Illeism, also referred to self-talk, is the act of referring to oneself in the third person, by using one’s own name or other non-first-person pronoun, as if the words are coming from the perspective of another person.
This subject recently gained much attention in mainstream news stories and commentaries focused on President Donald J. Trump, because he often referred to himself in the third person during his campaign. However, President Donald Trump is not the only known illeistic president or presidential contender.
On November 7, 1962, Richard M. Nixon stated, “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” Although, it was not his last press conference.
During the 1996 presidential campaign, the media ridiculed Kansas Senator Bob Dole for his illeistic statements, and his illeism ultimately became the subject of several Saturday Night Live parody skits.
During the 2012 presidential campaign, contender Herman Cain used illeism on several occasions.
Many other successful people have notably spoken about themselves in the third person, including athletes such as:
- Dual sport star, Bo Jackson;
- Heisman Trophy winner, Cam Newton;
- Former World No. 1 tennis pro, Andre Agassi;
- Former professional boxer, Floyd Mayweather, Jr.;
- Baseball Hall of Famer, Rickey Henderson (a self-professed illeist)
- Professional wrestler Dwayne Johnson (The Rock)
- Four-time NBA champion, Shaquille O’Neal
- Professional basketball player LeBron James
In some cases, their third-person self-talk was captured on video, as seen in this clip of LeBron James.
Examples of illeism are commonplace in popular books, plays, and movies. Most notably, William Shakespeare used illeism in his works portraying the lives of Hamlet and Julius Caesar. There are a multitude of examples of illiesm within literary works, dating back through the ages, including by the translators of accounts compiled within the Bible.
Social Perceptions of Illeism
While most people do not use illeism in normal conversation, many people who hear someone engaging in it often perceive the individual as having a narcissistic personality or some type of dissociative disorder.
From a psychological perspective, a person in a clinical setting that speaks about themselves in the third person might certainly give reason for pause and consideration by a psychiatrist.
However, in motivational and self-help therapeutic situations, recent research reveals a very different perspective on it.
Current Research on Illeism
In 2014, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published Self-Talk as a Regulatory Mechanism: How You Do It Matters, a compilation of seven studies conducted by Ethan Kross, of the University of Michigan, along with eight other researchers, that exposed some surprising discoveries.
From the studies, Kross found that “small shifts in the language people use to refer to the self, during introspection, consequentially influences their ability to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and behavior under social stress, even for vulnerable individuals.”
According to the researchers, non-first-person self-talk is a form of self-distancing oneself to gain perspective and to think objectively about irrational thoughts. The concept has long been a primary factor in many cognitive and behavioral treatment methods. Also advocated by teachers of mindfulness and acceptance-based therapies, the practice of self-distancing enables a more clear observation of one’s feelings.
Listen to a short self-help exercise by Dr. Carrington, in which she employs illeism as a way for you to experience a deeper sense of self-love and gratitude.
(Presented with her free 20-minute consultation summer special)
The big take-away from Kross’ research is that the subtle linguistic shift from using “I” in self-talk to using one’s name, or other non-first-person pronouns, has great implications for powerfully positive effects.
Since conducting that study, Kross and his colleagues have taken their research farther by exploring more deeply the concept of self-distancing in their most recent article, Self-Distancing: Theory, Research, and Current Directions, which focuses on the role that self-distancing plays in facilitating adaptive self-reflection.
Nonetheless, the stigmas associated with illeism will continue to endure until the growing research on third-person self-talk eventually changes the widespread misconceptions of it.