- Conversational self-focus refers to individuals consistently turning conversations to focus on themselves.
- Conversational self-focus appears egotistical and insensitive, but people who self-focus are often depressed.
- Self-focusing leads to rejection, which leads to even more depression, but this cycle can be broken.
Here’s a conversation I had with a friend after sharing my breast cancer diagnosis (with enough details changed to protect confidentiality). Let’s say the friend’s name is Sharon:
Me: I have some bad news. I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Sharon: Oh no!
Me: We caught it early, so I’ll be alright, but the treatment is going to be—
Sharon (interrupts): —Oh right, it’s been forever since I had a mammogram, and my grandma had breast cancer.
Me: Yeah, well, my treatment—
Sharon: I really should make an appointment to see my doctor.
As you can imagine, I did not find this conversation fulfilling. I am 100 percent healthy now, but this friendship did not survive.
In my research with Rebecca Schwartz-Mette of the University of Maine, we study this type of behavior—namely, the tendency for some people to consistently turn conversations to focus on themselves. We used the term conversational self-focus for this behavior.
We have conducted several studies to understand how common this is and the degree to which some people self-focus. In one study, we observed adolescent friends talking about personal problems for about 15 minutes. We coded the data to see how often when one friend said something about their problem, the other friend turned the conversation back to themselves.
Below is a paraphrased example from an exchange between friends in one of our studies (names changed):
Danka: It’s not fair. I like him so much, but he and his girlfriend are perfect for each other. I just can’t decide whether to wait or give up.
Erin: You can have my ex-boyfriend. No one wants him now because remember how he lied to me? People I don’t even know come up and say, ‘You used to be with him?’ Like they can’t understand how I put up with that.
To be fair, we all turn conversations towards ourselves occasionally. We observed some of these friends, though, shifting the focus to themselves a lot. In fact, one adolescent changed the subject back to themselves 94 percent of the time when a friend shared something about a problem.
Why Do People Self-Focus?
Something very confusing about people who self-focus is that their behavior doesn’t match their goals. They are looking for attention, affirmation, validation, and support, but their behavior pushes people away so they get none of that. Why do people who engage in conversational self-focus behave in a way that leads to the exact outcome they want to avoid?
For at least some people who self-focus, the answer has to do with depression. A classic psychological theory from the 1970s—the interpersonal theory of depression developed by James Coyne—describes this behavior. Coyne speculated that people who are depressed engage in “nonreciprocal, high disclosure of intimate problems.” In other words, people who hijack the conversation to focus solely on their own problems may actually be depressed rather than just rude or insensitive.
In fact, depressed people think differently about their problems in a way that leads them to be self-focused. When people are sad, worried, and hopeless, they are especially likely to ruminate or think about and dwell on their problems over and over. These thoughts are involuntary in that they come to mind even when people are trying not to think about their problems. This makes rumination very difficult to stop. Then, the combination of depression and rumination can make a person’s worldview very narrow, and so focused on their own troubles and depressive symptoms that they have little bandwidth left for others.
In our studies of both teenagers and adults, we find that people who engage in conversational self-focus are more depressed than people who do not.
The Downward Cycle of Depression and Rejection
People who self-focus find themselves in a tough, vicious cycle. Any self-help book on depression urges people to seek support, which is exactly what people who engage in conversational self-focus are trying to do. However, in this case, support-seeking backfires.
Because conversational self-focus is so aversive, self-focusing ultimately leads to rejection. This is especially common in romantic relationships because people often seek support in intimate relationships. Although the partners of people who self-focus initially try to be supportive, they end up depleted of energy and feeling neglected, which does not bode well for the future of the relationship.
In our research, we found this for friendships, too. Compared to people with friends who did not self-focus, friends of self-focusers saw their relationships as low quality and getting even worse over time. In fact, we found that friends increasingly tried to avoid the self-focused person, including avoiding seeing them in person and not responding to texts and messages.
Unfortunately, rejection by a romantic partner, family member, or close friend can be debilitating for someone already suffering from depression, leading to even greater depressive symptoms. When the person who self-focuses then turns to a different relationship for support, the cycle begins again.
Breaking the Cycle
What if you see yourself in this description or see a friend or family member? What can you do?
If you think that you may be self-focusing in conversations, try these steps:
- First, pay attention to how much you focus on your problems when talking with others. Compare that to how much you talk about other things and how much the other person contributes to the conversation. These observations should help you figure out if you do monopolize the conversation.
- Pay attention to the transitions between your talking and the other person talking. Pay attention to whether you ask questions and whether you leave space for the other person to share their thoughts and feelings. Pay attention too to whether you interrupt others, especially by turning conversations back to yourself.
- Once you have compiled this information, experiment with different ways of talking. Try asking more questions to give others a chance to elaborate on their topics.
- Set aside a specific time to talk about your troubles and seek support. Friends and family members will likely agree to those times, especially if you explain that you are trying to stop bringing up your problems in all conversations.
- Consider seeking help from a professional. You may be really struggling and need help moving to a place where troubles and concerns are not always on your mind.
There also are steps that you can take if the person engaging in conversational self-focus is a friend or family member:
- Having an honest conversation is important. The other person might not realize they are dominating conversations. Talking with them about it gives them a chance to work on the behavior.
- Have clear boundaries for when and how long you will listen to your partner’s problems. Being on call for social support 24/7 is not good for your mental health. We cannot help others if we do not take care of ourselves.
- To the extent that you can, try to keep in mind that they may be suffering. This doesn’t mean that their needs should be put ahead of your own. However, if your friend or family member is coping with difficult feelings, keeping this in mind may help you feel more patient.
- Finally, if this person is important in your life, such as a spouse, you may consider going to counseling together. This may not only be helpful for the relationship but also may be a step toward the other person addressing their own problems and depressive symptoms.
Give Yourself Grace
This is a difficult situation for both the person who engages in conversational self-focus and their friends and family. Feeling understood and supported are basic human needs that are met through close relationships, but these needs go unfulfilled if moderate levels of support just don’t feel like enough (for people who self-focus) or if there is no room in conversations to voice concerns (for relationship partners of people who self-focus). Being compassionate towards oneself and each other is difficult but critically important. Remember that even small steps are steps in the right direction toward breaking the cycle.
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
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Coyne, J. C. (1976b). Depression and the response of others. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 85, 186–193. doi:10.1037/0021-843X.85.2. 186.
Dueweke, A., & Schwartz-Mette, R. A. (2018). Social-cognitive and social-behavioral correlates of suicide risk in college students: Contributions from interpersonal theories of suicide and depression. Archives of Suicide Research, 22, 224-240. doi: 10.1080/02699931.2021.1989668.
Fearey, E., Evans, J., & Schwartz-Mette, R. A. (2021). Emotion regulation deficits and depression-related maladaptive interpersonal behaviours. Cognition & Emotion, 35, 1559-1572. doi: 10.1080/02699931.2021.1989668.
Schwartz-Mette, R. A., & Rose, A. J. (2009). Conversational self-focus in adolescent friendships: Observational assessment of an interpersonal process and relations with internalizing symptoms and friendship quality. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 28, 1263-1297.
Schwartz-Mette, R.A., & Rose, A. J. (2016). Depressive symptoms and conversational self-focus in adolescent friendships. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 44, 87-100. doi: 10.1007/s10802-015-9980-3