The Superpowers of a third-person perspective — Exerpt from SuperBetter

While reading about self-distancing or self-reflection from a third person perspective I had to think about David Goggins. He’s who many would agree on, one of the bravest and toughest people alive. And he tends to talk about himself in the third person. Coincidence? I don’t think so. I was so freaking excited while reading it that I decided to make a post immediately. Here is the excerpt from SuperBetter.

Adopting a secret identity has one more benefit that you need to know about, because it can transform the way you think and feel during the most stressful times of your life.

A secret identity can help you solve a problem that scientists call the self-reflection paradox.

When you’re facing a tough challenge, it’s natural to spend a lot of time thinking about it. But is it helpful or harmful to do so? Paradoxically, it’s both.

Psychologists Ethan Kross, a professor at the University of Michigan, and Özlem Ayduk, at the University of California at Berkeley, explain the paradox like this: “On one hand, countless studies indicate that encouraging people to reflect on negative feelings or stressful experiences leads to important physical and mental health benefits. On the other hand, an equally large body of research indicates that people’s attempts to understand their feelings or make meaning out of stressful experiences often backfire, entangling them in ruminations [or compulsive thought cycles] that make them feel worse.”

Kross and Ayduk have been researching the self-reflection paradox for years, attempting to answer this question: “Why do people’s attempts to make sense of their negative experiences sometimes succeed, and at other times fail?” Their research findings reveal a surprising answer: to benefit from thinking deeply about your own personal challenges, think about your challenges as if they were happening to someone else.

The technique is called self-distancing, and Kross and Ayduk have completed several of the most important studies of it. “Self-distancing,” they explain, “is what happens when you take a step back when thinking about your own experiences and reason about them from the perspective of a distanced observer, like a fly on the wall.” Instead of getting caught up in your own intense feelings and the details of your experience, you look at the bigger picture.

According to their research, the most common sign of successful self-distancing is using “third-person” language. Instead of asking myself, “Why do I feel sad about the news I found out today?” I would ask myself, “Why does Jane feel sad about the news she found out today?”

Thinking about our own experiences in the third person can feel strange or awkward. If you heard someone else talking about him- or herself in the third person, you might think it the sign of a raging egomaniac, or at the very least a touch of eccentricity. (As Kross and Ayduk point out, the NBA superstar basketball player LeBron James famously talks about himself in the third person, as in “I want to do what’s best for LeBron James.”)

Fortunately, the experts don’t recommend that you talk or think about yourself in the third person all the time—far from it. You should use the self-distancing technique only when you need to get perspective on a very big challenge, a stressful situation, or a traumatic experience.

If you master the technique, you’ll experience a range of physical, mental, and emotional benefits. You’ll have less cardiovascular reactivity when you think about challenges, stresses, and traumas—meaning your blood pressure will be less likely to go up, and your heart rate will return to normal faster. And brain scans show that self-distanced thinking involves less activity in the subgenual cingulate cortex—the region of the brain that lights up when depressed individuals get stuck in negative thought patterns. In other words, self-distancing strengthens your body and reinforces a more positive neural circuitry.

A review of studies from the past thirty years shows that self-distancing works equally well whether you’re thinking about the past, the present, or the future.

The past: People who practice self-distancing experience less anxiety and distress when they recall painful memories or traumatic experiences.

The present: Self-distancing enhances willpower. If you face a temptation, you’ll be better able to exert self-control if you take a moment to think about the situation from a third-person point of view. Instead of asking yourself, Do I want that candy bar?, ask yourself, Does Jane want that candy bar? It sounds like an absurdly simple trick, but it works. When you think of yourself in the first person, you’re more easily caught up in your momentary feelings and cravings. But when you think of yourself in the third person, you’re more likely to see the bigger picture, remembering your long-term goals and most important motivations (like being healthy for your loved ones, or having more energy later to work on your novel, instead of feeling sugar-crashed and guilty). Getting self-distance allows you to focus on the big picture, which helps you stick to your goals.

Self-distancing has another benefit in the present: it leads to greater engagement in constructive problem solving—which means getting less wrapped up in thoughts and being better able to focus on taking helpful action.

The future: Self-distancing makes you more likely to adopt a challenge mindset, instead of a threat mindset, when you face new obstacles. As you’ll recall from Chapter 5, having a challenge mindset means feeling realistically optimistic that you have a chance to succeed, learn, or get stronger from a stressful situation, whereas having a threat mindset means focusing only on the potential risks and harms. People with a challenge mindset are, overall, happier, healthier, and more successful in achieving their goals than people with a threat mindset.

The benefits of thinking about the future with some self-distance continue even after you’ve faced your obstacle head-on. In laboratory and real-world studies, immediately after tackling a stressful task, people who adopted a third-person perspective beforehand spent significantly less time doing negative postevent processing—or stewing on something that didn’t go well, blaming yourself, and just generally beating yourself up for not doing better.

Finally, self-distancing dramatically improves psychological flexibility. You’ll remember from Chapter 7 that psychological flexibility is the willingness to do things that are difficult for you, in the service of your goals. When you think about your situation with self-distance, you are more likely to act according to your deepest values, even if you risk negative feelings, pain, rejection, or failure. In other words, self-distancing makes you braver.

The above combines perfectly with the Secret Identity the book encourages every reader to take. The gist of it is, if you adopt a secret identity of an imaginary or real-life superhero, you will greatly benefit from the superhero’s character traits. That’s something I will write about next!