There was a time when people who talked to themselves were considered “crazy.” Not anymore. Now, experts consider self-talk to be one of the most effective tools available to regulate our emotions. But you have to do it in a specific way for it to be a skill that works when you’re bludgeoned with work stress. Your boss looks at you over her glasses during a meeting. Your mind makes the judgment that you’re in hot water. Its focus narrows like the zoom lens of a camera, clouding out the big picture, triggering your fight-or-flight response and targeting the look as 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. And over time you build blind spots of negativity without realizing it.
Zoom Out With A Wide-Angle Lens
A certain kind of self-talk allows you to zoom out and look through your wide-angle lens, step back from a challenge, look at the big picture, and brainstorm a wide range of possibilities, solutions, opportunities and choices. Research shows silently referring to ourselves by name instead as “I,” gives us psychological distance from the emotional parts of our brain. It allows us to talk to ourselves the way we might speak to a friend and process an internal event as if it happened to someone else. So, instead of getting immersed into the story, your objective perspective has a chance to shed a different light on the story. Third party self-talk or referring to yourself by your first-name self-talk shifts focus away from your emotional brain’s inherent egocentricism to your objective rational brain.
Studies show this practice can lower work pressure, gives us self-control and cultivate wisdom over time. Plus, it puts the brakes on the negative voices in your head 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 (rational response) instead of a threat (emotional reaction).
One night I was 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 thirty 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!
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.
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 an enlarged 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.
A coworker constantly talks over you during a Zoom meeting. When you notice you’re in an unpleasant emotional state—such as worry, anger, or frustration—hold these parts of you at arm’s length and observe them impartially as you might inspect a blemish on your hand. This zoom-out enlarges your perspective and allows you to be curious instead of pushing away, ignoring, or steamrolling over the emotions. The key is to silently acknowledge them with something like, “Hello frustration, I see you’re active today.” This simple acknowledgment relaxes the emotions so you can face the real hardship—what triggered them in the first place. This psychological distance flips the switches in your rational brain at which point you are calm, clear-minded, compassionate, perform competently and have more confidence and courage.
Self-Compassion Mitigates Work Stress
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 our 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 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.
So don’t let anyone tell you that you’re crazy. When we talk ourselves off the ledge during challenging work tasks using self-distancing, compassion and positive self-talk, we perform better and recover quicker from setbacks—regardless of how dire the circumstances.