Self Talk and Your Given Name

You may have heard before about the value of talking to yourself. It’s a way to work through feelings, redirect thoughts and find your center. I recently discovered a small but telling twist on this classic self regulation technique, and that is to use your given name when you talk to yourself. Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan Emotion and Self Control Laboratory has done a series of experiments that show how the brain responds more positively to self talk when we use our name. To be clear about what I mean, I’ll give you an example of something I might say to myself entering into a social situation, let’s say a party at the home of a new friend where I’m going to meet a bunch of people I don’t know. Like many people, those kinds of situations make me a little anxious. Okay, sometimes a lot anxious. If I were to use this new technique, I might say to myself, “Sara, just remember, no one is going to be watching you like a hawk to see if you say something embarrassing. Other people are a little nervous meeting someone new." Or, "Sara, you know if you just do a little preparation, just review a couple of normal conversation starters in your mind before you go, you’ll be a lot more comfortable." And, "Sara, just remember to be curious about the people you’re talking to. If you’re focused on being curious, you’ll be a lot less focused on whether you look or sound nervous.”

 

Now, I could say the same things to myself without this awkward, pompous sounding third person angle. I sure would feel a lot less silly! But it turns out that once we start using our own name, even in the privacy of our own minds, we switch to a more objective, less emotional stance. The easiest way to understand this is to think about how you can give a friend excellent advice that you might have trouble giving, or following, yourself. When it’s not about you, you see more clearly, you’re less swept away by emotion, and you can see more options.

 

It turns out this isn’t just a nice idea. Kross and Jason Moser at Michigan State University used functional MRIs of the brain to look at what happens on a neurological level when we make the switch to using our given names in self talk. It turns out that our brain lights up just like it does when we’re talking to a friend. Sure, we know on an intellectual level that we’re not talking to a friend, but apparently, our brain doesn’t make that distinction. You used a name, so you must be talking to someone else. Think of the millions of times in the course of our lives we’ve used someone else’s name in conversation. When you consider how repetition makes patterns in the brain stronger, then we’ve all got a lifetime of wiring that insists that once we’re using that name, we’re talking to someone else. This is basically a sweet neurological loophole that we can use to our benefit. So go ahead and embrace your inner megalomaniac and refer to yourself in the third person when you do your self talk and see what kind of difference it can make.