How We Talk to Ourselves Really DOES Matter

For instance, when psychologist Ethan Kross ran a red light and exclaimed, “Ethan, you idiot!” It was not, “I’m an idiot!” it was “Ethan, you idiot.”

Why did he use his first name!

Since Ethan Kross is, after all, a psychologist, he went on to study the reason. His amazing discoveries are described here, from an article by Pamela Weintraub in the June issue of Psychology Today.

How we talk to ourselves really DOES matter!

Dr. Kross started with the observation that ALL of us talk to ourselves. However, the words we use really DO matter.

When we talk to ourselves with pronouns (“I can do this!”) we’re more likely to get flustered and perform poorly. However, when we talk to ourselves using our given name (“Yes, Steve! You can do this!”), our chances of success can soar!

What the Studies Show: The Pronoun group and the Given-Name group
• Kross asked 89 men and women to give a speech about why they were qualified to land their dream job, with only 5 minutes to prepare. Half were instructed to describe themselves with only pronouns (“I” and “me”), and the other half was instructed to use their given name (“Steve” “Mary” “Bob” “Jane”).

The “pronoun” group wound up anxious and convinced that the task was impossible. However, the “given name’” group felt significantly less anxious and far more confident. (“Hey Mary! You are really qualified for this job!”)

• The acid test was when the above people actually gave their speeches. The “given name” group gave a far better speech (judged by independent evaluators) and engaged in far less negative self-talk when they were done. However, when the “pronoun” group (“I” and “me”) gave their speeches, they felt inadequate, and their negative self-talk was significantly increased.

Jason Moser, a neuroscientist at Michigan State University, showed a photograph to two groups of women as he measured the electrical activity of their brains. One group was “worriers” who were prone to chronic worrying. The other group was “non-worriers” who were psychologically normal.

The photograph showed a masked man holding a knife to a woman’s throat.

First, he instructed both groups of women to talk themselves into seeing something positive from the picture. However, they were to only use pronouns (“I” and “me”) as they talked to themselves.

The results were really interesting: using “I” and “me” while trying to find sometime positive required far more electrical activity from their brains. Why? The “I’s” and “me’s” connected them to their own fears, and those fears became personal, even though they were not.

The same women were then asked to repeat the same self-talk exercise, but this time using their own names. Can you guess the result! The electrical activity in their brains significantly decreased, and the anxiety they felt also went down…a LOT!

In other words, using our given name (“Steve” “Mary” “Bob” “Jane”) is far less stressful to our brain then using “I” and “me.”

It’s not just Pop Psychology
Along with this and other studies, Dr. Kross is forcing a whole new take on a subject that has been labeled “pop psychology.” His research is elevating our self-talk by showing that when we talk to ourselves correctly, our brain really is freed to perform at its absolute best! What pronoun people see as a threat, the given-name people simply see it as a challenge.

In other words, psychologists are now more in agreement that our self-talk CAN boost our confidence in ourselves.

Flipping the Switch

In addition, neuro-physiologists are discovering that when we toggle how we address ourselves, we actually flip a switch in the cerebral cortex (our center of thought) and the amygdala (our seat of fear). It is those switches that either moves us close, or further from, our sense of self, and all the emotional baggage our sense of self can come with. In fact, we are discovering that using our name, rather than “I” gives us a healthy psychological distance from ourselves, and this allows us to think more clearly, and perform more affectively.

Talking to Yourself through a Challenge

So…how can you use this in your everyday life? Let’s look at an example.

Mary is about to interview for a new position, and this is what she is saying to herself.
“Mary(1) , what are you nervous about? It’s not like this is the first interview you’ve ever been on. I know you want this job, but take it easy. Even though you may not get the job, it won’t be the end of the world. You’re capable (2), intelligent, accomplished, and always learning new things. Just do your best, as that’s all you can do. Chill, Mary.”

(1) Mary is distancing herself from the stress of this interview, treating herself as a friend. This cognitive and emotional distance confers wisdom, confidence, and calm.
(2) Mary is also giving herself a few self-affirmations, allowing her to see the interview in the context of her whole being. She will not be devastated if the interview does not work out. There will always be another!