“C’mon Lisa, you can do this.” I repeat this mantra to myself whenever I get stuck on a problem. While saying this in the middle of my neighborhood coffee shop may make me look like a crazy person, a new study from the University of Illinois, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology says I may be doing the best thing to boost my chances of success.
Psychologists call this self-talk. While previous studies have found self-talk can boost willpower and help you psych yourself up when you need to get through a difficult task or to calm nerves before an important presentation or meeting, the study, led by psychologist Dr. Sanda Dolcos, found the pronoun we use to talk to ourselves also matters.
Using the pronoun “you”–as in “you’re going to do a fantastic presentation today” is more effective than using “I.” In the study, students were asked to write out self-advice while completing anagrams. Half the students were asked to address themselves as “I” while the other half were instructed to use the second-person “you.” When using “you,” the students not only completed more anagrams but said they would be happier to work on more in the future compared with students who used the first-person self-talk or students who gave themselves no advice at all.
Dolcos speculates that second-person self-talk may be more beneficial because it triggers memories of receiving support and encouragement from parents and teachers in childhood. “That’s the way we grow up, with our parents and others encouraging us, telling us ‘you can do it,’ ‘you are good,’” she says. Using the second person is also how we give advice to others and Dolcos says may help us get a better perspective on the situation, allowing us to view the event in the way a significant other may see it and reproduce the kind of encouragements others would provide. “The first person is usually more emotional,” she says.
People who lack social support from peers or loved ones can benefit from using second-person self-talk to get the same benefits of a support system without actually interacting with other people.
While motivational quotes plastered around your desk may also be beneficial, Dolcos says self-talk is more effective as it can be adjusted to meet an individual’s unique needs and interests. “The words you choose will be very personal to what you need to hear,” says Dolcos.
You can psych yourself up without appearing to be crazy. Writing your self-advice may be as effective as verbal self-talk. The students in Dolcos’s study were instructed to write their self-advice, although Dolcos says the effect could be attributed to the fact that writing is a therapeutic tool, she says further research is needed to determine whether self-talk is more beneficial when given verbally or written.
The next time you find yourself in a demanding situation where you need a boost, don’t be afraid to tell yourself “you can do it.”