Who’s the Wise Guy?

We credit Socrates with the insight that “the unexamined life is not worth living” and that to “know thyself” is the path to true wisdom. But is there a right and a wrong way to go about such self-reflection?

Simple rumination—the process of churning your concerns around in your head—isn’t the answer. It’s likely to cause you to become stuck in the rut of your own thoughts and immersed in the emotions that might be leading you astray. Certainly, research has shown that people who are prone to rumination also often suffer from impaired decision making under pressure, and are at a substantially increased risk of depression.

Instead, the scientific research suggests that you should adopt an ancient rhetorical method favored by the likes of Julius Caesar and known as “illeism”—or speaking about yourself in the third person (the term was coined in 1809 by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge from the Latin ille meaning “he, that”). If I was considering an argument that I’d had with a friend, for instance, I might start by silently thinking to myself: “David felt frustrated that…” The idea is that this small change in perspective can clear your emotional fog, allowing you to see past your biases.

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