One night I got caught in a harrowing blizzard in a remote area of the North Carolina Mountains without snow tires or four-wheel drive. I couldn’t stop or pull off the road, and my car was skidding on ice. Clutching the steering wheel, I had to drive another 30 miles straight up steep treacherous mountain curves. At first, I heard my judgment’s reprimands, I hope you’re satisfied, dummy. You’ve done it now. Before the harshness escalated, I was aware that my judgment had tangled up with me like a ball of yarn. I took a deep breath, moved into coaching myself with kindness, Okay Bryan, easy does it. You’ve got this. You’re going to be just fine. Just breathe. That’s right, Bryan, just keep it on the road. Awesome job!
There was a time when people who talked to themselves were considered “crazy.” Now, experts consider self-talk to be one of the most effective therapeutic tools available. Obviously, I made it home safely because I’m here to tell the story. I believe I survived because of the way I spoke to myself. The science of self-talk has shown time and again that how we use self-talk makes a big difference. Negative, survive talk can lead to anxiety and depression. Positive, thrive talk can mitigate dysfunctional mental states and cultivate healthier states of mind.
Research shows silently referring to ourselves by name instead as “I,” gives us psychological distance from the primitive parts of our brain. It allows us to talk to ourselves the way we might speak to someone else. The survive mind’s story isn’t the only story. And the thrive mind has a chance to shed a different light on the scenario. The language of separation allows you to process an internal event as if it happened to someone else. First-name self-talk or referring to yourself as “you,” shifts focus away from your primitive brain’s inherent egocentricism. Studies show this practice lowers anxiety, gives us self-control, cultivates wisdom over time and puts the brakes on the negative voices that restrict possibilities.
University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross conducted research into the value of first-name self-talk as a way to disable social anxiety before and after a stressful event when people often ruminate about their performance. Kross gave 89 participants five minutes to prepare a speech. Half were told to use only pronouns to refer to themselves while the other half were told to use their names. The pronoun group had greater anxiety with such comments as, “There’s no way I can prepare a speech in five minutes,” while the name group had less anxiety and expressed confidence using self-talk such as, “Bryan, you can do this.” The name group was also rated higher in performance by independent evaluators and were less likely to ruminate after the speech. Other studies also show that first-name self-talk is more likely to empower you and increase the likelihood that, compared to someone using first-person pronoun self-talk, you see a challenge (thrive mind) instead of a threat (survive mind).
Like the zoom lens of a camera, Mother Nature hardwired your survival brain for tunnel vision to target a threat. Your heart races, eyes dilate, and breathing escalates to enable you to fight or flee. As your brain zeroes in, your self-talk makes life-or-death judgments that constrict your ability to see possibilities. Your focus is narrow like the zoom lens of a camera, clouding out the big picture. And over time you build blind spots of negativity without realizing it. Self-talk through your wide-angle lens allows you to step back from a challenge, look at the big picture, and brainstorm a wide range of possibilities, solutions, opportunities and choices.
In a study conducted by Dr. Barbara Frederickson at the University of North Carolina, researchers assigned 104 people to one of three groups: Group 1 experienced positive feelings (amusement or serenity), Group 2 negative feelings (anger or fear), and Group 3 no special feelings (neutrality). Then the researchers said, “Given how you’re feeling, make a list of what you want to do right now.” The positive group had the longest list of possibilities compared to the negative and neutral groups because the positive perspective showcased a range of possibilities. You have agency to broaden and build your survival brain’s constrictive “zoom lens” into a “wide-angle lens,” creating a perspective that broadens your range of vision to take in more information and free you from your mind’s limitations.
During the 1990s, comedians mocked the notion of self-affirmations with tongue-in-cheek phrases such as, “I’m smart enough” or “I’m good enough.” Al Franken created and performed the fictional character Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live in a mock self-help show called Daily Affirmations—a psychotherapist’s nightmare. Years since, otherwise willing clients have steered away from the off-putting idea of self-kindness and positive affirmations. The comedic antics of the 1990s stigmatized the practice with shame and embarrassment, which led the public to disavow the practice.
In 2014, enter Clayton Critcher and David Dunning at the University of California at Berkeley. The psychologists conducted a series of studies showing that positive affirmations function as “cognitive expanders,” bringing a wider perspective to diffuse the brain’s tunnel vision of self-threats. Their findings show that affirmations help us transcend the zoom-lens mode by engaging the wide-angle lens of the mind. Self-affirmations helped research participants cultivate a long-distance relationship with their judgment voice and see themselves more fully in a broader self-view, bolstering their self-worth.
Relationships With Your ‘Parts’
When you notice you’re in an unpleasant emotional state—such as worry, anger, or frustration—holding these parts of you at arm’s length and observing them impartially as a separate aspect of you, activates your thrive talk (clarity, compassion, calm). Thinking of them much as you might observe a blemish on your hand allows you to be curious about where they came from. Instead of pushing away, ignoring, or steamrolling over the unpleasant parts, the key is to acknowledge them with something like, “Hello frustration, I see you’re active today.” This simple acknowledgment relaxes the parts so you can face the real hardship—whatever triggered them in the first place. This psychological distance flips the switches in your survive brain and thrive brain at which point you are calm, clear-minded, compassionate, perform competently, and have more confidence and courage.
There is a direct link between self-compassion and happiness, well-being, and success. The more self-compassion you have, the greater your emotional arsenal. Studies from the University of Wisconsin show that meditation cultivates compassion and kindness, affecting brain regions that make you more empathetic to other people. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers discovered that positive emotions such as loving-kindness and compassion can be developed in the same way as playing a musical instrument or being proficient in a sport. The imaging revealed that brain circuits used to detect emotions were dramatically changed in subjects who had extensive practice in compassion meditation.
Other studies show that the expression of empathy has far-reaching effects in your personal and professional lives. Employers who express empathy are more likely to retain employees, amp up productivity, reduce turnover, and create a sense of belonging in the company. If you cultivate the habit of speaking with loving-kindness, you change the way your brain fires in the moment. Studies show when abrasive, survive self-talk attacks you, it reduces your chances of rebounding and ultimately success. Instead of coming down hard on yourself, loving-kindness helps you bounce back quicker. Forgiving yourself for previous slip-ups such as procrastination, for example, offsets further procrastination. A survey of 119 Carleton University students who forgave themselves after procrastinating on the first midterm exam were less likely to delay studying for the second one.
When we talk ourselves off the ledge (as I did in the snowstorm) using self-distancing, compassion, and positive self-talk, we perform better at tasks and recover more quickly from defeat or setbacks—regardless of how dire the circumstances.
Critcher, C. R., & Dunning, D. (2015). Self-affirmations provide a broader perspective on self-threat. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(1), 3–18.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Discover the upward spiral that will change your life. New York: Crown.
Kross, E. (2014). Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: How you do it matters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106 304-324.