From the self-affirmations of Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live to countless videos on YouTube, saying nice things to your reflection in the mirror is a self-help trope that's been around for decades, and seems most often aimed at women. The practice, we're told, can help us like ourselves and our bodies more, and even make us more successful — allow us to chase our dreams!
Impressed, but skeptical, I took this self-talk idea to one of the country's leading researchers on body image to see if it's actually part of clinical practice.
David Sarwer is a psychologist and clinical director at the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania. He says that, in fact, a mirror is one of the first tools he uses with some new patients. He stands them in front of a mirror and coaches them to use gentler, more neutral language as they evaluate their bodies.
"Instead of saying, 'My abdomen is disgusting and grotesque,' " Sarwer explains, he'll prompt a patient to say, " 'My abdomen is round, my abdomen is big; it's bigger than I'd like it to be.' "
The goal, he says, is to remove "negative and pejorative terms" from the patient's self-talk. The underlying notion is that it's not enough for a patient to lose physical weight — or gain it, as some women need to — if she doesn't also change the way her body looks in her mind's eye.
This may sound weird. You're either a size 4 or a size 8, right?
Not mentally, apparently. In a 2013 study from the Netherlands, scientists watched women with anorexia walk through doorways in a lab. The women, they noticed, turned their shoulders and squeezed sideways, even when they had plenty of room.
"Their internal representation — their brain perspective on their body — is that the body is much, much bigger than, in fact, it is," says Dr. Branch Coslett, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania. He says studies like this one aren't actually new.
At least as far back as 1911, for example, the aptly named Dr. Henry Head and Dr. Gordon Morgan Holmes — two neurologists — published a series of papers exploring the body-brain connection. But they didn't look at people with anorexia.
"They used an example of the kind of hats that were then in vogue, which were these big hats with big feathers at the top," says Coslett. Holmes and Head noticed that when women who habitually wore the big hats walked through doors, they ducked — "even when not wearing the hat," Coslett says.
Their mental self was wearing the hat, even if their physical self wasn't — just as anorexic women in the Netherlands study saw themselves carrying a bigger body. Neuroscientists are still trying to understand exactly how this works.
It's clear that we all have an internal representation of our own bodies, Coslett says. We need that very specific sense of ourselves to understand how much space we take up — so we can walk and not bump into things, or perform simple tasks, like reaching out a hand and picking up a coffee cup. Studies show that this internal sense of oneself is a powerful thing. Research on what neurologists call motor imagery indicates that the same neurological networks are used both to imagine movement, and to actually move. And imagining a movement over and over can have the same effect on our brains as practicing it physically — as well as lead to similar improvements in performance.
What Coslett wants to understand — and he's just starting to study this now — is how people with eating disorders get their mental image of their body so wrong, adding inches to their thighs, butts and bellies. By understanding exactly how this misperception works, he hopes to gain insight into how to bring closer to reality the mental body image of someone struggling with anorexia or bulimia — or just a poor self-image.
So far, evidence that the words you say to yourself could change the way you see yourself is still limited to the self-reports of patients; and the effect on brain physiology hasn't yet been studied. But Coslett thinks self-talk probably does shape the physiology of perception, given that other sensory perceptions — the intensity of pain, for example, or whether a certain taste is pleasing or foul, or even what we see — can be strongly influenced by opinions, assumptions, cultural biases and blind spots.
So, maybe self-talk is more than a confidence booster. From a neuroscience perspective, it might be more like internal remodeling.
But to get the benefit, the specific words you use seem to matter, too, it turns out. Research published this year suggests that talking to yourself and using the word "I" could stress you out instead of bringing on waves of self-love and acceptance.
Psychologist Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan led the work, studying the pronouns people use when they talk to themselves silently, inside their minds.
"What we find," Kross says, "is that a subtle linguistic shift — shifting from 'I' to your own name — can have really powerful self-regulatory effects."
In other words, it changes the way you feel and behave. Kross had this idea when he was driving in the car and did something "not smart," he says — like running a red light.
"And I immediately said to myself, 'Ethan, you idiot!' " he recalls.
But because he's a psychologist, "Ethan, you idiot!" turned into, "Huh, that's interesting. Why did I talk to myself in the third person, using my own name?" He soon noticed other people doing the same thing.
When LeBron James, for example, talked about his decision to leave Cleveland for the Miami Heat back in 2010, Koss noticed that James created distance from himself in his use of language.
"I wanted to do what was best for LeBron James," the star athlete said, "and what LeBron James was going to do to make him happy." Take a look:
Malala Yousafzai did the same thing in an interview with The Daily Show's John Stewart, when she recounted (around 4:22 minutes into this clip) wrestling internally with her decision to speak out against the Taliban.
Koss decided to do an experiment to see what would happen if nonfamous people were instructed to try the same technique.
He asked volunteers to give a speech — with only five minutes of mental preparation. As they prepped, he asked some to talk to themselves and to address themselves as "I." Others he asked to either call themselves "you," or to use their own names as they readied their speeches.
Kross says that people who used "I" had a mental monologue that sounded something like, " 'Oh, my god, how am I going do this? I can't prepare a speech in five minutes without notes. It takes days for me to prepare a speech!' "
People who used their own names, on the other hand, were more likely to give themselves support and advice, saying things like, "Ethan, you can do this. You've given a ton of speeches before." These people sounded more rational, and less emotional — perhaps because they were able to get some distance from themselves.
I actually tried this. And I noticed, when I talked to myself using my own name, I got some visual distance, in my mind's eye: As I talked, I actually saw myself in the room where I was sitting, from a fly-on-the-wall perspective.
The same thing happens to other people. "We've done studies that look at exactly that phenomenon," says Kross. "And your experience is borne out by our data. It's almost like you are duping yourself into thinking about you as though you were another person."
Being an "outsider" in this way has real benefits: As LeBron James might tell you, with some distance, it's a lot easier to be kinder to that other person.
This story is part of Morning Edition's periodic series, The Changing Lives of Women.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There are a lot of videos on YouTube that encourage women to take control of the messages they're sending themselves, videos like this one.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)
LORI OSACHY: Are you getting in front of the mirror and saying, wow, I look great today; I'm a wonderful person; I look fabulous? Or are you picking your body apart and talking about, you know, how big your butt is or how scrawny your arms are or, you know, the millions of negative messages...
MARTIN: That was the voice of Lori Osachy. She's an eating disorder therapist in Florida. And we heard her there, leading a session in a self-help technique known as self-talk.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)
OSACHY: That's your assignment for today, for tip number one. Practice only allowing yourself to say positive things when you look in the mirror.
MARTIN: For our series The Changing Lives of Women, we asked NPR's Laura Starecheski to separate the science of self-talk from the talk.
LAURA STARECHESKI, BYLINE: By browsing YouTube videos and self-help books, I've learned that saying nice things to my reflection in the mirror will make me sexier, more successful, have better relationships. It can even help me start a money-making business and chase dreams I never even knew I had.
So I took this self-talk thing to one of the country's leading researchers on body image. David Sarwer is a clinical director at the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania. And a mirror turns out to be one of the first things he puts in front of new patients.
DAVID SARWER: What we'll often do is have them stand in front of a mirror and try to use different, more neutral language in terms of evaluating their bodies. Instead of saying, you know, my abdomen is disgusting and grotesque, to get them to say, my abdomen is round; my abdomen is big; it's bigger than I'd like it to be - but to reframe it and to take some of those very negative and pejorative terms out of the self-talk that they're engaged in.
STARECHESKI: It's not enough for a patient to lose weight or gain it, as the case may be, if she doesn't also change the way her body looks in her mind's eye. This may sound weird because weight is physical; you're either a size 4 or size 8. But in a study done last year in the Netherlands, scientists watched women with anorexia as they walked through doorways in a lab. The scientists noticed that the women turned their shoulders and squeezed sideways even when they had plenty of room.
BRANCH COSLETT: Their internal representation - their brain perspective on their body - is that the body is much, much bigger than, in fact, it is.
STARECHESKI: That's Branch Coslett, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania. He says studies like this one aren't actually new.
COSLETT: Discussions of these kinds of things goes back to a series of beautiful papers in the journal "Brain." This guy Holmes and Head - these two famous neurologists.
STARECHESKI: The aptly named Henry Head and Gordon Morgan Holmes explored the body-brain connection way back in 1911. But they didn't look at people with anorexia.
COSLETT: They used an example of the kinds of hats that were then in vogue, which were these big hats with big feathers at the top. They were talking about how these women who were wearing these hats habitually, when they go through doors, would duck even if they're not wearing their hat.
STARECHESKI: Their mental self was wearing the hat, even if their physical self wasn't - just as anorexic women in the Netherlands study saw themselves carrying a bigger body. Neuroscientists are still trying to understand exactly how this works. One thing they do know is that we all have an internal representation of our bodies. We need it to walk and not bump into things, to do simple tasks like pick up a cup of coffee. What Coslett wants to understand - and he's actually just starting to research this now - is how people with eating disorders get their mental body so wrong, adding inches to their thighs, butts and bellies. When you think like a neuroscientist, talking to yourself in the mirror isn't just a confidence booster; it's more like internal remodeling.
COSLETT: We create internal representations that are very different from the world. So if you can take somebody and say, I believe that my body type is sexy, is cool, is desirable, I think that's going to influence what they see.
STARECHESKI: I am cool. I am desirable. I'm going to do an amazing job at this next interview. I'm not quite convinced, and I'm not alone in this. When you're talking to yourself and you use the word I, you might stress yourself out more.
ETHAN KROSS: If I'm really stressed out about this interview that I've got to do, rather than thinking about, oh, my goodness, why am I feeling this way? You might just use your own name and say, well, why is Ethan feeling this way?
STARECHESKI: Ethan Kross is a psychologist at the University of Michigan. He studies the pronouns people use when they talk to themselves silently, inside their minds.
KROSS: What we find is that that subtle linguistic shift - shifting from I to your own name - can have really powerful self-regulatory effects.
STARECHESKI: Self-regulatory meaning you can change the way you feel and behave. Kross had this idea when he was driving in the car and - his words - did something not smart, like run a red light.
KROSS: And I immediately said to myself, Ethan, you idiot.
STARECHESKI: But because he's a psychologist, Ethan, you idiot turned into, huh, that's interesting. Why did I talk to myself in the third person using my own name? Then he started noticing people doing this all the time. Here's just one example, LeBron James in 2010, talking about his decision to leave Cleveland for the Miami Heat.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LEBRON JAMES: One thing that I didn't want to do was make an emotional decision, and I wanted to do what was best, you know, for LeBron James and what LeBron James is going to do to make him happy.
STARECHESKI: LeBron James says he doesn't want to make an emotional decision. He then literally creates distance from himself in his language. Kross did an experiment to see what would happen if non-famous people tried this. He asked people to give a speech with only 5 minutes of mental preparation. One group was then told to talk to themselves using I and another group to use you or their own names. Kross says that people who used I had a mental monologue that sounded something like this.
KROSS: Oh, my God. How am I going to do this? I can't prepare a speech in 5 minutes without notice. It takes days for me to prepare a speech.
STARECHESKI: People who used their own names, though, tended to give themselves support and advice.
KROSS: Things like, Ethan, you can do this. You've given a ton of speeches before.
STARECHESKI: They were more rational and less emotional. I actually tried this. I went into my bathroom, sat on the edge of the tub, closed my eyes and talked to myself.
Laura, you're doing a great job with this story.
And when I used my own name, that other person began to take shape in my mind's eye.
Laura you've got some really interesting ideas in here.
I sort of saw myself in the room, from a fly-on-the-wall perspective. There I was, a mini version of me, sitting on the edge of the bathtub. Turns out this happens to other people, too.
KROSS: We've done studies that look at exactly that phenomenon, and your experience is borne out by our data.
STARECHESKI: Kross says that using your own name actually leads you to see yourself from an outside point of view.
KROSS: It's almost like you are duping yourself into thinking about you as though you were another person.
STARECHESKI: And being an outsider has real benefits - objectivity is one - like Lebron James would tell you. And it turns out it's a lot easier to be kinder with that other person. Laura Starecheski, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.