Whether it’s a job interview gone wrong, a bitter break-up, or an unsettling health scare, it can be uncomfortable to look back on certain negative events from your past—and at worst, it can be deeply distressing and troubling. Fortunately, research in the field of emotion regulation has led to insights on how to navigate these feelings and temper their emotional sting. In particular, a promising technique gaining traction is called ‘distanced self-talk,’ which involves reflecting on a memory using third-person pronouns (for example, your own name; “Why does Erin feel this way?”; Orvell et al., 2021). This method is meant to ‘remove’ you from the situation and consider it from an unbiased perspective, leading you to re-evaluate the emotions you have about a given event (e.g., Kross et al., 2014). In this way, simply changing the language you use to reflect might make you feel better about your experience (e.g., Nook, Schleider, & Somerville, 2017). On the other hand, more effortful methods might be more difficult for a stressed-out brain (e.g., Arnsten, 2009), especially for people with depression and related traits, for example (e.g., Aldao, Nolen-Hoeksema, & Schweizer, 2010). Given this information, distanced self-talk seems encouraging as a tool for regulating your emotions. However, important questions remain: do differences between people (Kross et al., 2014; 2017) or the emotional intensity of the memories involved influence how useful distanced self-talk actually is? These issues are crucial to assess if this technique works for as many people and situations as possible.
A recent study by Ariana Orvell and others (2021) investigated these questions with the cooperation of around 50 participants, who came in for two separate sessions. During the first session, participants filled out three questionnaires: the Patient Health Questionnaire (Kroenke & Spitzer, 2002), the Penn State Worry Questionnaire (Meyer et al., 1990), and part of the Ruminative Response Scale (Treynor, Gonzalez, & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2003). Each person’s scores on these three questionnaires were combined to form a single score describing their general level of emotional vulnerability. Next, participants were asked to recall several specific negative events from their past and come up with a short cue that would help them remember each one (for example, ‘break-up’). The participants were then presented with the cue, reflected on that memory for 30 seconds, and rated how emotionally intense their feelings were about it. These procedures helped 1) identify the memories to be used for each person, and 2) get a baseline rating of how people felt about these memories.
The second session was the crucial piece of the experiment, in which participants completed several rounds of both distancing self-talk (i.e., using third-person pronouns like ‘Erin’) and immersive self-talk (i.e., using first-person pronouns like ‘I’). They attempted both types of self-talk for each memory, in random order. Each round of self-talk lasted for 15 seconds. Finally, after these rounds were completed, the participants, again, rated how emotionally intense their feelings were. Critically, the authors found that using distancing self-talk led to a 12% decrease in negative feelings about their memories (compared to immersive self-talk). Importantly, this effect did not depend on the participants’ original rating of the memory’s emotional intensity (in fact, many memories were very intense), the type of memory, or the differences in how emotionally vulnerable the person was. Additionally, in an exploratory (unplanned) analysis, the authors found that this technique was equally effective for participants who met the cut-offs for clinical anxiety and depression on their questionnaires (Behar et al., 2003; Kroenke, Spitzker, & Williams, 2001). Similar effects were also found for imagining future negative events (as opposed to remembering negative events from the past).
Indeed, this study shows that distancing self-talk appears to be quite an effective tool for reducing negative feelings related to personal experiences across a wide variety of circumstances. By simply using third-person instead of first-person pronouns when reflecting on your memories, you may easily feel a bit better about these events. Although some may argue that distancing yourself away from a first-person perspective pushes you to ‘avoid’ your memories, this method actually still requires you to actively engage with your memory—merely from a different viewpoint. This fits well with existing practices, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (Beck, 1970; Bernstein et al., 2015; Hayes et al., 2006). In truth, with further support from clinical and practical studies, this technique could make its way into existing therapeutics. Distancing self-talk could even become an easy resource for dealing with your own everyday negative feelings about the past. Try it for yourself!
*Orvell, A., Vickers, B. D., Drake, B., Verduyn, P., Ayduk, O., Moser, J., … & Kross, E. (2021). Does distanced self-talk facilitate emotion regulation across a range of emotionally intense experiences?. Clinical Psychological Science, 9(1), 68-78. doi: 10.1177/2167702620951539
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Associated reading (also referenced by Orvell et al., 2021)
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