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By this point in the game, there’s a good chance you already know about the therapeutic power of writing. But not just any writing allows us to access a new and better perspective on the world. 

Self-distancing is the active ingredient. When you write about your life from a place where you can see yourself from the outside, you stand the best chance of improving your emotional and physical health, as well as taking control of destructive habits. 

We have included self-distancing mechanisms in every act and mission of Betwixt, and the process you engaged with in Dream Four was the most involved so far. Our aim here is to give you a little extra information to help you make self-distancing a friend for life. 

What is Self-distancing?

It’s normal to try and understand our feelings when we’re struggling and it’s important that we do so. In order to achieve this aim, we tend to ask ourselves various versions of one simple question: Why?

  • Why am I feeling this way?

  • Why is this happening to me?

  • Why are they treating me like this?

  • Why me?

We ask “Why?” because we want answers. But when it comes to personal problems, “Why?” can be remarkably bad at yielding accurate explanations or useful solutions. Instead, it tends to inspire a whole new string of “Why?” questions that can lead us down the rabbit hole of anxious introspection. At least, it does when we stay too close to home when we ask it.

In 2016, researchers Ethan Kross and Ozlem Ayduk published their extensive research on the psychological and behavioural benefits of self-distancing:

We hypothesized that people’s attempts to reflect adaptively on their negative feelings often fail because they focus on their experiences from a psychologically immersed perspective, which makes it difficult for people to reason objectively without getting caught up in the emotionally arousing details of what happened to them. Thus, we hypothesized that a mechanism was needed to allow people to “take a step back” from their experience so that they could work-through it more effectively. We called this process self-distancing.

- E. Kross (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, United States) and O. Ayduk (University of California, Berkeley, CA, United States), Self-Distancing: Theory, Research, and Current Directions.

Self-distancing, in other words, enables us to ask “Why?” — and indeed “What?”, “How?”, “Who?” and any other questions we need to explore — in an effective and empowering way. It teaches us to relate to ourselves in a similar way to how we relate to a struggling friend. It’s this extra space that enables the healing because it encourages self-empathy; the otherwise elusive compassionate perspective on our own behaviours, decisions and reactions.

Four ways to self-distance when you write

Option 1: Self-distance using imagery

If you’re someone who likes to think in a visual way, you can create the space required within your visualisation. Rather than remembering an event from the first-person perspective, view yourself experiencing it as if you are the proverbial fly on the wall. Take stock of your body language and facial expressions in response to the external stimuli. If you were speaking at the time, notice the emotion in your voice and consider your choice of words. Observe your behaviours and decisions as if you’re watching someone else making them.

The most illuminating details often surface when expressive writing follows a tangent. So, even though you start with a certain event in mind, you most certainly don’t have to stay in that scenario. Just make sure that, when switching to secondary memories or topics, you take a moment to create the distance each time.

Option 2: Invite an “important other” into the scene

The perspective of an objective (or compassionate, wise) observer can be enormously powerful. In a recent study, five-year-olds demonstrated an improved ability to overcome challenges when asked the question, “What would Batman do?” As cute as that option is, your observer needn’t be a superhero. Consider inviting an insightful friend, caring grandparent or an important teacher/mentor into the scene. Pick anyone whose point of view you might benefit from modelling, and then step into their shoes.

Option 3: Avoid using the pronoun “I”

You can self-distance by writing about yourself, using the pronouns "they", "she" or "he", or by using your name. Another option is to write to yourself using your the word “you” rather than “I” or “me” — a little like writing yourself a letter. In doing this, you can offer the kind of advice you may give a friend, and you can raise the questions you really need to answer.

This technique may be the most effective when adopting a self-distanced perspective in your self-talk (i.e. in thought rather than writing). In a study concerned with social anxiety, a group of students were told that they were going to be judged on their ability to make a good impression on a member of the opposite sex. The aim was to induce stress. Before the test, they were asked to reflect on their nerves using either first-person or non-first-person pronouns. Judges rated the performance of those in the non-first-person group to be better overall. Those who avoided the word “I” also reported significantly lower levels of anxiety when interviewed after the interaction.

So, if you’re struggling with the pressure of an imminent event, pausing to reflect on your inner experience in either the second- or third-person could be a good — if a little odd-seeming — idea.

Option 4: Focus on your future self

Finally, while writing about a challenge in your present-day life, asking yourself the question, “How will I feel about this in a week/month/five year’s time?” can create the required distance temporally. By imagining looking back on the event, rather than viewing it from deep inside the emotional fog, we draw to our attention the impermanence of our current situation. This is a powerful thing. Creating the space temporally also prompts us to consider the actions we might take to overcome the challenge, as well as the growth opportunities it will most likely provide.

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