What Julius Caesar, Gertrude Stein, Donald Trump, Marilyn Monroe, Miss Manners, and Jesus Have in Common

A writer friend, fiddling on Zoom, says with fond irritation, “Oh, Susie Q.” Another friend lectures himself aloud. Their ability to talk to themselves as though to another person amuses me, because I am far too mired in my Self. The stream of its consciousness always, incessantly, implies a tiresome “I.” Instantly selfish, “I” wants and strives and scares easy. Prone to fretful obsession, it sops up angst like a marinade.

Distancing the Self by addressing it in the second or third person is calming, neuropsychiatrists now tell us. It reduces “overwhelm,” a feeling so common these days that it has become a noun. Emotional distress drops quickly—within one second, in fact—when someone shifts to third person, seeing themselves as others might, or as they see others. People feel less negative. Even heart rate variability improves with third person, another study showed, and people make wiser judgments, appraising pros and cons more accurately.

So I try. And feel silly. What on earth do you think you are doing, Jeannette? A week of this, and it dawns on me that the real problem might be my name. It is too long and fussy and formal, and I hear relatives and schoolteachers when I use it.

I rename myself Alexandria, Lexie for short, and by the time I have walked three miles, I have told her entire life’s story aloud. (Luckily, the park is deserted). The difference feels like magic. I am saying things I would not have said otherwise.

Gingerly, I set aside the question of why Jeannette is so inhibited and read more about the practice itself, which is called illeism. Caesar used third person to write his memoirs, and athletes use second or third person self-talk regularly, coaching themselves to peak performance or exhorting themselves to hang in there for the last lap of the decathlon.

I experiment, my sport being food. Lexie thinks she is hungry for a cupcake right now, but that is only because her blood sugar has dropped…. Laugh if you will; I grab an orange instead. Distance makes it easier to control an impulse, because we are not alone in a dark, airless hole of Self, no one watching or lending perspective. Dug into the “I,” we censor thoughts we would not judge in anyone else, and we succumb to thoughts we would brush away if a friend uttered them.

Some people have already figured out that this happens—and that the cure is embedded in the very structure of our language. In a study at Harvard University, the task was to reinterpret negative images to make yourself feel better, and quite a few participants instinctively shifted out of first person. As they did so, their verbs moved out of present tense, allowing even more distance.

The magic of this little trick is that it is effortless. It takes no more cognitive energy to think of yourself in the third person than in the first, notes Dr. Jason Moser, whose research proves it with brain scans. Finally, a self-improvement regimen that will not leave me in a slump of exhaustion on the couch, having wrestled the demons of habit to their death—or to the death of hope.

Still, it is odd that it works. Are we not meant to inhabit the “I”? Illeism is a form of speech more common to toddlers (“Tommy wants a cookie”), the slithering Gollum in Lord of the Rings, or robots unburdened by self-consciousness. Used by grown-ups in the public sphere, the practice turns complicated. Donald Trump speaks of, not to, himself in the third person, and it comes off arrogant (or am I tipping my politics?). Yet when Bob Dole used third person, he only set himself up for roasting. And when Bernie Sanders used it, the quirk just felt…Bernie.

Miss Manners pulls it off better than any of them, deliberately cultivating omniscient authority. For Marilyn Monroe, the point was just the opposite, underscoring the difference between her vulnerable self and the larger-than-life icon that was made of her. Gertrude Stein wrote an autobiography through someone else’s eyes as a neat literary solution for a robust ego. Jesus’s third person was egoless, allowing a spiritual detachment Buddha would have approved.

But those are all examples of public distancing. What is therapeutic takes place in private. It works because we are used to solving other people’s problems, and we do so with less muddying emotion. Also, because we are social creatures, used to taking our cues from others, saying “you” or speaking of ourselves as another person makes whatever is happening to us sound normal, as though it could happen to anybody. Before the Lexie epiphany, addressing myself by name felt a tiny bit psychotic—yet I often asked myself what advice I would give to someone just like me.

Culturally, we Americans play up the importance of finding oneself, being oneself, expressing oneself. But maybe it is healthier to move in and out of Self, zoom in and then step back?

There are other tricks to create distance, and they all involve space, time, perspective. One can imagine oneself (it just struck me that the archaic, stuffy pronoun “one” is third person!) walking away from something, so that it looks smaller and smaller, less imposing. Or thinking back on some contretemps ten years from now to see how silly it will seem. Or playing “fly on the wall” and looking down on what is happening, or gazing up at the stars to remember how insignificant one’s troubles are.

Sometimes I pretend to be somebody else entirely, mocking my neurotic worries. When tax-season hysteria rises, I drawl, “Got herself in a tizzy over some fancy form she’s got to fill out, show how much extra money she made.” I am not fluent enough, but I have heard it helps to say what you are feeling in another language. I have noticed that cussing in French or German seldom troubles people. Also, scheisse and merde are prettier words. And of course, there is the time-honored diary technique: Write what you are feeling. Better yet, type it, change the typeface, and print it out, each step distancing you from the original emotion.

All these measures seem a little goofy, but the ego is a wily critter and must be outwitted. Get over yourself, I mutter to my Self. Step back.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.