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Feeling Upset? Try Talking to Yourself in The Third Person

Many of us talk silently to ourselves when we are caught up in stressful or upsetting situations.

In fact, for many of us, this internal dialogue is unceasing, and can play either a supportive or disruptive role in our emotional well-being.

For instance, an inner voice that is supportive and encouraging can make us our own cheerleaders, but when that voice is harsh, judgemental and critical, it can make us feel downright miserable.

Much of the current popularity of mindfulness and meditation focuses on subduing or at the very least softening this inner critic.

But did you know that simply switching to the third person when you talk to yourself may help you control strong or upsetting emotions?

That’s what a leading-edge study out of Michigan is indicating. Psychology researchers from two top Universities there led a study involving two experiments: in the first, participants watching either neutral or disturbing images reacted in both the first and third person. The EEG (electroencephalograph) showed a very quick decrease in emotional brain activity when participants referred to themselves in the third person.

In the second experiment, participants internally reflected on painful past experiences using first and third person language, while researchers measured their brain activity. The participants displayed less activity in key areas of the brain responsible for processing painful emotional experiences when using third-person self-talk, suggesting that they were better able to regulate those emotions.

As an example, Jane might reflect on a recent break-up with the self-talk ‘why is Jane so upset about this?’ instead of the usual first-person ‘why am I so upset about this?’. According to the above studies, Jane will be less emotionally reactive when she uses the more deliberately distancing third-person self-talk. Jason Moser, an associate professor of Psychology at Michigan State University, summed up the studies’ findings:

“Essentially, we think referring to yourself in the third person leads people to think about themselves more similar to how they think about others, and you can see evidence for this in the brain. That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions.”

In the practice of NLP, this type of deliberate distancing is referred to as dissociating or accessing a dissociated state (in NLP dissociation is VERY different than implied by the clinical term) and is a tool used for the purpose of managing difficult emotions and situations, and of changing behaviours and responses. With the more objective view provided by such techniques as NLP dissociation and third-person self-talk, the individual is better able to step outside an otherwise volatile situation or feeling in order to gain some degree of perspective and clarity.

Another interesting point found by the Michigan researchers was that using the third person took no more effort for participants than using the more common first-person, meaning switching to third-person self-talk could be a useful and easily accessible strategy for regulating one’s emotions.

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Feeling Upset? Try Talking to Yourself in The Third Person

Mike Bundrant

Mike Bundrant is the author of Your Achilles Eel: Discover and Overcome the Hidden Cause of Negative Emotions, Bad Decisions and Self-Sabotage and co-founder at The iNLP Center which offers online certification in Neuro-Linguistic Programming and life coaching.

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APA Reference
Bundrant, M. (2017). Feeling Upset? Try Talking to Yourself in The Third Person. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 25, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 Aug 2017
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