Stressed Out? Too Much "I-Talk" Could Be Part of the Problem

A new study links frequent use of "I," "me," or "my" pronouns to distress.

Posted Mar 08, 2018

Valeri Potapova/Shutterstock
Source: Valeri Potapova/Shutterstock

In 2015, University of Arizona (UA) researchers published a study, "Narcissism and the Use of Personal Pronouns Revisited." Their paper concluded that the frequent use of so-called "I-talk" — which refers to using first-person, singular pronouns, such as "I," "me," and "my," when writing or speaking — is not necessarily an indicator of narcissism.

A new I-talk study by UA researchers, "Depression, Negative Emotionality, and Self-Referential Language: A Multi-Lab, Multi-Measure, and Multi-Language-Task Research Synthesis," was published on March 5 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. This paper reports that frequent I-talk can be used as an accurate linguistic marker for proneness to distress and negative emotionality.

The term “negative emotionality” refers to someone having a tendency to become easily distressed or upset. According to the lead author of the new study, Allison Tackman, negative emotionality encompasses a wide range of negative emotions, which can include depressive symptoms, anxiety, distress, worry, tension, and anger.

For their I-talk study, Tackman and her UA colleagues partnered with psychologist Matthias Mehl, director of the University of Arizona Naturalistic Observation of Social Interaction Laboratory. The UA researchers utilized a dataset of 4,700 individuals from six different labs in the United States and Germany. The dataset included a calculation of participants' spoken and written use of I-talk, along with measurements of depression and negative emotionality. 

Is Frequent I-Talk an Accurate and Specific Linguistic Marker of Depression?

Although Tackman et al. identified a link between I-talk and depressive symptoms, they conclude that high usage of first-person singular pronouns is a more accurate indicator of being prone to general distress and a wide array of negative emotions. In the study abstract, the authors write:

     "These results suggest that the robust empirical link between depression and I-talk largely reflects a broader association between negative emotionality and I-talk. Self-referential language using first-person singular pronouns may, therefore, be better construed as a linguistic marker of general distress proneness or negative emotionality rather than as a specific marker of depression."

"The question of whether I-talk reflects depression more specifically, or negative affect more broadly, was a really important question because if you're thinking of using I-talk as a screening tool, you want to know if it screens specifically for a risk for depression or if it screens more broadly for a tendency to experience negative affect, which is a broader risk factor for a suite of mental health concerns," Mehl said in a statement.

Tackman added, "Our results suggest that I-talk may not be very good at assessing depression in particular. It may be better at assessing a proneness not just to depression but to negative emotionality more broadly."

Are You Using First-Person Singular Pronouns Too Frequently?

You may be asking yourself, “How much first-person singular pronoun usage is considered above average or would be classified as 'frequent'?” On average, each of us typically speaks and writes a total of about 16,000 words per day. Typically, about 1,400 (roughly 9 percent) of these words tend to be first-person singular pronouns. According to Mehl, individuals who are categorized as frequently using I-talk might use "I," "me," or "my" up to 2,000 times a day.

Interestingly, Tackman and Mehl point out that frequent use of the subjective first-person pronoun "I" and the objective first-person pronoun "me" was strongly linked to negative emotionality. But frequent use of the first-person possessive pronoun "my" was not. They speculate this is because "my" connects a person to another individual or object on the "outside" and steers the "psychological spotlight" away from oneself.

Previous research by Igor Grossmann of the Wisdom and Culture Lab at University of Waterloo corroborates the benefits of creating healthy "self-distancing." (For more, see "A Heart and A Mind: Self-distancing Facilitates the Association Between Heart Rate Variability and Wise Reasoning.")

"We've all gone through negative life events when we're feeling down or anxious, and when you think back to being in those places, when you're just so focused on yourself, you may say things like 'Why can't I get better?'" Tackman explained in a statement. "You're so focused on yourself that not only in your head are you using these first-person singular pronouns but when you're talking to other people or writing, it spills into your language — the self-focus that negative affectivity brings about."

Mehl echoed this sentiment: "Stress can make you be caught in the metaphorical 'I' of the storm."

Are the Pros of Third-Person Self-Talk and the Cons of Frequent I-Talk Two Sides of the Same Coin?

The latest research on the detriments of frequent use of first-person singular pronouns by Tackman and Mehl dovetails seamlessly with the research of Ethan Kross and colleagues in the Emotion and Self-Control Lab at the University of Michigan, and the research of Jason Moser, director of the Michigan State University Clinical Psychophysiology Lab. Kross and Moser are pioneering researchers on the benefits of using non-first-person pronouns and third-person self-talk that includes the use of your own name.

Anecdotally, my road-tested life experience as a professional ultra-endurance athlete corroborates the empirical laboratory findings on the benefits of using fewer first-person pronouns and speaking to oneself in the third person. For example, to stay calm, clear-headed, and courageous in times of distress or self-doubt during extreme racing conditions (like running 135 miles nonstop through Death Valley in July), I would constantly say things to myself such as: "Let's not get panicky, Chris," or "Keep doing what you're doing, Bergland. Don't stop, Christopher. You've got this!" 

In 2017, Kross and Moser teamed up for a study, “Third-Person Self-Talk Facilitates Emotion Regulation Without Engaging Cognitive Control: Converging Evidence from ERP and fMRI.” This dual-pronged study unearthed that when someone is reminiscing about painful autobiographical memories or experiencing distress, if he or she engaged in third-person self-talk — by using non-first-person pronouns or his or her own name — it facilitated emotion regulation without much additional cognitive effort. (See "Silent Third Person Self-Talk Facilitates Emotion Regulation.”)

Negative Emotionality Is Linked to Frequent I-Talk That Dwells on "Self in Isolation" 

After reading the latest I-talk study by Tackman, Mehl, and UA colleagues, I was curious to gain more insights and real-world applications to share with Psychology Today readers.

In an email to Tackman and Mehl, I asked how they would sum up the significance of their study. Tackman responded: 

     "There are two take-home messages from our research: First, our study revealed that the relationship between I-talk and depression (and I-talk and negative emotionality) is not equally apparent for all first-person singular pronoun types and across all communication contexts. Among the three types of first-person singular pronouns (subjective: I, I’m, I’ve, I’ll, I’d; objective: me and myself; possessive: my and mine), we observed the smallest effect sizes for the possessive type.

     "Our best explanation for this finding is that depression and negative emotionality are more closely linked to self-referential language that focuses on the “self in isolation” rather than on the “self in relation to something or someone else.”

     "Among the four communication contexts examined in our study, we observed the smallest effect sizes for the impersonal communication context (where participants wrote about something that was not of personal relevance to them; all other communication contexts were personal in nature where participants either wrote or talked about something of personal relevance to them). This suggests that depression and negative emotionality appear to be more expressed (through the use of I-talk) in communication contexts in which participants write or talk about something of personal relevance to them.

     "Second, our study revealed that the depression-I-talk effect (that people who experience symptoms of depression are more likely to use first-person singular pronouns) largely reflects the broader relationship between negative emotionality and I-talk. Negative emotionality, one of the Big Five personality traits, is the tendency to become easily distressed and to experience a wide range of negative emotions, including sadness and anxiety.

     "In other words, a person’s frequent use of first-person singular pronouns or I-talk tells us more about their tendency to experience negative emotions broadly than their tendency to experience depressive symptoms in particular.

     "It appears that I-talk is, at the heart, a linguistic marker of general distress proneness or negative emotionality and not something specific to depressive tendencies. This is important considering that previous research has suggested using I-talk as a possible screening tool for depression, but our findings suggest that I-talk may not be an effective assessment tool for depression in particular but rather may possibly alert us to a person’s risk for mental health issues more generally."

I also asked Tackman, "Do you have any practical advice or writing exercises that someone who is prone to frequent I-talk can utilize to reduce his or her use of first-person singular pronouns on a daily basis?"

Tackman replied: 

     "One of the ways that people can reduce their use of first-person singular pronouns is to become more aware of when and how often they use these pronouns. A major challenge, however, is that function words like first-person singular pronouns are produced more automatically and therefore more difficult to control (this is in contrast to content words like negative and positive emotion words (e.g., happy, nice, sad, hurt) which are easier to monitor and therefore control). In other words, we are just less aware of when and how often we use first-person singular pronouns in everyday life, making it more difficult to reduce the frequency with which we use these pronouns.

     "Just because first-person singular pronouns are difficult to control does not mean they are impossible to control. With practice at becoming more self-aware, we might be able to “catch ourselves” when we start using I-words. We could then try to limit the use of these words by changing how we write or talk about ourselves or changing the topic of conversation to be about something other than ourselves.

     "One way we might become more self-aware is to ask our friends and family to point out to us when we frequently use first-person singular pronouns. Reducing the use of first-person singular pronouns would be beneficial to the extent that it reduces our proneness to negative emotionality, but it’s important to note that our study says nothing about the direction of the negative emotionality–I-talk relationship; that is, we don’t know if reducing I-talk causes people to become less prone to experience negative emotions. This is an important avenue for future research."

Huge thanks to Allison Tackman and Matthias Mehl for their thoughtful, thorough responses.

References

Allison M. Tackman, David A. Sbarra, Angela L. Carey, M. Brent Donnellan, Andrea B. Horn, Nicholas S. Holtzman, To'Meisha S. Edwards, James W. Pennebaker, Matthias R. Mehl. "Depression, Negative Emotionality, and Self-Referential Language: A Multi-Lab, Multi-Measure, and Multi-Language-Task Research Synthesis." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Published: March 5, 2018) DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000187

Angela L. Carey, Melanie S. Brucks, Albrecht CP Küfner, Nicholas S. Holtzman, Mitja D. Back, M. Brent Donnellan, James W. Pennebaker, and Matthias R. Mehl. "Narcissism and the Use of Personal Pronouns Revisited." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2015) DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000029

Kyle J. Bourassa, John J.B. Allen, Matthias R. Mehl, David A. Sbarra. "The Impact of Narrative Expressive Writing on Heart Rate, Heart Rate Variability, and Blood Pressure Following Marital Separation." Psychosomatic Medicine (2017) DOI: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000475

Ethan Kross; Bruehlman-Senecal, Emma; Park, Jiyoung; Burson, Aleah; Dougherty, Adrienne; Shablack, Holly; Bremner, Ryan; Moser, Jason; Ayduk, Ozlem. "Self-Talk As a Regulatory Mechanism: How You Do It Matters." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2014) DOI: 10.1037/a0035173

Jason S. Moser, Adrienne Dougherty, Whitney I. Mattson, Benjamin Katz, Tim P. Moran, Darwin Guevarra, Holly Shablack, Ozlem Ayduk, John Jonides, Marc G. Berman, Ethan Kross. "Third-Person Self-Talk Facilitates Emotion Regulation Without Engaging Cognitive Control: Converging Evidence from ERP and fMRI." Scientific Reports (2017) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-04047-3

Igor Grossmann, Baljinder K. Sahdra, and Joseph Ciarrochi. "A Heart and A Mind: Self-distancing Facilitates the Association Between Heart Rate Variability and Wise Reasoning." Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience (2016) DOI: 10.3389/fnbeh.2016.00068

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