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The Importance of Properly Addressing Your Self

One of my favorite aspects of continuing to grow in my work and practice is finding new scientific research that supports age-old techniques. I’m lucky because, as a global culture, we seem to be in a time when science and spiritual practice are coming full circle and connecting in ways that intuitively support our overall health.

A theme that has come up lately is the importance of how we frame our inner dialogue. Our inner dialogue is exactly how it sounds- the running stream of consciousness that guides how we relate to ourselves and to the world around us. The goal of meditation is to fine-tune this dialogue in a way that is healthy and when necessary, to turn it off completely.

I expand on that fine-tuning in other places, but here I want to discuss the concept of self-referential thinking because it is one huge way that we slip into the downward spirals that pull us away from our peaceful center.

Self-referential thinking is the tendency to relate to the world using internal markers. When, instead of turning to other people or sources to confirm our reality, we create a story of the world that is completely based off our own inner dialogue.

A couple examples-

“That guy didn’t smile back at me. He must not like me.” versus “That guy didn’t smile back at me. He must be having a rough day.”

“I’m getting nervous.” versus “This experience is nerve-wracking.”

Self-referential thinking is harmful because it isolates you within your mind, making you feel very ungrounded. I mean, the very act of “grounding” yourself is to get reoriented based on something outside of you! This highly internal way of interacting with the world is closely linked to anxiety, depression, mood disorders, and suicide. It is impossible to not take things personally when this way of thinking dominates your mind.

The idea that self-referential thinking is bad for you isn’t what inspired me to write this blog. That fact is well established in both neurology and psychology. What made my wheels turn was a story from Hidden Brain, the NPR podcast by Shankar Vedantam.

Vedantam briefly mentioned research from the psychologist Ethan Kross that focused on the importance of using non-first person pronouns in our inner dialogue. Basically, before a big meeting or exam, instead of saying “I’m going to do great. I’m awesome!” he suggests saying, “Jes, you’re going to do great. You’re awesome!” Kross refers to this as the act of “self-distancing”.

Kross’ research definitively “demonstrates that small shifts in the language people use to refer to the self as they engage in this process [of self-talk] consequentially influences their ability to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and behavior under social stress, even for people who are dispositionally vulnerable to social anxiety.”

This makes perfect sense to me. I’ve noticed that most people are much meaner to themselves than they would be to anyone else.

You would never tell your best friend that they are a stupid ugly loser! But as most of us know, to say “I’m such a stupid idiot” feels somehow justified. It is much easier to abuse yourself when your dialogue is self-referential.

However, when you shift that dialogue away from the self, the abusive language becomes more apparent and feels as ugly as it really is.

So I guess the take away here is to literally talk to yourself as if you were talking to your best friend. Step out of the “I” and look at “you” the way someone who loves you would.

Your heart will appreciate it.

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