A Bird’s Eye View: Using Distancing Language with Negative Memories

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

Aldao, A., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., & Schweizer, S. (2010). Emotion-regulation strategies across psychopathology: A meta-analytic review. Clinical Psychology Review30(2), 217-237.

Arnsten, A. F. (2009). Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience10(6), 410-422.

Beck, A. T. (1970). Cognitive therapy: Nature and relation to behavior therapy. Behavior Therapy, 1(2), 184-200.

Behar, E., Alcaine, O., Zuellig, A. R., & Borkovec, T. D. (2003). Screening for generalized anxiety disorder using the Penn State Worry Questionnaire: A receiver operating characteristic analysis. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry34(1), 25-43.

Bernstein, A., Hadash, Y., Lichtash, Y., Tanay, G., Shepherd, K., & Fresco, D. M. (2015). Decentering and related constructs: A critical review and metacognitive processes model. Perspectives on Psychological Science10(5), 599-617.

Hayes, S. C., Luoma, J. B., Bond, F. W., Masuda, A., & Lillis, J. (2006). Acceptance and commitment therapy: Model, processes and outcomes. Behaviour Research and Therapy44(1), 1-25.

Kroenke, K., & Spitzer, R. L. (2002). The PHQ-9: a new depression diagnostic and severity measure. Psychiatric Annals32(9), 509-515.

Kroenke, K., Spitzer, R. L., & Williams, J. B. (2001). The PHQ‐9: validity of a brief depression severity measure. Journal of General Internal Medicine16(9), 606-613.

Kross, E., Bruehlman-Senecal, E., Park, J., Burson, A., Dougherty, A., Shablack, H., … & Ayduk, O. (2014). Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: how you do it matters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology106(2), 304.

Kross, E., Vickers, B. D., Orvell, A., Gainsburg, I., Moran, T. P., Boyer, M., … & Ayduk, O. (2017). Third‐person self‐talk reduces Ebola worry and risk perception by enhancing rational thinking. Applied Psychology: Health and Well‐Being, 9(3), 387-409.

Meyer, T. J., Miller, M. L., Metzger, R. L., & Borkovec, T. D. (1990). Development and validation of the Penn State Worry Questionnaire. Behaviour Research and Therapy28(6), 487-495.

Nook, E. C., Schleider, J. L., & Somerville, L. H. (2017). A linguistic signature of psychological distancing in emotion regulation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General146(3), 337.

Treynor, W., Gonzalez, R., & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2003). Rumination reconsidered: A psychometric analysis. Cognitive Therapy and Research27(3), 247-259.

Associated reading (also referenced by Orvell et al., 2021)

Buhle, J. T., Silvers, J. A., Wager, T. D., Lopez, R., Onyemekwu, C., Kober, H., … & Ochsner, K. N. (2014). Cognitive reappraisal of emotion: a meta-analysis of human neuroimaging studies. Cerebral Cortex24(11), 2981-2990.

Campbell-Sills, L., Simmons, A. N., Lovero, K. L., Rochlin, A. A., Paulus, M. P., & Stein, M. B. (2011). Functioning of neural systems supporting emotion regulation in anxiety-prone individuals. Neuroimage54(1), 689-696.

Dolcos, S., & Albarracin, D. (2014). The inner speech of behavioral regulation: Intentions and task performance strengthen when you talk to yourself as a You. European Journal of Social Psychology44(6), 636-642.

Erk, S., Mikschl, A., Stier, S., Ciaramidaro, A., Gapp, V., Weber, B., & Walter, H. (2010). Acute and sustained effects of cognitive emotion regulation in major depression. Journal of Neuroscience30(47), 15726-15734.

Johnstone, T., Van Reekum, C. M., Urry, H. L., Kalin, N. H., & Davidson, R. J. (2007). Failure to regulate: counterproductive recruitment of top-down prefrontal-subcortical circuitry in major depression. Journal of Neuroscience27(33), 8877-8884.

Kross, E., & Ayduk, O. (2017). Self-distancing: Theory, research, and current directions. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 55, pp. 81-136). Academic Press.

Moser, J. S., Dougherty, A., Mattson, W. I., Katz, B., Moran, T. P., Guevarra, D., … & Kross, E. (2017). Third-person self-talk facilitates emotion regulation without engaging cognitive control: Converging evidence from ERP and fMRI. Scientific Reports7(1), 1-9.

Moser, J. S., Hartwig, R., Moran, T. P., Jendrusina, A. A., & Kross, E. (2014). Neural markers of positive reappraisal and their associations with trait reappraisal and worry. Journal of Abnormal Psychology123(1), 91.

Nasso, S., Vanderhasselt, M. A., Demeyer, I., & De Raedt, R. (2019). Autonomic regulation in response to stress: The influence of anticipatory emotion regulation strategies and trait rumination. Emotion19(3), 443.

Orvell, A., Ayduk, Ö., Moser, J. S., Gelman, S. A., & Kross, E. (2019). Linguistic shifts: A relatively effortless route to emotion regulation?. Current Directions in Psychological Science28(6), 567-573.

Sheppes, G., Suri, G., & Gross, J. J. (2015). Emotion regulation and psychopathology. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology11, 379-405.

Streamer, L., Seery, M. D., Kondrak, C. L., Lamarche, V. M., & Saltsman, T. L. (2017). Not I, but she: The beneficial effects of self-distancing on challenge/threat cardiovascular responses. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology70, 235-241.

White, R. E., & Carlson, S. M. (2016). What would Batman do? Self‐distancing improves executive function in young children. Developmental Science19(3), 419-426.

White, R. E., Prager, E. O., Schaefer, C., Kross, E., Duckworth, A. L., & Carlson, S. M. (2017). The “Batman Effect”: Improving perseverance in young children. Child Development88(5), 1563-1571.