"You've got this!": How "You Statements" enhance self-regulation

Jed Applerouth, PhD
October 21, 2014
min read
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Life is a giant game of self-regulation. If you can get a hold of yourself, you’ll have a better life. According to the great master Rumi, “The sun became full of light when it got hold of itself.” As we all know, self-management is one of our primary life-tasks, and it’s not always easy. How many of us have struggled in our efforts to stick to a goal, manage anxiety, overcome an addiction, or change an unhealthy behavior? Though we are wise to recruit the support of others, each one of the aforementioned tasks is primarily an inside job. Walter Mischel’s classic “Marshmallow test” conducted at Stanford in the late 60’s and 70’s and the longitudinal studies that followed reveal that basic self-regulatory skills have profound and enduring effects on the quality of one’s life.

For those of us attempting to better regulate our emotions and behaviors, there is good news emerging from the psychology departments of the University of Michigan and UC Berkeley. Ethan Kross, lead researcher at University of Michigan’s Self-Control and Emotion Laboratory, has been studying how changes in our self-talk, our inner dialogue, affect our ability to regulate emotions and behaviors. Earlier in the year, Kross and colleagues published their findings in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology. Their research reveals that shifting our internal dialogue from first to third person, i.e., shifting from statements such as “I’ve got this, I can do it” to statements such as, “Jennifer, You’ve got this, You can do it,” have profound behavioral, emotional and self-regulatory effects.

In the domain of academics, self-regulation is fundamental for success. We need self-regulatory skills and perseverance to complete challenging academic tasks, and we especially need self-regulation when it comes to optimizing our performance on quizzes, tests, and high-stakes assessments. In a high-stress condition, students who are able to stay focused, centered, and engaged with a given task attain their best outcomes.

We’ve known for years that self-talk is a major component of self-regulation. One of the fathers of cognitive psychology, Aaron Beck, focused on psychological distancing through internal dialogue as a regulatory strategy. Our inner dialogue – what we are telling ourselves as we are anticipating challenges and engaging in them – greatly affects our performance and our peace of mind. But why would a shift from I-centered self-talk to You-centered self-talk affect our success at self-regulation?

When confusion, stress, or anxiety sets in, establishing some distance from your thoughts and feelings—rising above the fray and viewing yourself and the situation from a more objective, outside perspective— can be a powerful regulatory technique.

One of my teachers, Jungian analyst Robert Moore, has written at length about the centering power of focusing beyond the self as a means of regulating energies, thoughts, and behaviors. Moore advocates invoking a higher, more centered version of the self—an inner wisdom figure (i.e. archetype)—able to guide you through challenges. By dialoguing with that grounded, centered aspect of self, an individual will receive an abundance of “you” statements. Those of you who have tried this type of dialogue may have experienced the calming effect of perspective shifting, of rising above your typical inner dialogue.

Clearly something is shifting internally when we invoke “the other” within. Making this meta-cognitive move from our smaller selves to an elevated perspective is most likely shifting our neural activation patterns and neurochemistry. FMRI research will give us more clues to understand what’s taking place internally as we engage this interior-centering function.

In the domain of education, for years we’ve been telling students to find their inner-coach as they take a test. Pay no heed to the fear-mongering anxiety-monster. Focus instead on the encouraging voice of the nurturing inner-coach: You can do this; you’ve got this, you’re half-way there; don’t worry, it’s only one problem; Josh, keep focused, you’re on track.” These inner statements are invaluable. If any of you are “good test-takers” or are great under pressure in other domains, you may notice that you too are giving yourself lots of internal support with your self-talk.

I statements are less effective than these you statements since they emanate from the very locus of doubt. The ego is suffering from doubt or stress, and trying to pull oneself up psychologically by one’s own bootstraps is not as effective as imaging an outside entity devoid of doubt. The surest way to transcend the ego and establish enough psychological distance and perspective is to shift pronouns and leave the land of I.

But is the shift from I to you really enough to change your perspective? Kross and colleagues hypothesized that typically we reserve first names and the pronoun “you” for our discussions with others; when we use those pronouns, we enter the mindset of talking to another from an outside perspective, cuing activation in different regions of the brain.

In the course of their research, Kross and his team conducted six distinct experiments to explore a variety of effects from shifting from I to non-first person pronouns. Their findings were compelling. When you leave the land of I, you enter a whole new realm of self-regulation. Participants using non-first person pronouns in their inner dialogue saw marked decreases in anxiety and enhanced performance on self-regulatory tasks. When these participants were put into a high-stress condition, in this case giving a public speech that was to be externally evaluated, those using non-first person pronouns performed better on the task, experienced greater confidence, felt less nervousness, and realized better self-regulation. Following the stressed condition, those in the non-first person group experienced less post-event rumination, shame, and anxiety. Moreover those who used non-first-person pronouns and their own name during introspection came to perceive the task as a challenge rather than as a threat; this has major implications for future anxiety responses.

Next time you find that you are talking to yourself (don’t worry, we all do it, all the time), if you are looking to heighten your self-regulation, call yourself by your first name for a change and notice if you feel a slight internal shift taking place. A little psychological distance can go a long way in helping you cope with the challenges and stressors of life and achieve the goals you have set for yourself.

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