The Difference Between “I” and “You” in Building “Us”

One of the more interesting trends in research these days relates to how we talk to ourselves. We all do it, but most of us don’t pay attention to the phenomenon. But how we do this has an impact on how we think and act.

An obvious example is how we refer to ourselves. Persons with behavior disorders, we find out, often treat themselves badly too. They scold themselves and then compensate by exaggerating  love of the self. Some think that learning how to be nicer to oneself can reduce the problem. Well, it does not sound unreasonable.

Less obvious is the distinction between using “I” and “you” in self-dialogue. I just found out today that there is such a difference.

People who referred to themselves as “you” or by their own names while silently talking to themselves in preparation for a five-minute speech were subsequently calmer and more confident and performed better on the talk than people who had referred to themselves as “I” or “me”

While I had not thought of it in such direct terms, the results fit my overall sense of how the mind functions. Using “you” creates a potentially detached and helpful inner presence. One that is not at risk from the situation. Using “I” means that you? are broadcasting. But to whom? No one in particular.

So I began to think, “which do I use?” Errr … “which to you use?” And I could see more “I” than I would like. I also noticed the very different feeling that proclaiming “I don’t like this …” or “I would love to …” from “You can do it”. Try it out.

As Rory Sutherland (see video below) and many others have pointed out, these contextual differences make a huge difference in how we feel about ourselves and the world around us.

Odd. But it explains why we love fiction. Stories take us out of ourselves (we suspend talking to ourselves as “I”) by creating other dimensions of experience through characters. We internalize their experiences.  As Kurt Vonnegut brought out, we love watching those shifts as they happen to others. Because we have the safety of knowing that it is not “me”.


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