On the surface at least, Julius Caesar and Elmo make an unlikely pair. One was a Roman statesman, general, and historian who was immortalized in a Shakespeare play and who lived more than 2,000 years ago. The other is a slightly manic Muppet with mangy red fur and an orange nose, whose exact citizenship is unclear but whose last forwarding address was Sesame Street.
Yet both of these figures are expert practitioners of the same rhetorical maneuver: illeism, a fancy word for talking about oneself in the third person. When Julius Caesar describes his Gallic Wars exploits in his book Commentarii de Bello Gallico, he never uses I or other first-person pronouns. Instead, he crafts sentences like “Caesar learned through spies that the mountain was in possession of his own men.” Likewise, when Elmo explains his commitment to the life of the mind, he, too, disdains the first person. He favors constructions like “Elmo loves to learn!”
Some people find illeism annoying. But talking about ourselves in the third person is one variety of what social psychologists call self-distancing.
When we’re beset by negative emotions, including regret, one response is to immerse ourselves in them, to face the negativity by getting up close and personal. But immersion can catch us in an undertow of rumination. A better, more effective, and longer-lasting approach is to move in the opposite direction — not to plunge in, but to zoom out and gaze upon our situation as a detached observer, much as a movie director pulls back the camera.
Self-distancing helps you analyze and strategize — to examine the regret dispassionately without shame or rancor and to extract from it a lesson that can guide your future behavior.
Self-distancing changes your role from scuba diver to oceanographer, from swimming in the murky depths of regret to piloting above the water to examine its shape and shoreline. “People who self-distance focus less on recounting their experiences and more on reconstruing them in ways that provide insight and closure,” explain Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan and Özlem Ayduk of the University of California, Berkeley, two prominent scholars of the subject. Shifting from the immersive act of recounting to the more distanced act of reconstruing regulates our emotions and redirects behavior. As a result, self-distancing strengthens thinking, enhances problem-solving skills, deepens wisdom, and even reduces the elevated blood pressure that often accompanies stressful situations.