What’s got two thumbs and can’t bear hearing people refer to themselves in the third person? That’s right: This guy. Aside from the grammatical catastrophe it entails, it’s dispiriting to hear great athletes take on the role of their publicists. “I wanted to do what was best for LeBron James, and what LeBron James was going to do to make him happy,” said LeBron James in a 2010 TV interview, referring to his top NBA client, LeBron James — who you wouldn’t have thought needed that second job in PR.
When we hear it happen, habitual illeism — the barely pronounceable word that describes the act of using the third person when talking about oneself — tends to signal to the rest of us one of a number of personality quirks in the speaker, none of them good: A stunted intellect (“Sloth loves Chunk”); the presence of psychotic personality disorders (“Smeagol hates nasty Hobbitses”); rampant egoism (“Doctor Doom shall be master of Earth!”); or a journalist using horribly awkward turns of phrase that belong in the print era (at least, that’s in the opinion of your present author).
For very young children, using their own name in place of first-person pronouns like “I” or “me” is typical enough — the kind of entry-level self-expression that’s often observed in other strange beings that are just getting to grips with human language (“E.T. phone home”; “Hulk smash!”; “Elmo loves Big Bird,” etc). But according to recent research into dissociative thinking, the illeistic impulse might have psychological implications that are much more constructive than the idea of a flawed or infantile ego it usually conjures up.
“There are studies that show when people talk about previous traumatic events in the third person, they tend to regard themselves through much more compassionate eyes,” says NYC-based psychotherapist Kim Schneiderman, who actively encourages people to let their third-person persona take the wheel for a while, both in the narrative therapy sessions she leads in her practice and in her book Step Out of Your Story.
But if understanding ourselves in the third-person is a natural step in language acquisition, and if it can be a force for good in therapy (to which this writer promises return a little further down), why has it got such a bad rep? And why does it sound to many of us so deeply disturbing?
In the popular imagination, the usual context in which illeism appears is when people are signalling their own power or status. Your basic supervillain posturing (“Kneel before Zod!”) has its analogues among real-life power-seekers going back as far as ancient times, the most notable example being Julius Caesar, who self-aggrandizes via the godlike character of “Caesar” in his surviving letters and throughout the chronicles of his wars in Gaul and elsewhere.
Third-person rhetoric also crops up at the other extreme of the power dynamic, though, in the speech of snivelling, servile underlings such as Dobby the House Elf from Harry Potter, or Igor the classic Hollywood horror henchman. As a form of self-effacement, the “your servant obeys” idiom also has a long pedigree, found throughout history in cultures where maximum deference is called for. In China from the 7th century onwards, for example, where society was governed by rigid Confucian norms of ritual and politeness, low-ranking men would signify submissiveness by referring to themselves as “xiaoren,” meaning “small person,” while functionaries at court would often style themselves as “xiaoguan” — a “worthless official.”
Perhaps what’s most unsettling about third-person pronouncements of the modern era is that they seem to contain a mix of both of these status fixations, especially when delivered by politicians in campaign mode — people who tend to be both hungry for power and desperate to prostrate themselves before the public to win our approval. “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference,” said Richard Nixon, having just lost California’s gubernatorial election in 1962 (although clearly they hadn’t heard the last of of Richard M. Nixon, mwah-ha-ha…). Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole developed such a reputation for name-checking himself during the 1996 campaign that Saturday Night Live based its whole caricature on his third-person tic:
And here’s Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling quite possibly picking up on Donald Trump’s inner House Elf as well as his third-person showboating, in a tweet response from May 2017:
When Donald Trump slips into the third person, though, says Kim Schneiderman, he’s not really referring to himself — “He’s not a person, he’s a brand… he’s objectifying himself; turning himself into an entity rather than a person.” She points out that Bernie Sanders exhibited similar illeistic tendencies in his 2016 campaign for the Democratic nomination (see his interview on ABC News from April 2016 at 1:20, 1:45, 2:10, 3:35, 3:50 and 5:35). “He was a politician immersed in his campaign,” Shneiderman explains, and also intent on reinforcing his brand — albeit coming from a social rather than a business perspective: “Beyond the brand he was referring to a movement that was behind him.”
When it comes to the other prominent group of third-person abusers — successful sports stars — their illeism might sound similar to that of politicians in that it comes, as Schneiderman puts it, with “a tinge of self-importance and grandiosity.” But with athletes, there might also be something more positive going on.
In 2014, Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan looked into the phenomenon of people who slip into the third-person when guiding themselves through stressful situations. Asking participants to prepare for a public-speaking assignment, Kross’ team had them discuss their feelings about the task — some were encouraged to use first-person pronouns, while others were told to voice their apprehensions objectively, using their own names and pronouns like “she” and ”he.” The results (which Kross framed in terms of the LeBron James interview cited above) found that the speeches made by those who externalized during their prep were consistently delivered with more confidence and less self-doubt than the participants who were primed using “I” and “me.”
Kross concludes that using illeism in preparation for a big event actually “enhances people’s ability to regulate their thoughts, feelings and behavior under social stress… and leads them to appraise social-anxiety-provoking events in more challenging and less threatening terms.”
It’s reminiscent of the way professional athletes might take on the role of their coach when psyching themselves up in the locker-room. “No athlete talks to themselves like tennis players…” wrote Andre Agassi in his 2009 autobiography Open. “Why? Because tennis is so damned lonely.”
In Schneiderman’s experience, narrative therapy — in which participants reframe their traumatic experiences and memories as third-person stories — offers a restorative release from the baggage of social anxiety that the pronoun “I” tends to heave around with it. “When you use the third person,” she explains, “it’s like you’re tricking your protective, censoring ego into thinking you’re writing about somebody else.”
The result, she says, is a sense of liberation and a greater openness to new possibilities. “When you’re saying ‘I feel this,’ or ‘I think this,’ you’re so attached to whatever is going to follow in the next couple of words,” she says. “But writing in the third person, [participants] are able to see a larger narrative of their lives.” They’re more than just the stockbroker in the phrase “I am a stockbroker,” for example: “They’re a father and a son, a husband, a person who enjoys outdoor activities; a person who’s been on a journey, who’s been through many ups and downs and has somehow found a way to navigate difficult times, and this is just another one of them.”
LeBron James’s third-person tic, then, might not be a sign of unchecked celebrity narcissism after all — it might be the spill-over from a mental strategy that’s allowed him to succeed under vast, unthinkable amounts of pressure. So perhaps the first-person plural shouldn’t be so quick to condemn illeists who are only trying to grab a bit of perspective in a crazy situation. “Seeing ourselves from a distance allows us to own and appreciate our own humanity,” says Schneiderman.
Or it might even give us the self-confidence we need to own and conquer all of humanity (looking at you, Doctor Doom).