Have you ever felt so angry that you can’t see straight?
Many of us have been in a situation when our emotions prevent us from seeing the big picture and responding appropriately; for example:
We might feel swept away by our emotions, leading us to say or do hurtful things.
We might feel paralyzed by our feelings, and we’re unable to move past the emotion.
We might make bad decisions because we lose sight of the bigger picture.
In these emotionally charged situations, the best thing to do is increase the psychological distance between you and the event.
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We often find ourselves in situations when we can’t see the bigger picture. For example, in cases when we feel extreme stress, anxiety, sadness, or anger, it can be challenging to grasp the consequences of this particular event. To help us, we can use the technique of psychological distancing.
The concept of psychological distancing is meant to describe our ability to “step back and without an immediate response, survey the environment, and reflect on the course of action instead of being dominated by immediate simulation” (Giesbrecht, Müller, & Miller, 2010, p. 337).
There are three main streams among the existing body of research about psychological distancing:
Psychological distancing can refer to the temporal distancing of events in time. For example, events in the distant future are treated differently compared to events in the near future (Trope & Liberman, 2003).
Psychological distancing describes our ability to separate ourselves from people whom we dislike. Specifically, we create space between ourselves and someone else who we perceive as undesirable (Schimel, Pyszczynski, Greenberg, O’Mahen, & Arndt, 2000).
Psychological distancing is rooted in developmental psychology and describes how children create space between their actions and their immediate environment (Giesbrecht et al., 2010).
The first and third streams are the roots of psychological distancing referred to in this post. Together, they suggest the same thing: increasing the distance between ourselves and something else so that we can change the way we approach and think about the current situation.
Therefore, psychological distancing is a psychological technique where we step away from a situation or position so that we can gain perspective.
Gaining perspective through psychological distancing can refer to various outcomes.
For example, perspective can refer to long-term aspects of planning. By gaining perspective, we are better able to define goals and meet deadlines.
Perspective can also refer to the weakened clutch of negative emotions. For example, your partner might do something that makes your blood boil. However, when you gain psychological distancing, you may realize that their behavior did not justify the intense emotional reaction that you felt.
In summary, psychological distancing acts like a wide-angle lens. It allows us to zoom out from our narrow, magnified experience so that we can see events and experiences as part of a more extensive process.
The Theory of Psychological Distancing
To understand the theory, we look into the different components – its development, different types, the role language has to play, and how it relates to executive functioning before summing it all up.
Types of psychological distancing
Trope, Liberman, and Wakslak (2007) describe four types of psychological distancing: time, space, social distance, and hypotheticality (i.e., likelihood).
Time: We think about events that are far in the future differently compared to activities that will happen soon. For events in the distant future, we use more abstract terms (e.g., “Paying off my credit card”) compared to near-future events (e.g., “Paying $100 towards my credit card each month”).
Space: We use more abstract terms to describe events that occur within a physically near space than events that happen in a space that is further away.
Social distance: When we describe someone dissimilar to us, then we use more abstract qualities and descriptors (i.e., increasing the distance between them and us) than when describing someone similar to us.
Hypotheticality: We use more abstract words and terms to describe events that are less likely to happen (i.e., events with a considerable distance) compared to events that are more likely to happen (i.e., events with a small distance).
The development of psychological distancing
There is some interesting information about how psychological distancing develops. The use of the term psychological distancing in developmental psychology literature might have been the precursor for the use of the term in clinical psychology (however, this is only a hypothesis).
Giesbrecht et al. (2010) provide a good summary of psychological distancing within developmental psychology. They posit that the roots of psychological distancing can be traced to key researchers and thinkers in the area of developmental psychology and learning (e.g., theorists such as Piaget and Vygotsky).
Language and psychological distancing
Various theories exist to explain the acquisition of psychological distancing. For example, there is some evidence that psychological distancing develops in children through language. Through speech, children can play in an imaginary world that did not exist before or currently. In this way, speech allows the child distance between the real world and the imaginary, hypothetical scenario.
Psychological distancing achieved through speech is not limited to only children (Sigel, 2002). Sigel (2002) makes a strong argument for how the use of language allows people of all ages to create ‘distance’ between themselves (as they exist) and the topic of discussions.
Psychological distancing and executive functioning
Giesbrecht et al. (2010) argue that the three concepts of psychological distancing, executive functioning, and emotion regulation are connected.
Their relationship is explained as follows:
Executive functioning allows for better regulation of our emotions.
Regulation of our emotions gives rise to psychological distancing.
Therefore, executive functioning also allows for psychological distancing.
The term ‘executive functioning’ refers to a set of abilities and behaviors predominantly controlled by the frontal lobe, including (Snyder, Nussbaum, & Robins, 2006):
Inhibiting responses (e.g., not getting distracted or waiting your turn)
Monitoring your behavior and correcting mistakes (e.g., trying to play a song for example)
Changing your behavior in response to a change in the environment (e.g., changing your behavior when playing a game of ‘Simon Says’)
Giesbrecht et al. (2010) argue that just like executive functioning is responsible for the cognitive processes described above, it also allows us to perform processes that are important for psychological distancing:
Shifting: Specifically, the abilities to rotate or divert our attention to another aspect of a problem or to change our focus from one item to another are very important for psychological distancing.
Response inhibition: The ability to restrain our initial emotional response to a particular situation helps us to create psychological distance. Additionally, by preventing ourselves from acting on our initial emotional response, we can respond differently.
Updating: This process refers to our ability to update the information that we are using and focusing on during a particular situation. Specifically, after shifting our attention and inhibiting our initial response, we can reassess the available information in the current context and decide what remains important and what is no longer valuable.
Psychological distancing theory in a nutshell
Although there is some overlap between the different streams of psychological distancing, the act of psychological distancing is mostly atheoretical.
That is, very little research describes how psychological distancing – as a tool or technique – develops and functions in humans. Mainly because psychological distancing isn’t a process that evolved naturally, but rather it is a technique that we can use in response to a particular scenario.
The lack of theory is mostly a result of what we mean when we refer to ‘psychological distancing.’ In positive psychology, psychological distancing is mainly used as a tool or technique in response to a particular situation.
Psychological distancing is not a psychological process that explains some aspect of human behavior; for example, it is not psychological process such as memory or perception. Instead, it is a tool that we use in specific situations for specific purposes.
Psychological distancing allows us to create distance or space between us and something else – another person, event, or source of intense emotion.
By creating space, we are also able to reframe the situation in more abstract terms. For example, during an argument, you might feel like your partner is angry at you for the task at hand, whereas when you create space, you might realize that your partner feels like you’re not listening to them when they complain about something.
Furthermore, by creating space and reconsidering events more abstractly, we’re also able to respond appropriately. For example, our response is not directed towards the exact event in question, but instead takes into account the greater context of that event.
A bonus of creating psychological distancing is that it also helps to develop creativity. By moving away from a more concrete problem to an abstract problem, we can ignore some of the parameters or boundaries that were limiting our solutions and find a creative solution instead.
Three Real-Life Examples
Here are three real-life examples of psychological distancing frequently found in everyday life.
We’ve all found ourselves in (or observed ) a heated debate or argument when the consequences of resorting to undesirable behavior or remarks can have serious consequences.
For example, when in an argument with your partner, you might feel the urge to attack your partner’s character (i.e., an ad hominem attack) rather than address the topic of the argument. By relying on this type of retort, you may win the argument – or at least end it – but the long-term consequences are that you might leave your partner feeling bitter and hurt.
At that pivotal point in the argument, just before you decide to skewer your partner, you could have made the better decision to step away and reflect on the bigger picture. Is the short-term 1-0 score worth the long-term hurt? Probably not.
The night before a deadline
We’ve all been there. The experience looks typically like this: You feel incredibly anxious about a task that is due the next day. You spend a lot of time pouring over all of the relevant material for the task – you consult books, websites, and write multiple drafts.
It looks like one of those evenings where you are going to stay up late so that you can submit the work on time. However, if you walked away and took a moment to reassess, you would realize that
Actually, the deadline is for a draft and not a final product.
None of the extra work that you produced when you went down the rabbit hole of panic is relevant anyway.
You’ll produce better quality work after getting some rest.
We’ve all experienced the situation of having too much work on our plate. For example, you might need to (1) complete your deadline, (2) go grocery shopping, (3) complete the second draft report, (4) arrange a visit to your doctor, and… anything else… (5) oh yes, your taxes! Each of these tasks is important on their own, but are they pressing tasks that need to be completed right now?
By putting psychological distance between yourself and work overload, you would see that four of the five tasks do not need immediate attention. You can schedule the doctor’s visit for tomorrow, order your groceries online or go in a few days, your taxes are not due right now, and the second draft is not due today.
The more immediate task is Task 1, and the remaining four tasks can be scheduled for the future.
Finally, sometimes when trying to solve a problem, you’re just not able to converge on an appropriate solution. You’ve tried everything – constructed multiple example scenarios, reworked the numbers, tried to move things around – but nothing helps. The problem cannot be solved.
In situations like these, the best decision is to step away and gain perspective. Either take a (physical, temporal) break and return to the problem in a few hours or tomorrow with fresh eyes or create space by explaining the project to someone else (i.e., the Rubber Ducky method).
By explaining the project and your thinking to someone else, you reframe the problem and might uncover the solution or at least have your biases and blind spots challenged.
Four Techniques for Self-Distancing
Try out these techniques for self-distancing.
1. Take a break
The first useful technique is to take a break and gain actual physical or temporal distance. For example, when in an emotionally charged situation (such as argument), recommend either taking a break for 15 minutes or leave the space and be alone, such as taking a walk.
By stepping out of the current situation and disrupting the immediate intensity of the situation, you can reframe the situation.
2. Eisenhower matrix
When you feel overwhelmed with a multitude of tasks, use the Eisenhower matrix technique. In this technique, you create a 2 x 2 matrix. The columns include Urgent and Less Urgent, and the rows include Important and Less Important. Then assign each of the tasks to one of the cells within this matrix.
The Eisenhower matrix technique helps us move away from immediate anxiety and stress, and gain perspective. Tasks listed in the Less Important–Less Urgent category do not deserve your concern right now, and instead, you can shift your attention to tasks in the Important–Urgent cell.
3. Watch yourself from a distance
When you’re in an emotionally charged situation, try to imagine that you are watching yourself from a distance. By changing the focus of your perspective from an immediate first-person view to a third-person view, you can suspend some of the immediate emotional and psychological reactions that you might be experiencing.
It will also allow you to reconsider your behavior as you were observing someone else in your position. What would you think of someone else’s behavior if you saw them in the same situation?
4. Watch yourself from the future
This is one of the most useful techniques and is appropriate for multiple scenarios. When you find yourself in an emotionally charged situation or feel that your behavior is not helpful (e.g., when procrastinating), try to imagine yourself as future-you looking back and observing your current behavior.
By creating your temporal space, you’re less likely to focus on the immediate, concrete characteristics of the current situation and can see the event and its consequences in a broader context. For example, by procrastinating now, you’ll have more work and stress later; by making that hurtful remark now, you might have a weakened relationship later.
On a side note, all of these techniques are also very useful for goal-setting. For example, imagine that you wanted to curb unnecessary financial expenditure.
Imagine that you were saving for a long-term goal (e.g., a vacation to the Maldives), and to meet this goal, you need to save a set amount each month. Unfortunately, you have forfeited some of your savings for some other wants and desires, for example, new clothing and games.
Before making a purchase, pretend to be future-you at the time of taking your vacation, looking back at your spending. In this situation, how would you perceive your purchases? If you find yourself answering ‘unnecessary,’ then it’s time to abandon the shopping cart.
PositivePsychology.com Helpful Tools
At PositivePsychology.com, there are various tools that will help with changing your mindset and setting goals.
Adopt A Growth Mindset This exercise helps clients recognize instances of fixed mindset in their thinking and actions and replace them with thoughts and behaviors more supportive of a growth mindset.
Willingness, Goals, and Action Plan This planning template helps clients identify their most valued life goals, anticipate psychological obstacles, and implement a practical plan.
This article helps clients learn how to regulate their emotions and not act impulsively on their emotional responses, including anger and fear.
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop emotional intelligence, this collection contains 17 validated EI tools for practitioners. Use them to help others understand and use their emotions to their advantage.
A Take-Home Message
Have you ever been told that you are ‘too emotional’ or to ‘get over it?’
If you have to face the hard fact that your emotions are ruling you and potentially ruining your life, psychological distancing can be the answer.
Through psychological distancing, you can gain space between yourself and your immediate surroundings. Through this space, you will be able to gain perspective, emotional control, and cognitive control.
With the four types of psychological distancing – spatial, temporal, social, and hypothetical – you can use the techniques to build distance and gain back control of your life.
PositivePsychology.com also offers various helpful exercises that will also help clinicians and practitioners teach useful psychological distancing techniques to their patients.
Cognitive distancing refers to the ability to create psychological distance between oneself and a situation or person, allowing for a more objective and rational perspective (Beck et al., 1979).
What are the 5 psychological dimensions?
Temporal distance: perceived distance in time, such as past, present, or future.
Spatial distance: perceived distance in physical space, such as close or far.
Social distance: perceived distance in social relationships, such as closeness or distance to others.
Hypothetical distance: perceived distance in hypothetical situations, such as likelihood or probability.
Experiential distance: perceived distance in subjective experience, such as how personally relevant or emotionally impactful a situation is.
How do you psychologically distance yourself from someone?
To psychologically distance yourself from someone, one can;
try to take a break,
focus on one’s needs,
watch yourself from a distance or the future,
focus on the bigger picture,
understand the other person’s perspective, and
avoid taking things personally.
Beck A. T., Rush A. J., Shaw B. F., Emery G. (1979). Cognitive therapy of depression. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Giesbrecht, G. F., Müller, U., & Miller, M. (2010). Psychological distancing in the development of executive function and emotion regulation. In B. W. Sokol, U. Müller, J. I. M. Carpendale, A. R. Young, & G. Iarocci (Eds), Self and social regulation: Social interaction and the development of social understanding and executive functions (p. 337–357). Oxford University Press.
Schimel, J., Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., O’Mahen, H., & Arndt, J. (2000). Running from the shadow: Psychological distancing from others to deny characteristics people fear in themselves. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(3), 446.
Sigel, I. E. (2002). The psychological distancing model: A study of the socialization of cognition. Culture & Psychology, 8(2), 189–214.
Snyder, P. J., Nussbaum, P. D., & Robins, D. L. (2006). Clinical neuropsychology: A pocket handbook for assessment. American Psychological Association.
Trope, Y., Liberman, N., & Wakslak, C. (2007). Construal levels and psychological distance: Effects on representation, prediction, evaluation, and behavior. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 17(2), 83–95.
About the author
Alicia Nortje, Ph.D. is a research fellow at the University of Cape Town, where she is involved in multiple projects investigating eyewitness memory and face recognition. She’s highly skilled in research design, data analysis, and critical thinking. When she’s not working, she indulges in running on the road or the trails, and enjoys cooking.
What our readers think
Brilliant article Alicia – not only some great advice but some new developmental perspectives I was unaware of