People naturally talk to themselves.  Whether it’s the out-loud self-talk of young children as they learn to master a new task or our grownup unspoken private talk, it seems we have an almost continuous internal conversation with ourselves.

Much of our inner dialogue is an attempt to manage how we think, feel and behave — how to get ourselves to do the things we need to do and stop doing things that are self-defeating or self-limiting.

What we didn’t know until recently (at least not with scientific certainty) is that how people talk to themselves has an enormous effect on their success in life.  

The Quick Fix

In a series of groundbreaking experiments at the Emotion & Self-Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan, psychologist Ethan Kross found that using first-name self-talk frees up your psyche to focus, think more clearly and perform more effectively than addressing yourself with pronouns like I or you.  In his initial studies, Kross found that addressing yourself by first name minimizes social anxiety before a stressful event and also shuts down ruminating about it afterward.

So changing one word can change your brain?

Jason Moser, a neuroscientist and clinical psychologist at Michigan State University, suggests the answer may be yes.  Moser measured the electrical activity in the brain and observed a dramatic reduction in anxiety levels when participants referred to themselves using their first names in a stressful situation.  Electrical activity in the frontal cortex —  involved in problem-solving, judgment, and impulse control — reduced dramatically.  In the primitive limbic brain, where emotional memories form, activity decreased by almost half.

When our sense of self is threatened, it’s easy to take things personally and overreact — reflexively or impulsively.  First-name self-talk appears to work by giving us just enough emotional and psychological distance to be a helpful, healthy coping mechanism — a way to step back, calm yourself, keep the situation in perspective and make a more conscious choice about how to respond.

Here’s what this kind of self-talk might sound like:  “Jan, hundreds of people in Louisville get MRIs every day.  No one has ever gotten stuck in one and asphyxiated.  You can get through it with the Calming Breath — and maybe a Xanax.  Now pick up the phone, dial the number and schedule the appointment.”

So a simple shift from a) personal pronoun to first name, coupled with b) some specific directives and c) a healthy dose of perspective is all it takes?

Sometimes it is a quick fix.  You read an article like this, give it a try and it does the trick.

The Not-So-Quick Fix

When the quick fix doesn’t work, we often have to drill down a little deeper to resolve a gridlock between two parts of ourselves that are at odds with each other.  Like with the quick fix, some detachment can be enormously helpful when we keep repeating the same old pattern or find ourselves chronically sidetracked from doing what matters most to us.

Psychotherapist and author Kim Schneiderman — who claims that thinking about yourself in the third person is something many successful people do naturally — uses research-inspired techniques to get her clients to write about themselves in the third person.  Schneiderman uses perspective-bending questions to help clients get a fresh outlook on a familiar story — their own — as a way to reinterpret and reclaim their personal narratives and help themselves get “unstuck,” whether it’s in a job, a relationship, or a stage of life.

One of my favorite approaches to issues that refuse to budge, or that won’t go away and stay away, is voice dialogue facilitation (VDF).  It’s a non-judgmental way of accessing our unspoken inner dialogue and giving a voice to different sides of the personality that often represent two very different, maybe even opposite, orientations to life.   A classic relationship example is the part of us that is deeply in love with and totally dedicated to our significant other and the other more instinctual part of us that is not naturally monogamous and would like to be free to explore other relationships.  These two parts of us are natural opposites, we can’t get rid of either of them, and VDF does a better job than anything I’ve encountered in helping us wrestle with the challenges of our human condition — how to find a way to integrate our two opposite natures into our one life.

Since I work primarily with professionals and executives, I often encounter an overrepresented side of the personality we call the Inner Pusher.  It’s a great part of our personality — It’s great at kicking our butts and getting us to do the things we need to do, but when it’s on overdrive, it’s almost impossible to de-stress, relax and enjoy ourselves and — let’s face it — an Inner Pusher part of us is not very good at relationships.

Start with a Subclinical Dose

I like the non-pathologizing quality of VDF.  Rather than approach a client’s out-of-control Inner Pusher like there’s something wrong with it that needs to be fixed or changed, there’s just an acknowledgment that it’s more a matter of “too much of a good thing.”

Rather than try to convince my client’s Inner Pusher to be less intense and driven, I focus on helping the client access the (usually fainter) voice connected to another part of his or her personality — one that naturally finds it easier to rest when tired, performs better under pressure and connects more easily with other people.

Then we start exploring what it might be like to incorporate very small amounts of these underutilized, unfamiliar skills and abilities.  The trick is to manage any “side effects” (like the Inner Pusher’s concerns that the client may become lazy, lethargic, and lose their edge).

My client gets to continue to be who they are — he or she just becomes more versatile, balanced, and whole… and a whole lot happier.