In the 2nd century CE, in the sunset of his life, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius began recording meditations on how he had lived. The questions he asked himself are the same ones many of us find ourselves asking today: how does a person live a meaningful life? How does one find resilience in the face of suffering? What does it mean to be happy?
Aurelius did not intend for Meditations to be read by others, allowing us a privileged tour through the dialogue he had with himself. Although there are recurring themes, the text reads as a series of standalone entries that vary in length from a mere sentence or two to a paragraph. In these fragments, Aurelius captured profound kernels of wisdom, many of which have been borne out by contemporary psychological research. But in addition to capturing Marcus Aurelius’ insightful musings, Meditations (as translated to English from the original Greek) reveals something unusual about the man himself: his ability to shift perspective as he grappled with big ideas.
At times, Aurelius’ thoughts reflected a first-person perspective, indexed through his use of the first-person singular pronoun ‘I’. At other times, however, he used ‘we’, expressing ideas that applied not just to him, but to humankind, collectively (eg, ‘Our life is a warfare, and a mere pilgrimage’). In other entries, he switched again, using the second-person singular pronoun (translated either as ‘you’ or as the archaic ‘thou’). Rather than being used to address the reader (remember he didn’t have a reader in mind), Aurelius’ use of second-person pronouns reflected his tendency to consider his life as if he were in dialogue with himself – that is, addressing himself directly.
Through adopting this more distanced self-perspective, Aurelius was able to recognise that his feelings of anguish were temporary
In my research, I’ve studied how subtle linguistic shifts, such as these, can powerfully alter the content of our thoughts, and subsequently change the way we feel. For this reason, I was particularly struck by the quote below, in which Aurelius gives himself advice – in the second person – on how to quiet the roaring, inner seas of the mind which, untamed, can lead a person to feel as if they are drowning:
Let not thy mind wander up and down, and heap together in her thoughts the many troubles and grievous calamities which thou art as subject unto as any other. But as everything in particular doth happen, put this question unto thyself, and say: What is it that in this present matter, seems unto thee so intolerable? [emphasis added] For thou wilt be ashamed to confess it. Then upon this presently call to mind, that neither that which is future, nor that which is past can hurt thee; but that only which is present. (And that also is much lessened, if thou dost lightly circumscribe it:) and then check thy mind if for so little a while, (a mere instant), it cannot hold out with patience.
Here, Aurelius writes of the power that people have over their own thoughts. He provides the following astute advice: ask yourself (roughly), ‘What is upsetting you at this moment?’ The phrasing is paramount – he did not write: ‘What is upsetting me?’ Rather, he advised asking himself this question from the perspective of an outsider, using the second-person singular pronoun. Arguably, through adopting this more distanced self-perspective, Aurelius was able to recognise that his feelings of anguish were temporary.
This process of reflecting on one’s self using parts of speech that are typically used to refer to other people – ie, second- or third-person pronouns, or even one’s own name – is distanced self-talk. A mounting body of research by psychologists suggests that engaging in distanced self-talk can help us to regulate our negative thoughts and emotions in a range of situations – from working through a painful past experience to performing on a stressful upcoming task.
These findings about distanced self-talk build on decades of research showing that psychological distance – taking a perspective beyond the ‘here and now’ – is an essential ingredient for aligning our thoughts, feelings and behaviour with our goals. When using the second-person pronoun ‘you’ to reflect on ourselves, we can move beyond our default, egocentric perspective, and consider our thoughts and feelings from the stance of a more objective observer. This distanced self-perspective then opens up new ways of thinking, which can make a difference for our feelings and behaviour in a variety of emotional situations.
For instance, in one pair of studies, my colleagues and I found that asking research participants to try to understand their feelings by talking to themselves in their heads using distanced self-talk (eg, ‘Why is Dylan feeling this way?’) vs immersed self-talk (eg, ‘Why am I feeling this way?’) led them to feel less negatively about personal, negative experiences that had elicited emotions such as betrayal, anger, rejection, frustration, worry and existential threat. Moreover, these benefits persisted even among our volunteers who were especially prone to worry and rumination.
The benefits were even greater when the children were told to adopt the perspective of a character with a reputation for hard work: eg, Batman or Dora the Explorer
In another study that we conducted during the Ebola outbreak of 2014 that had spread to the US, my colleagues and I found that instructing research participants to reflect on the threat of the virus in writing using distanced (vs immersed) self-talk led those who had been feeling particularly anxious about it to reason more rationally (by drawing on more fact-based reasons not to worry), which lowered their anxiety. In other research, Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan and his team cued volunteers to use distanced self-talk to mentally prepare for giving an upcoming speech, which, compared with a control group, led them to view the speech as a challenge that they had the resources to conquer, as opposed to an overwhelming threat. Researchers at the University of Buffalo in New York conducted a similar study, finding that this change in cognitive appraisal, from threat to challenge, was also reflected in a calmer physiological response.
The benefits of distanced self-talk extend beyond helping people regulate negative emotions. The practice has also been shown to promote wise reasoning, increasing participants’ willingness to search for a compromise, and leading them to recognise the limits of their own knowledge. Similarly, in the context of navigating moral dilemmas, distanced self-talk helped research participants put aside their personal loyalties – which would otherwise cloud their judgment. For example, in a scenario where you saw your best friend sexually harass someone, distanced self-talk might help you decide to report them, despite your close relationship.
It’s not just adults who benefit from this linguistic tool, either. In one study, young children (starting at four years old) persevered longer at a boring computer task when they were nudged to periodically check in on themselves using their own name (eg, ‘Is Gabriella working hard?’) rather than first-person pronouns (eg, ‘Am I working hard?’). These benefits of psychological distance were even greater when the children were instructed to adopt the perspective of a fictional character with a reputation for being a hard worker (eg, Batman or Dora the Explorer).
Part of the reason why distanced self-talk can be so useful to adults and children across various situations is because it is easy to implement. You might well have been told at some point or another to ‘Take a step back’ or ‘Think about the big picture’ and found the advice frustrating, prompting you to think ‘Easier said than done!’ Distanced self-talk provides a relatively effortless solution (as confirmed by a brain scan study that showed the practice does not require excessive cognitive effort to implement).
When Aurelius wrote of our ability to change the nature of our thoughts as a means to change the way we feel, he recognised something profound about human psychology. Centuries later, research has confirmed that changing the way you think about something is a powerful means to cope with and manage your emotional reaction to it. To make this process easier, you can try following Aurelius’ lead, and work through your negative thoughts and feelings by addressing yourself using ‘you’ or your own name – that is, by using distanced self-talk you can leverage the structure of language to take a step back and see the bigger picture.