How to be confident under stress – surprising new research

The power of second-person speak

"Inner talk is one of the most effective, least utilized tools available to master the psyche and foster life success."

May/June 2015, Psychology Today

It’s amazing the difference a single word can make when it comes to self-confidence and success.

Consider the case of youngest-ever Nobel Prize winner Malala Youasfzai, the courageous Pakistani girl shot in the head by the Taliban after standing up for the right of girls to an education. She shared her thought process about the Taliban’s possible retribution with The Daily Show host Jon Stewart, saying that she had asked herself, “If the Taliban comes, what would you do, Malala?” She answered herself, “Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.”

That exchange inspired Ethan Kross, Ph.D. to create a series of ground-breaking research studies (included in "Pronouns Matter when Psyching Yourself Up" by Ozlem Ayduk and Ethan Kross) to examine the difference between the first- and second-person self-talk in stressful situations. He found that you’re likely to get flustered and perform poorly in stressful situations if you try to prepare yourself using first-person affirmations (beginning your sentences with “I”).

The benefits of second- versus first-person self-talk.

However, your likelihood of success skyrockets if you talk to yourself in the second person, using your name or “you” to start sentences. Other benefits:

  • You will worry less.
  • You increase your consciousness.
  • Your brain will be free to perform at its best.

Kross’ explanation is that self-talk in the first person uses a different part of the brain than self-talk in the second person. Using brain scan studies, he demonstrated that when speaking in the first person under stress, you are operating from the amygdala, which is the “fear center” of the brain. When self-talking in the second person, using your name, you utilize the cerebral cortex, which is more like our “thought center”.

The neuroscience of why this works.

By moving your thoughts when under stress away from your amygdala into your cerebral cortex, you leave your “emotional brain”, giving you distance from your feelings. Thus, you experience less fear and less stress. In this part of your brain, you will have more self-control and clearer thinking, allowing you to perform up to your potential.

A corporate trainer and client I’ll call Eve recently tried this out for herself as she prepared to speak to a group of peers. Despite her excellent presentation skills, she was feeling anxious and insecure.

So instead of using self-talk affirmations such as “I can do this!”, she switched to coach-mode with “Eve, you know your stuff!” and “You can do this!”

The result? Her self-confidence soared to a level of eight out of a possible 10 from a two out of 10 (where zero is no confidence and 10 is the most confidence she has ever had).

Eve delivered her presentation with absolute confidence―and you can do the same. Next time you are going into a potentially stressful situation, give it try!

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