To Navigate a Challenge, Pretend You’re Giving Advice to a Friend

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Photo: Jeremy Woodhouse/Getty Images/Blend Images

Rebecca Rusch — a.k.a., the “queen of pain” — is arguably the best adventure athlete alive. She’s won a wide range of world championships, including in whitewater rafting, mountain-biking, and cross-country skiing. She’s also dominated preeminent events in orienteering, a sport in which someone is dropped off in the middle of nowhere, oftentimes in the middle of the night, and must navigate their way back to a specified point. Rusch has even ridden her bike to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. In other words, she’s an extreme outlier in a small community of extreme outliers. Surely, her body must be in tip-top shape. But her mind must be, too; a large part of Rusch’s success lies in her ability to remain levelheaded in incontestably fraught circumstances.

It’s not unusual for Rusch to find herself in dark spots; perhaps she’s lost on an unmarked trail at the halfway point of a 200-mile hike, or running out of food in the guts of a forest at two in the morning. Last year, for example, Rusch found herself bone-cold, sleep-deprived, and all alone on a mountain ridge in the middle of a 500-mile bike race through the Italian Alps.

She told me:

“I was shivering uncontrollably despite wearing a down jacket, rain gear and all of my spare clothing. I was pedaling with all the energy I could muster, but only moving about five miles an hour on easy terrain. I was fumbling the navigation because my brain was so numb from sleep deprivation. I was throwing up because my body would no longer accept food. I had been in this state for hours as I stubbornly trudged forward and spiraled downward.”

The details are always different, but the way she manages is often the same. When she’s in these situations, Rusch creates space between her thoughts and feelings by pretending she’s giving advice to a friend. “Pretending I’m thinking about a friend rather than myself,” she told me, “almost always provides more clarity and insight about what to do in a tricky spot.” When she assesses a challenge from the outside looking in, everything changes. She goes from ruminating to problem-solving, from being overly self-critical and negative to being encouraging and cautiously optimistic. In the case of the Italian Alps bike race, she told her “friend” to stop pushing and seek immediate shelter so she could sleep, eat, and continue in daylight. That’s exactly what Rusch did, and she ended up finishing the race in a way that exceeded her wildest expectations.

Rebecca Rusch. Photo: Hyoung Chang/Denver Post via Getty Images

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Although you may never find yourself in the circumstances that Rusch does, her practice is still a valuable one. It’s a great way for anyone to think more clearly, especially in the midst of highly charged situations or big decisions. That’s because the way in which we evaluate ourselves and our circumstances is often clouded by our emotions. When we take ourselves out of these situations, however, we become more capable of thinking about them rationally.

Consider a study conducted at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. There, psychologist Igor Grossman divided 100 students, all of whom were in long-term relationships, into two groups. The first group of students was prompted to imagine, in vivid color, that they had been cheated on by their significant other. The second group was presented with the same prompt, only they were asked to imagine that rather than themselves, it was their best friend who had been cheated on. Immediately after going through this exercise, both groups of students answered questions designed to evaluate their ability to appraise the situation wisely (for example: seeing both perspectives, searching for compromise, assessing multiple solutions). The students who had imagined not themselves but their friend in the situation scored much higher.

Similar studies show that when individuals think, or journal, in the third person rather than in first person — for example,John is running into challenges with his business that seem insurmountable” versus “I am running into challenges with my business that seem insurmountable” —they, too, evaluate themselves and their situations more clearly and with more wisdom.

Collectively referred to as “self-distancing,” practices like those outlined above and Rusch’s “pretend you’re talking to a friend” allow us to remove our emotional selves from intense situations, paving the way for more thoughtful insight and subsequent decision-making. In an article published in the Journal of Research in Personality, the psychologists Ozlem Ayduk and Ethan Kross, who have studied the effects of self-distancing across contexts, write that self-distancing “leads people to focus relatively less on recounting the emotionally evocative details of their experience and relatively more on recasting it in ways that promote insight and closure.” This shift in the content of an individual’s thoughts about their past experiences, they write, “leads to lower levels of emotional reactivity,” giving the more rational parts of the brain space to operate effectively.

Put differently: When we take ourselves out of the picture, we often gain a much fuller and more holistic view of it; a view that promotes thinking alongside feeling, and a view that yields greater wisdom.

Though self-distancing is most commonly used as a point-in-time tool for specific situations, it can also be valuable as a regular practice. Consider, for instance, an individual who is fervently passionate about a pursuit — be it athletics, art, or entrepreneurship. In the midst of such a passion, it’s all too easy to let the inertia of the experience (or a single-minded focus on achieving some goal) carry you forward without pausing to thoughtfully examine how you are pursuing your passion and what you may be sacrificing along the way. Ensuring that you control such a passion —and that such a passion doesn’t control you — requires profound self-awareness; the ability to take stock of a situation and choose how to move forward, not just continue on passion-driven autopilot. In a paradoxical twist, one of the best ways — perhaps one of the only ways — to gain this sort of self-awareness is to momentarily step outside of yourself. Employing a self-distancing strategy allows you to evaluate activities or situations that are rife with passion from an entirely different perspective, one that includes logic alongside emotion.

The next time you find yourself either struggling to make a big decision, in a sensitive situation with emotions running high, wondering if you’re pursuing a passion in the right way (or if you should be pursuing it at all), or being overly self-critical, try thinking about it from the outside looking in. “I talk to myself all the time,” says Rusch. “It’s just that when I talk to myself as myself, I tend to be negative and not so helpful. But when I talk to myself as if I were talking to a friend, my words are motivating, forgiving, and far more productive.”

Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He’s a co-author of the forthcoming book PEAK PERFORMANCE. Follow him on Twitter @BStulberg.

To Make a Better Decision, Pretend You’re Advising a Friend