Your colleague’s critical comment keeps replaying in your mind. Two of your students are trapped in a “he said/she said” battle of wills. You can’t shake the anxiety you feel after hearing the latest news.
We hear that it’s important to acknowledge and work though our emotional reactions to negative events, yet when we do, we sometimes get caught up in cycles of rumination—which can make us feel even worse.
So, what is the best way to reflect on difficult circumstances without finding ourselves tossed around in an emotional spin cycle? The answer may lie in a teachable skill called “self-distancing”—one that educators and parents may be able to practice with their kids.
Self-distancing and why it matters
If you are caught up in all of the emotionally arousing details of how you were wronged, what she said, how she said it, and how it makes you feel, you may be reacting from a self-immersed perspective. However, a self-distanced perspective features the ability to take a step back and view yourself more objectively.
According to research, when people adopt a self-distanced perspective while discussing a difficult event, they make better sense of their reactions, experience less emotional distress, and display fewer physiological signs of stress. In the long-term, they also experience reduced reactivity when remembering the same problematic event weeks or months later, and they are less vulnerable to recurring thoughts (or rumination).
Self-distancing (whether cued by researchers or experienced spontaneously) seems to lead to more productive and “adaptive self-reflection” while processing negative experiences. Studies with children and adolescents suggest that self-distancing helps both age groups to move away from the trap of recounting emotionally activating details and toward reconstructing a distressing event in a way that provides some insight and closure.
Other research indicates that self-distancing practices may yield additional benefits, including a reduction in aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, and aggressive behavior, an increase in executive functioning, and the ability to better manage relationship conflicts.
But what might self-distancing look like in action?
Consider a typical “he said/she said” student conflict. These two hypothetical students—we’ll call them Tom and Jessica—feel wronged, and they replay their argument in their heads…and out loud with you!
If they display self-immersed perspectives, they are each focusing on their own feelings. Jessica is thinking, “I’m furious with him, and I can’t believe he did that to me.” And Tom is fixated on the fact that, “She really hurt my feelings.” They are also likely recounting all of the details of the event (“He grabbed my notes, and then, and then…”).
However, if you ask them to take the third-person perspective of a distanced observer (preferably after they have taken a break from each other), they might step outside of themselves and ask broader questions. Tom might literally wonder about himself, thinking in the third person, “Why was he so hurt in this situation?” Or Jessica might ask, “How did these two people get to this point? How did her anger affect him?”
Although this approach may sound a little canned or too simple to be effective, numerous studies with children, adolescents, and adults (young and old) indicate that a shift in vantage point can have a powerful effect on the way we think, feel, and behave. Whether you’re coaching kids through problems or working on your own, there are several different techniques you can try.
Four ways to practice self-distancing
Visualize an observer: Encourage students to literally picture a fly on the wall observing their challenging experience. Or have them consider how a thoughtful friend might respond after quietly observing their situation. Results from a recent study also revealed the power of mentally injecting a model (or exemplar) into the difficult context. When five year olds envisioned Batman in the middle of a distressing situation and asked themselves, “What would Batman do?,” they were able to self-distance more effectively.
Avoid using the pronoun “I”: Focus on using third-person pronouns—he, she, they—when engaging in self-talk. This simple shift in language may be the most helpful form of self-distancing (as demonstrated above). When research participants used their own names and/or drew on non-first-person pronouns during self-talk, they were able to see social stressors as challenging (and surmountable) rather than threatening and anxiety-provoking.
Write about it: Create a personally meaningful narrative that helps you to “step back” and make sense of a negative event. Research participants who practiced “expressive writing” about distressful situations (rather than simply thinking about them or writing about other non-emotional topics) were able to more effectively self-distance. Further, writers who demonstrated a self-distanced perspective also used fewer first-person pronouns and negative-emotion words while including more causation words, such as “because” or “why,” in their writing.
Focus on your future self: A new area of research in self-distancing explores the power of temporal distancing. Ask yourself, “How would I feel about this one week from now or ten years from now?” This form of mental time travel may be effective because our attention is directed away from our immediate, concrete circumstances. A simple awareness of the passage of time (i.e., the concept of impermanence) may also support our emotional recovery.
If you want to understand your feelings without becoming overwhelmed by them, these self-distancing strategies may be helpful to you—both at home and at school. Then, you can practice self-distancing with the kids in your lives, and they can learn to respond more constructively to daily challenges, too.