Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Conversations With And About Yourself

When, in everyday parlance, we say that someone talks to himself, we are usually feeling somewhat disquieted by it.

Psychiatrists know that people who appear to be talking to themselves, often by seeming to be mumbling under their breath, are usually hearing voices, that is, suffering auditory hallucinations. In most cases these are a sign of schizophrenia.

And yet, we all have mental dialogues. We hold imaginary conversations in our minds, without moving our lips or believing that God is telling us what to do. These are not the same as ruminations or fantasies or even introspective voyages of self-discovery.

As motivational psychologists define them, these conversations, this self-talk, are sometimes used to evaluate past action or motivate future action. You might tell yourself that you really messed up or you might tell yourself to take a leap of faith.

I suspect that these conversations are mental habits. If so, they are easier to control than we might imagine. All that is required is a mechanical fix,  a different set of instructions. You cannot change them by gaining more self-awareness or insight. 

Elizabeth Bernstein broaches the topic this morning in the Wall Street Journal:

"What happens with self-talk is you stimulate your action, direct your action and evaluate your action," says Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis, associate professor at the University of Thessaly in Trikala, Greece, who studies self-talk and the psychology of sports performance.

Motivational self-talk includes what we say to psych ourselves up: "Come on!" "Let's go!" "You can do this!" Instructional self-talk walks us through a specific task. If you are driving, you might tell yourself to turn right at the next light, and then you do it. "It sounds simple, but you get the correct reaction," says Dr. Hatzigeorgiadis.

Instructional self-talk is helpful when learning or practicing a new sport or task, he says. For example, a swimmer can remind himself to keep his elbow high during freestyle. Before giving a speech, someone might tell herself, "Speak slower" and "Make eye contact."

Note that the last two phrases are all in the second person. They sound like something that someone else would tell you. “Speak slower” is grammatically distinct from: “I must speak slower.”

Try asking yourself this: when you converse with yourself do you use the first or the second person pronoun?

Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, this reminds us of a curious aspect of Freudian theory.

As you know, Freud named two psychic agencies the ego and the id. In his German they were das Ich and das Es. Translating everyday German pronouns into Latin might feel especially sophisticated, but Freud was really using everyday pronouns. His English translators should have called them: the I and the It.

Note well that this dyad of I and It leaves no place You. Effectively, it traps you in your mind. Is it any wonder that psychoanalysis should have produced an epidemic of narcissism?

Surprisingly, when it comes to motivation, You matters more than I. Studies have shown that you will be more motivated when you address yourself, in your mental conversations, as You, not as I.

Bernstein reports:

The way you address yourself matters, too. Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in February found people who spoke to themselves as another person would—using their own name or the pronoun "you"—performed better under stress than people who used the word "I."

Addressing yourself in the second person makes you into someone else, something other to yourself. It is no longer about how you feel about yourself or whether you are grounded in your Self. It is more about how you look to others, especially to a person who wants what is good for you.

Bernstein explains:

In one study, University of Michigan researchers induced stress in participants by telling them they had to prepare a speech to give to a panel of judges about their qualifications for a dream job. They were given five minutes to prepare and told they couldn't use notes.

Half the participants were instructed to work through their anxiety using the first-person pronoun ("Why am I nervous?"). The other half were told to address themselves by name or the pronoun "you" ("Why are you nervous?"). Afterward, each participant was asked to estimate how much shame he or she experienced right after the speech, and how much subsequent ruminating they did.

The results were consistent: People whose self-talk used their names or "you" reported less shame and ruminated less than the ones who used "I." The judges found the performances of those using "you" to be more confident, less nervous and more persuasive.

So much for the virtue of introspection. Apparently, using the first person pronoun makes people more self-conscious. Using the second person pronoun puts them in the right frame of mind, to take action in the world and, therefore, to be looked at by others. To use You is to see yourself as others see you. To use I is to present yourself to yourself.

Of course, you are going to be judgmental:

Both positive and negative words can influence us in positive and negative ways. Say to yourself, "This job interview is going to be a cakewalk," and you might not get pumped up enough to ace it. Conversely, tell yourself, "You just lost that match, you need to focus harder," and it could spur you to do better in the future.

With critical self-talk, identify why you are being negative and focus on making it better. Don't say: "I bombed that presentation." Say: "That wasn't your best effort. You need to buckle down now and try harder."
The results were consistent: People whose self-talk used their names or "you" reported less shame and ruminated less than the ones who used "I." The judges found the performances of those using "you" to be more confident, less nervous and more persuasive.

When people think of themselves as another person, "it allows them to give themselves objective, helpful feedback," says Ethan Kross, associate professor of psychology and director of the Self-Control and Emotion Laboratory at the University of Michigan.

It’s not just that you are looking at yourself through someone else’s eyes. This other person is not just anyone. He is not a punishing superego. He is a benevolent adviser, someone who has your best interest at heart, someone whose words you are inclined to respect and to heed.


Ares Olympus said...

I don't know how it fits within Freud's "narcissistic I and it", but I like E.F. Schumacher's "Four fields of knowledge". Interestingly only field #4 is considered "real" by objective knowledge, but if you're limited to objective knowledge, then consciousness might not be real, and we might all be mechanical being following predetermined programs.

Anyway, what I like about this framework is that it shows 2 fields of knowledge we only have indirect access. We can only know another's inner world by awareness of our own, and we can imagine how others see us by imagining ourselves externally and how we might see ourselves.

Schumacher identifies four fields of knowledge for the individual:
1.I → inner
2.I → other persons (inner)
3.other persons → I
4.I → the world

These four fields arise from combining two pairs: Myself and the World; and Outer Appearance and Inner Experience. He notes that humans only have direct access to fields one and four.

Field one is being aware of your feelings and thoughts and most closely correlates to self awareness. He argues this is fundamentally the study of attention. He differentiates between when your attention is captured by the item it focuses upon, which is when a human being functions much like a machine; and when a person consciously directs their attention according to their choosing. This for him is the difference between being lived and living.

Field two is being aware of what other people are thinking and feeling.

Field three is understanding yourself as an objective phenomenon. Knowledge in field three requires you to be aware what other people think of you.

Schumacher observes that relying on just field one knowledge makes you feel that you are the centre of the universe; while focusing on field three knowledge makes you feel that you are far more insignificant. Seeking self-knowledge via both fields provides more balanced and accurate self-knowledge.

Field four is the behaviourist study of the outside world. Science is highly active in this area of knowledge and many people believe it is the only field in which true knowledge can be gained. For Schumacher, applying the scientific approach is highly appropriate in this field.

Schumacher summarises his views about the four fields of knowledge as follows:
Only when all four fields of knowledge are cultivated can you have true unity of knowledge. Instruments and methodologies of study should be only applied to the appropriate field they are designed for.
Clarity of knowledge depends on relating the four fields of knowledge to the four levels of being.
The instructional sciences should confine their remit to field four, because it is only in the field of appearances that mathematical precision can be obtained. The descriptive sciences, however, are not behaving appropriately if they focus solely on appearances, and must delve in meaning and purpose or they will produce sterile results.
Self-knowledge can only be effectively pursued by balanced study of field one (self awareness) and field three (objective self-knowledge).
Study of field two (understanding other individuals) is dependent on first developing a powerful insight into field one (self awareness).

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the value in talking about ourself as You over I has to do with existence of a role or persona, if this helps keep awareness that the Self is not the role we're playing.

If you're playing a game, and you know its a game, then you don't take it personally, but see it as an opportunity for learning and challenge. When the game is over, you can let it go, and its over. You can play recklessly or aggressively or cautiously or defensively, and whatever the outcome, you can see it was just a strategy, a choice you can try something else next time.

Social roles are said to be expressed through personas which are not the self, but a temporary role, and keeping that role away from self, by talking of your participation third person might help keep awareness of this role is not the self.

So you can be judged by self or others, for how well you fulfilled the role, but its not a direct judgment on self or I?

On the other hand, maybe we can be more confident to try new things if we're detached, but it also means we can play with deception, and manipulate others to get what we want, and then claim it was just a game.

I imagine people like prostitutes must learn this detachment, and can go into a role and watch themselves detached, without believing that's who they are.

A doctor or surgeon perhaps has to do the same detachment in reverse, has to see people as things, so he can operate with machine like precision, without letting his discomfort at cutting into a living person, and feeling the responsibility of that act while trying to do it.

So the problem is learning how to attach and detach to self, so our roles don't define our personal sense of self, and how our personal self can be disarmed through roles to expand our abilities.

Anonymous said...

Might narcissists use third-person language to depersonalize their unsocial behavior?
"The narcissist often talks to himself in third person singular. He feels that it lends objectivity to his thoughts, making them appear to be emanating from an external source. The narcissist's self-esteem is so low that, to be trusted, he has to disguise himself, to hide himself from himself. It is the narcissist's pernicious and all-pervasive art of un-being."