Research suggests that it can be beneficial to process and reflect on our negative feelings. But when we try to do so, it’s easy to start ruminating—to get caught in the loop of repetitive, painful thoughts.
Gaining perspective on negative events, or “self-distancing,” is a practice that allows us to view our feelings and experiences from an outsider’s perspective. Sometimes this is accomplished with language—saying “you” or “she” rather than “I”—and other times it’s accomplished by imagining an experience from a distance rather than through our own eyes.
Studies have shown that taking this more distanced perspective can help reduce anger, sadness, and other negative emotions around a distressing event, as well as minimize recurring thoughts.
5 minutes. You can repeat this exercise each time you find yourself ruminating on a negative experience.
Kross, E., Bruehlman-Senecal, E., Park, J., Burson, A., Dougherty, A., Shablack, H., Bremner, R., Moser, J., & Ayduk, O. (2014). Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: How you do it matters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106, 304-324.
Researchers told participants that they would have to engage in a stressful task: either trying to make a good first impression on someone or giving a videotaped speech. Some participants were instructed to reflect on their feelings from a self-distanced perspective (referring to themselves as “you,” “he/she,” or “[their own name]”), while others reflected on their feelings in the usual way (using “I”).
The self-distanced participants saw the stressful task as more of a positive challenge than a threat, performed better on it (as rated by judges), recovered from their anxiety more quickly, felt less shame about their performance, and ruminated less afterward than the other group.
In everyday life, we typically think and talk about ourselves using first-person pronouns like “I” and “me.” Using self-distanced language—like “you” or “he”—means that we’re referring to ourselves the way we usually refer to others. This linguistic shift seems to create a cognitive shift, allowing us to gain perspective on whatever is going on.
Some studies also suggest that self-distancing encourages us to think in more abstract terms: Rather than focusing on the concrete details and feelings involved in a particular event, we’re more likely to have realizations, generate deeper understanding, and find closure. This allows us to deal with negative feelings constructively, without getting swept up in them.
Ozlem Ayduk, Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley