The Perils of "I, Me, Mine" and the Surprising Antidote
A powerful self-talk hack that can make you more effective and less anxious.
Anna Katharina Schaffner | Psychology Today
Do you remember the Beatles song "I, Me, Mine"? Written by George Harrison and released on the album Let It Be, the song has often been read as a spiritual rebuke. It was the last song the band recorded together before it broke up, as clashing egos, power struggles, and increasingly non-compatible needs led to discord in the group. Harrison had been studying the Bhagavad Gitaand the teachings of Swami Vivekananda and became well-attuned to self-centeredness and the damage it can do, as well as the destruction wrought by egotistic and narcissistic ways of being and interacting. The singer had also experimented with LSD, which he said opened his eyes to the oneness of the cosmos – a universal consciousness devoid of duality and ego.
“All I can hear,” Harrison sang, “I me mine, I me mine, I me mine / Even those tears / I me mine, I me mine, I me mine / No one's frightened of playing it / Everyone's saying it / Flowing more freely than wine / All through the day /I me mine.”
Whilst we all have much to gain from engaging with non-dualistic Buddhist and Hindu perspectives on self-hood, there is a highly surprising and much simpler technique we can apply when we suffer from the consequences of negative self-talk. This powerful psychological hack was discovered by psychologist Ethan Kross, the author of the Chatter: The Voice in our Head (and How to Harness It) (2022). article continues after advertisement
Most of us are familiar with verbal rumination in the form of repetitive anxious thoughts. We can also refer to the phenomenon as automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) or as the output of our "inner critics," saboteurs, or cruel super-egos. Sapping chatter usually revolves around negative core beliefs such as “I am stupid”, “I am ugly,” and “I am unloveable”. Kross and others have found that negative chatter raids our neuronal resources, and “is a marvelous saboteur when it comes to focused tasks. Countless studies reveal its debilitating effects. It leads students to perform worse on tests, produces stage fright and a tendency to catastrophize among artistic performers, and undermines negotiations in business.” Negative self-talk can hold us back in our careers and ruin our social life. It can also cause chronic physiological stress reactions and impact negatively on our health. In other words, it is a very serious issue.
Kross and his colleagues have found that the most powerful antidote to negative chatter is psychological distancing. They are of course not the first to suggest that; seeking distance from our thoughts is a core feature of many ancient wisdom practices, including Stoicism, Buddhism, and Daoism. Cognitive distancing is also central to Cognitive BehavioralTherapy (CBT), which trains us rationally to scrutinize our negative thoughts and thereby disempower them. Cognitive defusion is also a core feature of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which suggests powerful techniques for becoming the impassive watchers of our thoughts and emotions, rather than getting immersed and caught up in them. Most of these techniques involve zooming out and detaching from our experiences, and seeing them from a different, more generative perspective.
Kross proposes different ways of changing our perspective when we get caught up in negative chatter. One is seeing ourselves from the outside and adopting an observer perspective on our problem. We can try to do so by time travelling, for example, by gaining a historical perspective, and remembering our place in a long line of ancestors. We can also ask ourselves how we will feel about our problem in the future: How might we look at it 10 years from now? These bird’s-eye perspectives can put our own trials and tribulations into an important and often healing broader context.
The most surprising insight which I wanted to share with you, though, is this one – and it relates to the Beatle’s song mentioned at the beginning: When we ruminate, we are very narrowly focused on ourselves and on our perceived problem. We are stuck in an endless “I, me, mine” loop – literally and metaphorically. When we stop using these pronouns in our self-talk, using second- or third-person pronouns instead, such as “you”, “he”, or “she”, we can control our inner voices much more effectively. In other words, try thinking about yourself in the third person when you notice your brain dishing up saboteur narratives. The easiest and most powerful technique of all? Use your own name. Speak to yourself as you would speak to somebody else. Say, for example, “Anna, what are you doing? You know you can do this. Anna, you have got this. Anna will go out of the door now and face whatever challenge is out there which she has been avoiding.” article continues after advertisement
This psychological hack has a history, too. Remember the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius, who wrote his beautiful Meditations in the second person? People tend to think that Aurelius was addressing his readers, but he was actually conversing with himself – the Meditations are his personal diary. Aurelius would write, for example: “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” And, “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” We can see that Aurelius is using three powerful techniques at once here: journaling (which has known psychological benefits), distancing, and addressing himself directly.
Talking about ourselves in the third person is called “illeism”, and while it may seem arch and weird when we do it in public, it is a great idea to try and do it as often as we can when we wish to get a hold of our inner chatter. Just changing the pronouns in our self-talk can create all-important emotional distance. Psychologists have found that a “high usage of first-person singular pronouns, a phenomenon called I-talk, is a reliable marker of negative emotions.” One study, for example, showed that there is a robust link between I-talk and negative emotion, and another that "you can predict future occurrences of depression in people’s medical records by computing the amount of I-talk in their Facebook posts.” By contrast, psychologists have found that distanced self-talk “improves performance on stressful problem-solving tasks, and facilitates wise reason."
“I”, “me”, and “mine”, then, are not just signifiers of an egoic way of thinking and being, as George Harrison held; they also create a form of linguistic immersion that keeps us too closely attached to our problems and challenges. We can therefore benefit enormously from using simple linguistic shifters such as “you”, “he”, or “she” in our self-talk to gain all-important emotional distance. It will allow us to zoom out, change our perspective, and engage in wiser reasoning and decision-making. Go on, then: Say your name!
References Ethan Kross, Chatter: The Voice in Our Head (and How to Harness It). London, Penguin: 2022
Image: Stefano Pollio @ Unsplash