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Changing This 1 Word in Your Thoughts Can Boost Mental Toughness and Resilience, Psychologists Say

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We hear all the time that it's much easier to give advice to a friend than to ourselves — and the saying largely holds.

Is that job too stressful to stay in? We're often too close to the situation to have any sort of objectivity. Yet, if we see the same situation with a friend, the answer comes almost instantly. We have some distance, so we can tell her without hesitation that she needs to quit her job.

This phenomenon doesn't just hold true with giving advice, but also in how we persist and navigate discomfort. 

As a performance coach who has worked with top athletes and business executives, I've found that changing the grammar in your self-talk can boost your mental toughness and resilience.

It's very easy and simple: Switch "I" to "you."

Create "psychological distance" to boost resilience

Psychologists have found that when we use first-person pronouns (e.g., "I can do 20 pushups," or "We can get this project done in time.") as part of our inner dialogue, we create a self-immersed world — and that's not always a good thing.

A self-immersed perspective amplifies the emotional aspects of the situation. Our world narrows and we get drawn into the emotionality of the experience, setting ourselves up for the negative cascade toward choosing the "easy path" in our toughness paradigm.

We are also likely to see the situation as a threat and get locked in on any details that might trigger danger.

On the opposite end, according researchers from the University of Michigan, using second- or third-person pronouns (e.g., "You can do 20 pushups. You've done it before," or "[Your name] and her team can finish this presentation. They are all so talented.") creates space and a self-distanced perspective.

When we create psychological distance, our view of the world broadens. We can let go of the emotionality — seeing the world clearly for what it is, instead of letting it spiral.

Put another way, we transform into that friend giving advice, not blinded by our connection to the issue.

Zoom out in your inner dialogue

Using second- or third-person language in your self-talk creates distance between an experience and our emotional response. This linguistic trick allows us to zoom out.

When we broaden our worldview beyond a self-immersed world, we move from emotional reaction to action. 

So the next time you're in a stressful situation and in need of motivation, instead of saying to yourself "I can get through this," say "[Your name] can get through this."

Or, even better, put yourself in the shoes of someone you admire: "Spider-Man can overcome this. He always does."

Steve Magness is a mental performance coach and author of "Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Toughness," "Peak Performance," "The Passion Paradox," "The Science of Running." He has served as a consultant for teams in the MLB, NBA, and a variety of other sports. Follow Steve on Twitter @stevemagness.

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This is an adapted excerpt from "Do Hard Things" by Steve Magness, reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2022.

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