Want to Keep Your Emotions From Getting the Best of You? Think Like Elmo
Elmo is on to something. The fuzzy red Muppet consistently refers to himself in the third person, a verbal tic that can—for those of us that aren't Muppets—come off as narcissistic, delusional, or just weird. While you may not want to start ditching the "I" in conversation just yet, it turns out there's a pretty compelling case for talking about yourself in the third person in your head.
Thinking about yourself in the third person can help you regulate your emotions, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University in the journal Scientific Reports. It turns out, when you—let's call you Michael—think something like "Michael is really stressed out about work" instead of "I'm really stressed out about work," you place some emotional distance between you and the situation.
In the study, the researchers asked 29 students to look at both upsetting and neutral images (from a standardized set used in other psychology research) and think about their reactions in the first and third person. Their mental reactions were captured by EEG caps. In a second test, 50 people at the University of Michigan were asked to write down eight upsetting memories, then come up with cue words to help trigger those memories later while undergoing an fMRI scan. During the scan, they were instructed to think about these memories in either the first person or while calling themselves by their own name.
When viewing the negative images, participants thinking about themselves in the third person showed a quicker recovery in their brain activity related to emotional reactions—in other words, they went from feeling disturbed to feeling more normal in a shorter amount of time. (Less than one second, in fact.) In the second trial with the fMRI scans, people who thought about their bad memories in the third person showed less activity in areas of the brain associated with processing self-reflection.
It's not a terribly new idea. In therapy, psychologists will often ask you to imagine how you would advise a friend if they were in your situation, since we tend to be harder on ourselves than on others. The third-person technique is also similar to an established meditation technique called the "observing mind" (as opposed to the "thinking mind") in which you try to view your thoughts from a distance, observing how they come and go in a detached, neutral way. That third-person talk can help get you out of your head, so to speak.
In these trials, thinking about negative experiences in the third person didn't take any more cognitive effort than using first person. The researchers note that "that third-person self-talk may constitute a relatively effortless form of self-control." And who doesn't want that?
Not to mention the fact that you'll be joining the ranks of the many famous illeists, an illustrious group that includes Salvador Dalí, Julius Caesar, and George Costanza.