughts, decrease their emotional responses, and increase their wisdom? The question is how do we do this? Instead of using I, me, & my, start using your name!  Here’s an example for you:

Situation: You have to give a 10-minute speech in front of 1000 people about a topic that you’ve researched/studied for 1 month and you have been preparing for 1 week. The speech is tomorrow.

Narrative form: “I am so nervous. There’s going to be so many people there. What if I mess up? What if I stumble? I have so much to say, but what if I talk to fast and I don’t meet the time requirement?” 

3rd Person/Self-Distanced form: “Alyssa (use your name) is nervous. She knows there will be 1000 people there. She could mess up, but she’s been studying for a whole month. 10 minutes can go by quickly, she has a lot of information, but with all the practice and research she’s done, she can do this. She has practiced multiple times and made the time requirement.” 

As stated before, you can implement this strategy by speaking it out loud, silently speaking to yourself this way, or by writing. If you plan to utilize this strategy consistently, I invite you to start using it in smaller situations to build up your familiarity with it, as it is a different method and takes practice! 

Alyssa Eichhorn (she/her), M.A., LPCC, is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor that specializes in dialectical behavior therapy. Alyssa works with all ages in a radically genuine and nonjudgmental setting to help individuals identify more effective and balanced behaviors to create a life worth living. Alyssa provides a directive and warm approach with her clients to facilitate solutions, growth, and change where they want it.

Click Here to learn more about Alyssa’s experience and therapeutic style.