A La Sasha Fierce
“Usually, when I heard the chords, when I put on my stilettos, like the moment right before when you’re nervous…then Sasha Fierce appears, and my posture and the way I speak, everything is different.” — Beyoncé (2008 Oprah Winfrey Show)
The secret to Beyoncé’s unapologetic demeanor on stage is the creation of an alter ego — Sasha Fierce. It allows her to take a step back, and emotionally detach from the pressure of meeting the expectations of the couple thousand beehive fans in the audience.
“We could all boost our emotional regulation, self-control and general poise by choosing to embody another persona à la Sasha Fierce” says Celina Furman ,a social psychology researcher from the University of Minnesota.
Adopting an alter ego like Sasha Fierce, or simply thinking of yourself in the third person can help you stick to your goals — whether it be a new exercise routine, carrying out a business plan, or staying clean.
Reframing Your Identity Crisis
We all curate our identities in order to fit into different groups. Our persona can vary according to different social situations— the one who pops out to have dinner with friends and the one who greets your co-workers at the boss’s funeral are probably diametrically opposed.
The problem is that we are usually unaware of just how malleable our personality actually is. However, consciously tailoring our personality can do wonders in terms of silencing our own negative feedback.
While working at the UN Headquarters in NYC, a close friend and I started using alter egos when we went out clubbing. One night a week we would ditch the business attire, detach from our career goals and adopt completely different personalities. We would imagine these intricate stories and play them out to strangers on rooftop bars. Creating the Mr. Hyde to my Jekyll was thrilling. I truly would become a sexier, more confident and hardcore version of myself — all of the inhibitions that held me back in daylight would disappear after nightfall.
As it turns out, creating alter egos is a proven form of psychological distancing that allows you to adopt desirable personality traits.
Unlike my reckless NY nightlife stunts, adopting an alter ego can also help you emulate the behaviours of people you look up to—such as discipline, self control and courage.
Old assumption: There is only one true version of my personality.
Reframe: My personality changes according to different social needs, so I might as well change it consciously.
The Batman Effect
In 2016 Stephanie Carlson, Professor of Cognitive Development at the Institute of Child Development, took a group of five-year-olds and gave them a test of concentration. The test was designed to be pretty boring but the children were told that it was a ‘very important activity’ and that they would be rewarded if they worked on the task for as long as possible. Beforehand, some of the children were told to think “Am I working hard?” while others were given the option to change persona entirely by embodying a fictional hero— In this case Batman. They were encouraged to ask themselves “What would Batman do?” whenever they felt the urge to get up and leave.
The researchers had suspected that the alter ego would be a more extreme form of self-distancing, and the results showed exactly that. Overall, children aged 5 performed as if they were 6 years of age, whereas the behaviour of their counterparts who were not given this suggestion did not exhibit any changes.
By helping children distance themselves from the situation, the researchers helped them observe their own behaviour. The self-distancing technique created a window of opportunity for children to reign in on their immediate desires and stick to the task at hand.
Old assumption: This is my anxiety and insecurity, my impulses are stronger than my self-control.
Reframe: But what if it was Batman’s anxiety and insecurity? My alter-ego’s self-control is stronger than my immediate impulses.
Psychological distancing refers to the idea of putting some distance between you and the problem at hand, or the temptation that you are trying to resist. This allows one to get a broader perspective on a situation and realize that you have a choice in how to respond versus the usual knee-jerk reaction.
“Self-distancing gives us a little bit of extra space to think rationally about the situation,” says Rachel White, assistant professor of psychology at Hamilton College in New York State. It allows us to keep feelings like anxiety and impatience in check while increasing our level of self-control and determination.
Whatever persona we choose, the practice should create some psychological space from our feelings, while reminding us of the attitudes we want to emulate. Asking yourself how your hero would behave automatically pushes you towards making the right decision, instead of opting for the easy way out.
Old assumption: These is no degree of separation between myself and my feelings. Therefore there is no choice in how to react.
Reframe: Self-distancing allows me to observe and analyze my feelings towards an event. It helps me choose the best way to act, instead of reacting out of impulse.
A Little Cognitive Exercise to Get You Started
Name your alter ego: Choose an icon you look up to, or baptize your own creation. This is the vehicle that will enable you to detach from your insecurities, observe the situation, and choose to do what _______ would do (Insert alter ego in blank space).
Choose your superpowers: What is it about this icon’s personality that makes you look up to them? Choose a set of behaviours you would like to emulate and associate them with your alter ego.
Get to know your alter ego: When you have finished creating your avatar, spend some time getting to know him or her. How would they act under pressure? How would they act if tempted? How would they act if they fell in love?
It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me. — Batman / Bruce Wayne