How to be Confident Under Stress – Surprising New Research

    Businessmen acting like superheros and tearing shirts off with copy space

    How do you talk to yourself when you’re getting ready for an important meeting, interview, speaking engagement, or other high-pressure event? It turns out that changing just one word in your self-talk can make all the difference in how confident you are.

    “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.

    A corporate HR trainer I’ll call Bev found this out recently. Her confidence was at two out of a possible 10 (where zero is no confidence and 10 is the most confidence she has ever had) as she prepared for a presentation.

    She had been using first-person affirmations such as “I can do this!” “I’m a good presenter.” “I’m prepared!” But they weren’t working. So she switched to second person, statements such as, “You can do this!” “Bev, you know your stuff, you’ve prepared really well!”

    The result: Her confidence level catapulted to eight out of 10, and she knocked the presentation out of the park!

    Scientist Ethan Kross, Ph.D. performed a series of brain imaging research studies to examine the difference between the first- and second-person self-talk in stressful situations. Here is what he found:

    1. When your self-talk is in the first person (beginning your sentences with “I”):

    • You are likely to get anxious and perform badly in stressful situations.

    2. When your self-talk is second person (you begin your sentences with your name, or you) in stressful situations:

    • Your probability of being successful skyrockets.
    • You will likely have less ruminating (less worrying).
    • You increase your conscious awareness.
    • Your brain is able to perform at its best.

    Kross explains in a Psychology Today article that first person self-talk uses a different part of the brain than second person self-talk. He demonstrated that when speaking in the first person under stress, you are operating from the amygdala, which is considered 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 your “thought center” and is not emotional.

    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 be more rational, have more self-control and clearer thinking, allowing you to perform up to your potential.

    The situations where this seems to be most effective are those where you find yourself stressed or scared. Using first-person “I” statements when not in stressful situations is probably very effective. But consider using second-person self-talk when you’re stressed but want to be at your best!

    These studies are all included in “Pronouns Matter when Psyching Yourself Up” by Ozlem Ayduk and Ethan Kross.