By Gina Barreca
The Hartford Courant.
During your inner monologues, those little speeches you give to yourself throughout the day, do you address yourself by name?
Scientists say you should.
Writers in Psychology Today, The Harvard Business Review and Spirituality and Health are thrilled by a recent study indicating that men and women who refer to themselves either by name or in the third person are calmer, less stressed and more confident than those who use “I” or “me.”
The primary researchers on the effect of pronoun use in how people psyche themselves into (or out of) high-achieving performance are Ethan Kross and Ozlem Ayduck of the University of Michigan. These two are so entirely convinced by the efficacy of positive third-person self-talk, they’re doing it to themselves.
In The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, they said, “Having observed the power of this subtle shift, both of us now intentionally make use of it. One of us (Ozlem Ayduk) has even been known, when facing a difficult task, to write herself emails using her name. The other (Ethan Kross) regularly prompts his 5-year-old daughter to use her own name in thinking about why she feels distressed when she doesn’t get her way.”
If you were raised as I was, which can be summed up as, “Exactly the opposite of how Professor Kross is raising his 5-year-old”, hearing your name was not a sign of encouragement. It was a sign you were in trouble. It was not going to lead to an esteem-enhancing moment.
As a result, if I imagine hearing the phrase, “Gina, do you know what you can do?” what leaps to mind are not positive affirmations. What leaps to mind are the things said in bars that wind up in fistfights.
And if I started emailing myself notes beginning, “Dear beleaguered, nervous and hard-working Gina,” when under pressure, nobody around me would see it as a pathway toward better mental health. They would see it as my veering toward the middle-aged lady version of “Fight Club.” They would be correct.
Yet, because I hate to think of Gina Barreca as being inflexible, Gina Barreca might start referring to herself in the third person. After all, Gina Barreca wants to benefit from subtle shifts in language helping her become less anxious while aiding her in constructing wiser decisions by allowing for a wider perspective, which, the scientists argue, can be made available by thinking of one’s self from a linguistic distance.
For instance, Gina Barreca might want to put distance between herself and the memories of being referred to by her proper name only when it was used as a form of punctuation.
Gina remembers hearing “GINA!” shouted across backyards and over windowsills the way people yell “FIRE!” or “SUPPER!” which, to be fair, was the word that most often followed her being summoned home.
In Brooklyn, as in many cities, it was imperative to call a child by some moniker that could be heard at least a couple of blocks away. There were no Ashleys, Zephyrs or Auroras in the days of shouting across rooftops. Those children would never have made their way home.
(Can you imagine what the repeated shouting of “AURORA!” from a fourth-floor window on a hot July evening would sound like? It would sound like a lion with poorly fitted dentures trying to speak another language. The entire neighborhood would have to shut down because of the laughing.)
Kids were called Pat, Don, Jack, Gail, Bob, Peggy, Johnny and Mike. Due to crammed quarters and Catholicism, it was occasionally necessary to distinguish between the Pats and Mikes, leading to Small Pat and Young Mike, as well as Tall Gail and Big John. At times it sounded medieval. At times it was.
Yet a name was a name was a name. It wasn’t an incantation. You said your name out loud only when asked for your ID by an authority figure, and even then you might employ an alias.
Self-satisfaction and self-worth are terrific, but I remain as wary of sweet-talking myself as I would be of accepting overwrought flattery from somebody else.
If I hear, “Good job, Gina,” I’m always going to hope that I’m not the only one saying it. I hope Gina doesn’t take it personally.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant.