We all deal with heartbreak in somewhat predictable ways.
You might eagerly re-top that glass of wine, add a few extra miles to your daily run or binge-watch your favorite childhood TV show.
But, without even realizing it, there’s something else you do all the time that probably helps dull the pain.
A new study published in the journal Science found that using the generic form of the word “you” helps people make sense of and distance themselves from negative emotional experiences.
Consider, for example, sayings like: “You don’t know what you have till it’s gone,” or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Those may be clichs, but there’s a reason people turn to them for solace. They make tough times feel less personal and more like universal experiences.
The Science study conducted six small experiments to determine when people use the generic you and how it made them feel after writing about difficult moments in their lives. The researchers found that the linguistic device helps people express norms in both everyday and emotional circumstances, which improves their ability to derive meaning from things that happen in their lives.
“Whats kind of interesting about these studies is people tend to do this fairly spontaneously,” says co-author Ariana Orvell, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan. “It’s woven into our language and the way that we try to work through negative experiences.”
“It’s woven into our language and the way that we try to work through negative experiences.”
The first three experiments gauged how 200 people responded to online writing tasks about expressing norms when describing routine or common actions (What do you do with hammers? You pound nails.) The researchers found that people used the generic you to make statements about standard types of behavior.
In the second set of experiments, participants were asked to reflect on and write about negative experiences. In one of the tasks, 600 people were randomly assigned to write about either what lessons they could learn from a negative experience, to relive a negative experience or to write about a neutral experience.
Orvell says they recalled “really intense events” like breakups, arguing with a spouse, family conflicts, job loss and losing a loved one. Nearly half of those instructed to make sense of those stories used the generic you at least once compared to 10 percent who relived something upsetting and 2.5 percent who wrote about something neutral.
The last experiment asked everyone to people to write about lessons learned from something negative, but randomly assigned them to use the first-person singular (I, my) or the generic you (you, your). Those who wrote using the generic you reported more psychological distance from the event after responding to the prompt.
Orvell says the generic you might alleviate people’s emotional pain because it enhances distance and turns suffering into something bigger than an individual experience.
Such usage may offer a sense of connectedness with others. However, she doesn’t want the finding to make people more self-conscious about how they express emotions, particularly since the linguistic device is so commonly used.
But, she adds, it’s a technique for understanding ourselves and lives that’s hidden in plain sight.