I once heard an actor (whose name I unfortunately can't recall) talk about how he dealt with his fear of appearing on talk shows to promote his movies.
"I'm scared to death I'll be totally boring or say stupid things," he said. "So instead of onstage as 'myself,' I pretend I'm playing a character who is an actor on a talk show: one who is witty, clever, and charming. And suddenly it's easy."
While adopting a fictional persona to overcome stage fright sounds extreme or even silly--especially for someone who makes a living performing for audiences and cameras--research shows that approach can pay off.
Self-distancing, taking a step back from your immediate feelings and viewing a situation from a different perspective or mental remove, can actually provide psychological and emotional benefits by allowing you to gain better control over your emotions.
One example: A 2018 study published in Emotion split participants into two groups. One group was told to think about an important upcoming test as if they were "immersed" in the situation, or to think of themselves as participants. The other group was told to picture observing the test from a distance, or to think of themselves as spectators.
The "distanced" group reported feeling much less nervous and anxious about the test--and also felt they would be much more likely to do well on the test.
In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, participants gave a public speech. Some were instructed to work through their emotions by using the third person. (Instead of thinking, "I feel nervous ... " I would say to myself, "Jeff feels nervous ... ")
The goal was to help participants see the situation from an outsider, rather than "immersed," perspective.
The result? Participants reported feeling less stressed and anxious. Their heart rates and blood pressure levels confirmed that impression. Plus, since confidence typically improves performance, independent observers rated their performances as better than those of participants who did not adopt an outside perspective.
Like the actor pretending to be an actor appearing on a talk show, self-distancing can help you overcome emotions and see things more objectively.
You can see the bigger picture. You can be more rational and less fearful.
You can even gain greater self-control.
Dora the Explorer Kicks Butt
A 2016 study published in Developmental Science gave children a boring task. They sat in front of a computer and pressed a button whenever they saw a picture of cheese. To make things harder, they were also given an iPad to tempt them away from the task.
All the kids were told that thinking about their feelings when they lost motivation would help. Then, one group was told to think, "Am I working hard?"
Another group was told to think of themselves in the third person: "Is Jeff working hard?"
The last group was told to think of themselves as their favorite fictional character, as in "Is Dora the Explorer working hard?" or "Is Batman working hard?"
You can guess what happened: Kids using the third-person technique stuck with it 10 percent longer than those who were "immersed," and the kids who adopted an alter ego hung in there 23 percent longer.
The researchers attributed the difference to increased executive function, the cognitive processes necessary for selecting and monitoring behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals: Think planning, focusing, prioritizing, and staying the course when times get tough.
Dora kicked butt and took names.
Why? I'm just me ... but she's Dora the Explorer.
What Would (Steve Jobs) Do?
When our daughters talk about a difficult decision they need to make, one of us sometimes says, "What would Grandpa Haden do?"
We're kind of joking, but kind of not: My father tended to make the right--which usually meant the hard--decision.
Just as giving other people advice is a lot easier than giving ourselves advice, thinking about what Grandpa Haden might say instantly created greater self-distance and a more "outside" perspective.
If you're struggling with a bloated product line but hate the idea of dropping some of your darlings, adopt the self-distance a Steve Jobs persona affords. What would Jobs do? Cut two-thirds of the product line and focus on items with the most potential.
"Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do," Jobs said. "It's true for companies, and it's true for products."
If your last venture folded and you're trying to determine a path forward, adopt the self-distance a Mark Cuban persona affords. What would Cuban do if he had to start over? Sell, because sales skills are necessary in almost every pursuit.
"I would get a job as a bartender at night and a sales job during the day," Cuban said on the podcast How I Built This, "and I would start working. Could I become a multimillionaire again? I have no doubt."
If you're struggling to stay the course on a long-term goal, adopt the self-distance a Leo Tolstoy persona affords. What would Tolstoy do if he felt like taking a day off?
"I must write each day without fail," Tolstoy said, "not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine."
Keep in mind the goal isn't to develop multiple personalities. You don't have to be Dora to occasionally think like Dora, or be Cuban to occasionally think like Cuban.
Using an alter ego helps you take a step back, create some space from the emotions that may affect your judgment, and gain greater perspective.
Which means you'll make smarter, more objective decisions.
While it does mean, for a minute or two, playing a character who is running a business, leading a team, or staying a difficult course, you'll still be the one who accomplishes your goal.