In a Seinfeld episode titled "The Jimmy," the character of George finds himself in a stressful situation and starts speaking in the third person: "George is getting upset!" He might have been on to something.
Researchers from the University of Michigan explored how we use self-talk to help us perform better under stress. Participants were told they would have to give a speech on why they are qualified for their "dream" job before a panel of expert interviewers and that their performances would also be videotaped. Then, just to make sure the participants were as stressed out as possible, they were given only five minutes to prepare, during which they were not allowed to take notes.
Participants were then divided into two groups. Both groups were told that people tend to prepare themselves psychologically before stressful tasks and to reflect on how they are feeling. One group of participants was instructed to use first person pronouns when preparing themselves (e.g., "I feel nervous") and the other group was told to use second- and third-person pronouns when preparing themselves (e.g., "You feel nervous" or "[First Name] feels nervous").
The results were quite impressive. Participants in the second group performed significantly better at the speaking task than participants in the first group according to objective raters. Participants using second- and third-person pronouns also displayed less emotional distress before the task, and they felt less feelings of shame, and engaged in less damaging self-critical thinking afterwards.
Why would a simple difference in pronoun use have such a powerful impact on people's ability to perform well and to manage stress?
Switching from first-person pronouns to second- and third-person pronouns is a way of creating psychological distance from a stress-inducing task (by thinking of the 'self' as 'other'). The more psychological distance we have from an anxiety-producing or stressful event, the better able we are to manage any distressing feelings we have and to reduce their impact on our behavior.
Psychological distancing is a simple but powerful mind trick we can use before, during and after stressful events and tasks. Using second- and third-person pronouns in our self-talk before such events will help us better manage our anxieties so we can be more focused on our preparation. It will also help maximize our performance during the stressful task itself, and it will help us manage our emotional responses in the aftermath (especially in the event our performance of the task was less successful than we might have liked).
Using second- and third-person pronouns takes a little getting used to but it is worth the effort, whether the task is one that creates significant stress (such as public speaking) or mild stress (such as writing an blog for The Huffington Post).
Guy really hopes you liked this article.