This Personality Trait May Be Considered "Narcissistic" By Many, But It Turns Out It Might Actually Be Good For You

Former President Donald Trump is a big fan of speaking in third person in his speeches.

Three cartoon figures resembling Donald Trump sitting and holding blank papers with illustrated pointing hands
Illustration: Jianan Liu/HuffPost; Photo: Getty Images

There are a number of famous third-person talkers in the universe right now: First and foremost, we have former President Donald Trump, a man who slips into third person so often, you’d think he was referring to an entirely different man named Donald Trump. Case in point?

Trump talks ― and writes ― in third person so often, The Washington Post was able to cobble together a one-minute, 46-second video of his best third-person moments in 2019. (Imagine how long the clip would be now.)

But our former president isn’t the only person who has a penchant for slipping into third person. It’s not just a Boomer thing, either. Fans of the third person can be found across generations.

LeBron James, an elder millennial, did so in 2010, when he announced he was leaving his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, for a spot on the Miami Heat: “I wanted to do what was best for LeBron James and what LeBron James was going to do to make him happy.” Alix Earle, a Gen Z influencer with over 6.4 million followers on TikTok, gets self-referential often online, referring to herself as “Big Al” in her “get ready with me” stories.

Gen Z influencers Alix Erle  and Lebron james
NBC / Contributor/Atiba Jefferson / Getty Images

When we’re little, many of us speak in third person: “Adam wants Elmo” or Adam hungry.” Many parents adopt illeism ― the fancy term for referring to yourself in third person ― when talking to their kids, too: “Mommy’s going to help you with that in just a second, but she’s on the phone right now.”

But what’s up with the folks who do it outside the context of childhood and parenting? Does using the third person automatically come across as cocky and narcissistic when you’re past the age of, say, 5?

Surprisingly, there’s little research or anecdotal evidence that the habit is more common among narcissists, according to Elinor Greenberg, the author of the book, Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Personality Disorder: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration, and Safety. “Half of my practice is people in treatment for narcissistic personality disorder. None of them refer to themselves in the third person,” she said. “It is really not common at all.”

In cases of athletes, politicians and other famous people, it’s often a branding thing: Like Beyonce coming up with “Sasha Fierce” to combat stage fright years when she was still green and fresh out of Destiny’s Child, it’s a way to keep their two identities separate (public self vs. real self) while also promoting their name.

Beyonce leaves the Luar fashion show
James Devaney / GC Images

“It’s kind of like someone using one name instead of your first and last name,” Greenberg said. “It is saying: I am so famous that I only need one name and everyone knows who I am. Think: Trump, Madonna, Cher, or Usher.”

While it may feel awkward and a little self-aggrandizing to use, there’s actually research supporting the advantages of talking in the third person, at least in your internal self-talk. In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Ethan Kross and a research team dug into how people use different styles of self-talk during stressful tasks.

The team asked two groups to deliver a five-minute speech. They told one group to silently refer to themselves in the second or third person while preparing for their talk: out loud

What they found was that the third-person group was calmer, more confident, and delivered their speech more effortlessly compared to those who referred to themselves using “I” or “me.”

A person presenting to an audience, holding a tablet
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What’s more, “People who had used non-first-person pronouns or their names felt more positively about their performance on the speech once it was over,” Kross said in a 2015 article in the Harvard Business Review.

“They also experienced less shame about it and ruminated about it less,” he wrote. “Those are big pluses — ruminating endlessly over past experiences can hurt not only your psychological well-being but also your physical health.”

Bottom line: Using the third person helps people get some emotional distance from their problems and make more neutral assessments about how they come across in public.

“It really does seem to confer benefits to people in the moment so that they can work through an emotional experience, memory or anxious anticipation of an upcoming event,” said Jason S. Moser, a professor in the Department of Psychology and the Neuroscience program at Michigan State University.

“It creates the psychological distance that can help us get a different perspective, like talking to a friend, and reduce negative feelings that might help us make more productive decisions in the face of stress,” he told HuffPost.

What about publicly referring to yourself in third person? 

In the case of Trump using third person, it’s “grandiosity, pure and simple,” not some ironic joke or a self-care strategy, said Chris Stevens, a psychologist and the host of the podcast Psychology to Live By.

Man in a suit speaking at a podium with American flags behind him
Melissa Sue Gerrits via Getty Images

Of course, the research so far has been focused on silently speaking to yourself in third person. Publicly referring to yourself in the third person is a bit more unusual, Moser said.

“Although, I will say, the way LeBron James used third-person self-talk out loud ― to help him make a difficult, very public, decision to leave his hometown team and move to Miami ― is very different from how Trump typically uses it,” he said.

In the case of Trump using third person, Chris Stevens, a psychologist and the host of the podcast Psychology to Live By, believes it’s “grandiosity, pure and simple,” not some ironic joke or a self-care strategy.

“I think Trump deliberately uses it as a rhetorical device,” Stevens said. “He speaks a lot in the third person generally: note his use of the words ‘everyone,’ ‘people,’ ‘everybody.’ This is a standard rhetorical trick to give a sense of facticity: What he says isn’t his opinion but an objective fact.”

How to adopt third person in your self-talk in a healthy way.

Person smiling at their reflection in a mirror, hands behind head, promoting self-love and positivity

Most of us speak with more kindness to the people we care about than we do to ourselves; third-person self-talk is a way to practice mindful self-compassion.

Maskot via Getty Images

So to recap: Using the third person in your internal dialogue, to hype yourself up? That’s good. But using illeism out loud and around other people? Unless you’re building a brand, that’s a little weird ― and even then, it’s probably best to use it sparingly.

Britt Frank, a psychotherapist and author of The Science of Stuck, believes internal third-person is one of the most powerful mechanisms for improving mood and reducing anxiety out there.

“While admittedly it can feel strange to speak in third person at first, there is a level of healthy detachment during third-person self-talk that allows us to be present with our feelings rather than being flooded by them,” she said.

Most of us speak with more kindness to the people we care about than we do to ourselves, Frank said. Third-person self-talk is a way to direct some of that compassion and tenderness inward for once.

There’s some negative potential to the habit, though. Some people use third-person self-talk to distance themselves from problematic behavior. (One pop culture example? On the Bravo reality show Vanderpump Rules, Katie Maloney’s deeply unpleasant drunk alter ego is “Tequila Katie.”)

“When third-person self-talk is used to distance someone from their behavior like that, it’s indicative of an internal attachment disruption, so you have to be mindful of that,” Frank said.

Generally, though, third-person self-talk is one of the most underutilized tools in the self-help world.

“It’s free, it doesn’t take a lot of time, and with a bit of practice, it’s a powerful way to be with your experiences instead of feeling overwhelmed by them,” she said. This post originally appeared on HuffPost.