We’re hard-wired to fight or flee under threat, so it’s normal to want to act out in defense when we experience or observe the injustices in today’s world. But when we respond with our primitive, survive mind, it raises the stakes for impulsive and unreasonable reactions and in some cases violence even death. Our survive brain can colonize our hearts and dwarf our humanity if we continue to allow it—as evidenced by large-scale injustices such as racially motivated murders, mass shootings, hate crimes against LGBTQ citizens, violent protests, police brutality, deadly reactions to the COVID-19 lock-down and global terrorism.
Survive Brain Versus Thrive Brain
We have a choice to permit our lives to be driven by our survive mind’s violent reactions or drawn from our thrive mind’s calm, compassionate, and clear-minded actions. Our lives are shaped from the inside out. If we lose our inner connection, in small ways and big, our personal lives and the world unravel. It starts with each of us exercising our own levelheadedness, self-control and inner calm at an individual level.
All of us have a running monologue in our heads with the intention to control ourselves whether it’s to stop from blowing up at the injustice we see in news feeds, eating another slice of pizza, or blurting out at a colleague who talks over us in a virtual meeting. But how many times have you said or done something you wish you could take back? You can blame your impulsive, self-immersed, non-thinking survive brain. Once you become clearheaded and regret what you said or did, you have shifted into your reflective, self-distanced, thinking thrive brain. But what if you could act more from your thrive brain (and react less from your survive brain) in the first place? Scientists have found that self-distancing from your inner monologue is a valuable tool to regulate your emotions and gain impulse control, especially during tense times of threat, uncertainty and unrest like the climate we live and work in today.
The Neuroscience of Self-Distancing And Self-Control
Self-talk and how we consciously use it is a relatively effortless form of self-control in many different areas of our lives: diet, athletic performance, scholastic achievement, emotion regulation and impulsive behaviors. We have an inner voice that provides a running monologue on our lives throughout the day and into the night. This inner voice, combining conscious thoughts with unconscious beliefs and biases, is an effective way for the brain to interpret and process daily experiences. Negative self-talk from the survive mind narrows our perspective and sabotages our goals; whereas thrive-minded self-talk widens our perspective and yields greater resilience in reaching our goals.
According to research, we have greater self-control when we use self-distanced self-talk from our thrive brain that entails using our name and non-first-person pronouns (instead of self-immersed first-person pronouns of “I” from our survive brain). Self-distancing gives us psychological distance from the survive brain’s egocentric bias which in turn enhances self-control, lowers anxiety, bolsters confidence, reduces impulsivity, improves emotion regulation and cultivates wisdom over time. The reason for this difference is that third person self-talk leads us to think about ourselves similar to how we think about others and gives us agency to regulate our frustration, anger or fear simply by the way we use internal dialogue.
A University of Michigan study found that brain scans of people using third-person self-talk (versus first person self-talk) while watching disturbing images were better at regulating their emotional distress. Another study at that same institution found that dieters, compared to non-dieters, benefited most with distanced self-talk, and non-dieters made healthier food choices using the same self-control strategy. A 2019 Netherlands study reported the benefits of self-talk among children between 9 and 13 years of age who held negative beliefs about their competence. Children who used self-talk about effort boosted their math achievement, compared to children who did not use self-talk in regard to their effort.
A study of scuba divers at Springfield College in Massachusetts reported that those who practiced instructional self-talk were significantly more focused and confident during certification than those who practiced motivational self-talk. Scientists at the University of Toronto found that our “inner voice” can give us the self-control to stop us from making impulsive decisions. It also showed that without being able to verbalize messages to ourselves, it’s difficult to employ the same amount of self-control as when we can talk ourselves through the process. Other studies confirm that we act more impulsively when we can’t use our inner voice or talk to ourselves as we’re performing tasks. Self-talk incorporating non-first-person pronouns (like the collective “we”) can enhance athletic performance and the ability to regulate thoughts, feelings and behaviors and help us to avoid rumination and improve performance with greater perspective, calm and confidence.
The Language Of Separation
The language of separation allows you to process an internal event as if it happened to someone else. So, your survive mind’s story isn’t the only story. And the thrive mind has a chance to shed a different light on the scenario. Scientists and mental health experts have found that the best approach to deal with the survive mind is to respond as if it’s another person. First of all, you have to remember the voice isn’t you. It’s a part of you, not all of you—the lower case “self.” It makes up untested stories hundreds, maybe thousands of times a day. The following checklist enables you to address yourself with the language of separation, practice self-distancing and live more from your thrive mind as a detached observer of your own life:
- Use non first-person pronouns such as it, he, or she when speaking to someone else about this part. “My Anger is active today. He wants me to lash out at the injustice in the world.”
- Call yourself by name to reduce the primitive brain’s egocentric thoughts and untangle from them. “I know you’re angry, Bryan, but who do you want to be responsible for your actions? You or your anger?”
- Use silent second person self-talk and refer to it as “you” when speaking to it. “What’s up, Anger. I see you’re pretty stirred up after watching the news.”
- Use a curious and compassionate inner voice when speaking to the survive mind to activate your thrive mind. “I see you’re angry about the killings and demonstrations. It’s hard to watch. You have every right to be angry. So let’s think about how we can speak for you instead of from you.”
- Use positive self-affirmations using your own name to bolster your confidence. Instead of thinking, “I really spoke my truth today about racial injustice,” think, “Bryan, you really rocked the way you spoke your truth about injustice in the world.
- Think of yourself as the narrator, instead of the actor, of your thoughts and feelings when you’re in a disturbing scene. Scientists report that narrative expressive writing creates a self-distanced versus self-immersed perspective and helps you overcome egocentric impulses, reduce stressful cardiovascular effects and apply wise reasoning. With this form of self-distancing, you can process and make meaning from a bird’s-eye view instead of a personal perspective, fostering forward movement as opposed to rumination and re-experiencing the same negative emotions over and over again.
A Final Word
Next time you hear that primitive, angry voice inside your head that wants to react without thinking, don’t debate it, ignore it or wage war with it. Listening to it as a separate part of you, instead of as you, gives you distance from it and helps you appreciate that it’s actually trying to help in its own way. The survive brain’s egocentric self-talk often does not reflect reality, and it can paralyze you into inaction and self-absorption. But it also plays an important role in your survival. Survive self-talk is often driven by the desire to save us from peril or protect us from the shame of failure and humiliation. You can even credit that same voice with pushing you to develop self-discipline and to recognize your shortcomings before others do, so you can get your act together head on before others have the chance to judge you for them.