Open Gently

Musings on the introspective life.

Don't Say "I"

Using the me pronoun frequently is a sign of depression or low social status.

We often think of people who use the word "I" as boastful or self-satisfied. In fact, they may be depressed or at the bottom of their social ladders.

In the 1990s the psychologist James Pennebaker, now at the University of Texas in Austin, developed a computer program that counted certain words in a variety of written texts—including press conference transcripts, chat room discussions, instant messages between lovers and poetry. When it came to the poems, he hypothesized that those by writers who later committed suicide would include more words like "death" than other poems. Surprisingly, they didn’t. Instead, the word depressed people favored was "I.” 

People with lower status also tended to use the word “I.” In fact, when Pennebaker and his team analyzed transcripts in the military, they could predict the speaker’s rank by the frequency of "I". People at the higher rungs of the corporate hierarchies in which I’ve worked often launched into long speeches—they certainly were demanding attention--but they weren’t openly talking about themselves, using the word “I.” Instead, they asserted opinions or told stories.

If you notice the words “but” and “without” and “no,” “none,” and “never,”  the speaker may strike you as a joykill. However, this naysaying can be a sign of honesty, Pennebaker's research found. Liars make general statements without pronouns and may avoid sounding forceful. Let's say you're looking for the person who racked up a big bill on a videoconfering pornography site. The person who says, "Reasonable people know better than to rack up high charges videoconferencing'"  is less trustworthy than the person who says "I have no interest in videoconferencing and would never rack up those charges!" 

That said, be careful of drawing conclusions about people based on how many times you hear “I” or “but.” The differences are subtle and hard to hear. According to Pennebaker, “I” might make up 6.5% of the words used by someone suffering from depression, versus 4% for a person who isn’t. You need a computer program to pick that out. 

One way you can put Pennebaker's research to use might be to monitor your own use of the word "I."  We know that how we behave affects our own moods. Smile—even if you don’t feel like it—and you may actually feel better. So if you’re feeling down it may be a good idea to try to use the word “I” less often—which will force you to shift your focus away from yourself.

You may need to explore the causes of your low mood, in concentrated bouts, but distract yourself the rest of the time. Writing, Pennebaker says, can get you through a bad time--but the key is that you're not writing for other people, only for yourself. The goal is complete honesty, not beautiful writing.

On his website, Pennebaker recommends choosing a time and place when you won't be interrupted, after work or before bed. Write for 15 minutes a day for at least three days. Write continously, and don't worry about spelling or grammar. It's okay to repeat yourself to fill up the 15 minutes. You can use a computer or write by hand; and talk into a tape-recorder. You can also write about one problem or whatever comes to mind over the three days. 

In his research, he generally gives people these instructions: Over the next four days, I want you to write about your deepest emotions and thoughts about the most upsetting experience in your life. Really let go and explore your feelings and thoughts about it. In your writing, you might tie this experience to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, people you have loved or love now, or even your career. How is this experience related to who you would like to become, who you have been in the past, or who you are now?

Many people have not had a single traumatic experience but all of us have had major conflicts or stressors in our lives and you can write about them as well. You can write about the same issue every day or a series of different issues. Whatever you choose to write about, however, it is critical that you really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts.

A video of the original writing method can be seen by clicking here.

He also recommends this list of books about journalling. 

Adams, Kathleen (1998). The Way of the Journal : A Journal Therapy Workbook for Healing. Sidron Press.

Baldwin, Christina (1992). One to One : Self-Understanding Through Journal Writing. Evans Publisher

DeSalvo, Louise A. (2000). Writing As a Way of Healing : How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives. Beacon Press.

Fox, John (1997). Poetic Medicine : The Healing Art of Poem-Making. Tarcher Press

Goldberg, Natalie and Guest, Judith (1986). Writing Down the Bones : Freeing the Writer Within. Shambhala Press.

Jacobs, Beth (2005). Writing for Emotional Balance, New Harbinger Publishers.

Pennebaker, James W. (1997). Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotion. NY: Guilford Press.

Pennebaker, J.W. & Evans, J.F. (2014). Expressive Writing: Words that Heal. Enumclaw, WA: Idyll Arbor.

Pennebaker, J.W. (2004). Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval. Denver, CO: Center for Journal Therapy.

Rainer, Tristine (1979). The New Diary : How to Use a Journal for Self-Guidance and Expanded Creativity. Tarcher

 

 

 

Temma Ehrenfeld is a New York-based science writer, and former assistant editor at Newsweek.

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