Are you aware of your internal monologue? How familiar are you with the sound of your inner voice? Is it a friendly voice? In the practical part of Willpower Condensed, I wrote:
When you feel like succumbing to temptation, fear, or laziness, ask yourself: What advice would you give to your best friend? (p. 43)
Whenever you engage in mental self-talk, see yourself as a good friend and consider what kind of motivation would benefit your progress. (p. 78)
Do you talk to yourself like a friend when you engage in self-judgment (“I am such an imbecile”), self-doubt (“I cannot do this”), or self-motivation (“I will go tell her she’s cute”)? You can control adverse or useless emotions better if you see them from a friend’s outside perspective.
But how do you talk to a friend anyway? You probably call him by his name. This makes whatever you say next more impactful. Now you, you have a name too, right? What is your name? Tell me, tell yourself, and use it to make your self-talk tremendously effective! This works particularly well for emotion regulation because addressing yourself by your name lets you see your emotions with the rational detachment of a friend.
[T]here is a tight coupling between using proper names, and thinking about others—a coupling that is so tight that we expected using one’s name to refer to the self would virtually automatically lead people to think about the self similarly to how they think about someone else. (Moser et al., 2017)
Personally, I talk to myself in the third person when I use the reappraisal strategy to control my emotions. I do not think, “I won’t get angry at this guy; he’s in a bad place right now, so I shouldn’t take his comment personally.” Instead, I say my name, “Dom, don’t get angry at this guy; he’s in a bad place right now, so Dom, listen, don’t take his comment personally.”
I do the same to resist the temptation to have a cold beer when I am already close to my daily 50-gram carb limit. I could ask myself, “Do I really need carbs and alcohol right now?” But this would invoke subjective feelings. So instead, I use my name, “Dom, do you really need carbs and alcohol right now?” This makes the answer obvious; and I order some herbal tea instead (which typically gets me a surprised smile from the waitress, too).
Yet there is more to self-name-calling than my powerful personal experience. There is science to it! In two studies, Moser et al. (2017) found that third-person self-talk is an effective and relatively effortless form of emotional self-control:
- Study 1. While people were looking at aversive images, they reflected on their emotions using either first-person (“I am feeling X”) or third-person (“[Name] is feeling X”) self-talk. Those who addressed themselves by their name were less emotionally reactive, measured as LPP* using electroencephalography (EEG), than those who used “I” to think about their emotions. At the same time, self-talk did not affect executive control, measured as SPN** using EEG, indicating that participants did not use willpower to control their emotions.
- Study 2. People recalled a painful personal memory using either first-person (“I remember back when I…”) or third-person (“[Name] remembers back when he…”) self-talk. Those who addressed themselves by their name were less emotionally reactive, measured as self-reported affect as well as brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and amygdala*** using functional imaging (fMRI), than those who used “I” to think about their past. At the same time, self-talk did not affect executive control, measured as brain activity in fronto-parietal regions using fMRI, indicating that participants did not use willpower to control their emotions.
These findings suggest that using your name for self-talk during emotional events helps you to control your emotions effortlessly, without having to exert cognitive control, without having to use willpower. Talking to yourself in the third person automatically detaches you a bit psychologically from the situation.
So, next time you want to talk yourself out of an emotional episode and into a state of mindcoolness, be a good friend and call yourself by your name!
* The LPP (late positive potential) is a reliable electrophysiological index of emotional reactivity and closely coupled with subjective ratings (e.g., feeling good vs. bad) as well as physiological markers (e.g., blood-oxygen-level-dependent activity in the amygdala) of arousal.
** The SPN (stimulus-preceding negativity) is a slow negative wave in frontal brain regions and a robust electrophysiological index of cognitive control processes (of willpower if you will).
*** I must note that self-talk did not significantly modulate the amygdala in this study, likely due to its memory-based paradigm for eliciting emotions.
Moser JS, Dougherty A, Mattson WI, Katz B, Moran TP, Guevarra D, Shablack H, Ayduk O, Jonides J, Berman MG, Kross E (2017). Third-person self-talk facilitates emotion regulation without engaging cognitive control: Converging evidence from ERP and fMRI. Scientific Reports 7(4519), doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-04047-3.
- Willpower Condensed: Master Self-Discipline to Do Your True Will
- How Emotions Interact and How to Control Them Effortlessly
- 8 Reasons Why People Regulate Their Emotions
- Is Suppressing Emotions Bad For You? (Jocko Willink Vs. Science)
- To Control Your Emotions, Understand and Label Them (Affect Labeling)
- To Control Your Emotions, Control Your Attention