Talking to yourself helps you establish greater self-control

There is a moment in The Matrix when Trinity, on the run from an indestructible Agent makes an impossible jump, and ends up slightly banged up, on her back and in fear for her life.

In that stressful moment she talks to herself in the third person:

What may seem like a little bit of dramatization in a piece of fiction designed to heighten the suspense when, clearly, nothing else is happening, is actually a ‘secret’ piece of mental re-programming special forces operatives, snipers and elite athletes have known for some time.

In psychology this is called self-distancing effect and it acts like a piece of neurolinguistic code that reframes the perception of the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Change Perspective, Reduce Stress

When we are in a stressful situation language and, in particular, self-talk act as a regulatory mechanism. When we use “I” as in “I must do this job now” or “I have a difficult decision to make” the first-person narrative allows all the technical limitations we are intimately aware of, to rise to the surface.

The “I” contemplating the job that must be done is painfully aware of fatigue, pressure, inadequate resources, possibilities of failure, past failures and the perception of others that expect less than success. The “I” that has a difficult decision to make is already aware of the burden of consequences, the inadequacy of information, the likelihood of making a mistake, the potentially painful repercussions inherent in every choice made.

Paradoxically, as a University of Michigan study discovered Trinity was right all along. A pep-talk in the third person, delivered at the right moment and in the right manner, has the ability to reframe the perspective of the brain, allowing it to focus on an entirely different set of issues.

Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism is something that those who undergo intense mental and physical stress use to overcome their personal limits and perform at a higher level than what might otherwise have been possible.

The mechanism that makes this possible shows that self-immersion leads to increased activity in emotional, autobiographical memory recall, and self-reflecting neural networks in the brain such as the medial prefrontal cortex, and brodmann area 10. Both of these are areas that recent research has shown to be active in memory recall and executive function which suggests that they play a critical role in executive decision making.

The reframing that is made possible through this linguistic ploy allows the person to experience himself in a different perspective within the context of their situation and re-asses their perspective of what is possible and what is not.

The distancing effect then delivers a number of very tangible, direct benefits:

  • Reduced stress
  • Better executive function
  • A healthier sense of self
  • Better introspection afterwards
  • Reduced likelihood of depression
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • A greater sense of wellbeing, overall

All because you suddenly changed point of view and reframed a situation.

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