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This Looks Like a Job for Superman!

It is so much easier to give other people advice than to take our own. Sometimes we can get stuck in our own head, repeating the same ruminations over and over without reaching a helpful resolution – and cutting ourselves down in the process. This often happens right when we need our inner voice the most – when our stress is up and the stakes are high. Often our inner chatter begins with the words I, me or my. It sounds like, “I’m not good at this,” “I can’t do it,” “They’re going to laugh at me” or “My presentation isn’t as good as it should be.”

Getting unstuck often requires some distance between ourselves and the challenge. Taking a step back from our immediate feelings can allow us to look at a situation in a more objective way and remind us of behaviors we want to practice in that difficult moment. 

Distanced self-talk is a strategy that allows you to step back and use this idea to your advantage. This approach decreases anxiety and increases mental toughness and confidence. All it requires is talking to yourself like you’re someone else. Get rid of the word “I” and use your own name or “you” or even the name of someone you think would handle the situation well. It is a way of coaching yourself through a problem as if you’re advising someone else. It can allow you to step into the role of Superman, coming to the rescue.

In one of my favorite studies on distanced self-talk, this superhero idea was tested. Children were asked to work on the horribly boring task of pressing a space bar whenever they saw a picture of cheese among a series of images. They were told it was a very important task and they would be a big helper if they could work on it for as long as possible. On the side of the desk where the child sat, the researchers put an iPad loaded with fun games to tempt the child to give up on the monotonous space bar task. A challenging situation indeed.

Before the children began this task, the researchers suggested it would be helpful to use their inner voice to encourage themselves to stick with it. Here’s where things got interesting. The researchers suggested three different types of self-talk for the children to check in with themselves:

One group of children was advised to use first-person language: “Am I working hard?”

A second group of children was encouraged to use third-person language: “Is Rachel working hard?”

The third group of children was told to think of themselves as their favorite superhero: “Is Wonder Woman working hard?” Superhero costumes were even offered nearby if the children wanted to dress in character. Many did.

In the end, it was the children who adopted alter egos, thinking of themselves as their favorite superheroes, who spent the most time focused on the task –  a whopping 23% more than the children using first-person “I” language.

When we need an extra boost, sometimes it helps to let the superheroes take over. 

Author: Alyssa Forcehimes, PhD

An expert in behavior change, substance use disorders and empathic communication, Dr. Alyssa Forcehimes serves as President of The Change Companies® and Train for Change Inc.® She lives in Arizona with her husband and two daughters.