What Is Self-Distancing? This Practice Can Help Your Mental Health & Relationships
Sometimes getting a bit of perspective can be difficult, particularly if you're immersed in a tricky situation where there are a lot of emotions and moving pieces in play. To help out — and give you some distance from your own situation in order to get a more complete view — researchers Ethan Kross and Ozlem Ayduk developed a psychological hack called "self-distancing." It's a technique that has gained a lot of popularity, both for its simplicity and for its positive effect.
Kross and Ayduk summed up their idea in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology in 2016, explaining that self-distancing is meant to "allow people to 'take a step back' from their experience so that they could work-through it more effectively." They added: "We likened this process to the experience of seeking out a friend’s counsel on a difficult problem. Whereas it is often challenging for the person experiencing a personal dilemma to reason objectively about their own circumstances, friends are often uniquely capable of providing sage advice because they’re not involved in the experience — they are psychologically removed from the event."
In other words, it's like taking a view of your own problems and relationships as if you're seeing them through different eyes — eyes that aren't necessarily disinterested, but are definitely less entangled in the moment. And, interestingly, a lot of research has found that self-distancing can be very helpful for dealing with challenging emotions, complicated situations, or difficult decisions.
Self-distancing also matters whether we're experiencing something right now, or in our memories. "When people deal with negative experiences, they tend to use a self-immersing perspective, visualizing the events in the first person or through their own eyes," researchers in Frontiers in Psychology explained in 2018. "However, as people reflect on their feelings about an incident, they can also adopt a self-distancing perspective by viewing the experience from the perspective of an observer or from the vantage point of a 'fly on the wall." Their study showed that adopting a self-distancing technique helped people overcome biases in tests of probability prediction, or how likely they thought certain events would be. In typical situations, people taking those tests could be swayed by all kinds of minor factors, like presentation; taking a step back, though, helped them see through those extra elements and get straight to the facts.
That's not the only benefit of self-distancing. It's also been shown to make people less angry and aggressive when provoked into a fight, and can help both adults and children control and deal with negative emotions. Research published in 2016 found that it could help reduce anxiety levels, and a study published in 2018 found that people with severe depression felt a far less intense response to negative social feedback if they used self-distancing techniques. Kross and Ayduk have also done research that shows self-distancing helps depressive people stop ruminating, or continually dwelling, on negative experiences in their past, a practice that can make depressive feelings worse.
It can also help your love life; studies in 2016 found that taking a self-distancing perspective when you're fighting with a partner creates "low partner blame, greater insight, and greater forgiveness." It can also lead to "more positive versus negative emotions about the relationship and expectations that the relationship will grow."
Learning how to self-distance can be tricky. The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley suggests that, even in the heat of the moment, you picture the perspective of an outsider or a "thoughtful friend," write about what's happening, or try to take a future perspective; what will this conflict, decision or issue bring to mind one year from now? One study in 2017 asked participants to bring up a memory as if it were being played out on a theater stage. They were then asked to imagine "walking off of the stage and up into a balcony box," where they could view the memory from the audience, looking down onto the stage.
Next time you're faced with a challenge — an argument with a coworker, somebody getting in your face, a decision that seems impossible to make — try taking a mental step back. While it's no substitute for therapy or other mental health treatments, self-distancing regularly can help you calm, make sensible choices, and see through distractions to what really matters.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.