Illeism and Narcissism

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Contrary to what you might read in political blogs, it isn’t a sure sign of narcissism when people talk about themselves in the third person. The truth is that much clearer clues about someone’s narcissism can be found in how they regard you and the other people in their lives.

Have you ever heard someone talk about themselves in the third person? That’s something called illeism, and while it’s probably a fair bet that not too many are familiar with this term, most of us have probably heard someone talk this way at one time or another. But what do you make of a person who references herself in this unusual manner? Is illeism a sure sign of narcissism? Lately, according to many political blogs, some folks seem to think so. But the truth is more complicated than that. The fact is, folks talk about themselves in this manner for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it can indeed be reflective of an inflated ego. But much of the time, it indicates something else entirely. So how can you tell what’s really going on with someone who references themselves in the third person? Fortunately, there are other, more reliable signs you might be dealing with a narcissist, and given how prevalent narcissists are these days and how problematic they can be in relationships, it’s a good idea to know those signs as well.

Illeism is most often employed as a literary device, and writers use it for a variety of purposes. Professionals crafting evaluative reports, for example, will often refer to themselves as “this writer” or some similar reference to deliberately avoid being viewed as rendering a purely subjective personal opinion as opposed to providing a more objective summary of evidence that has been assembled. Authors of novels use illeism with certain characters they’ve created as a stylistic tool, mostly for various types of emphasis. But it’s rare for people to employ illeism in common conversation. Because we all have our own unique ideas and experiences and prefer to speak for ourselves when we share what we think with others, we generally do so using what grammarians call the first person singular pronoun (i.e., making those “I” statements much touted in assertiveness training classes). In some cultures, there are actually occasions where speaking in the first person might even be considered either rude or impertinent. Of course there are those “royal” occasions where monarchs or other state officials use the first person plural form “we” instead of the typical singular form to denote that they’re not just speaking for themselves but rather for the masses as holder of a representative office. Still, it’s pretty unusual for the average person to use illeism. Most often when a person does so it’s because they’re being either defensive about or protecting a particular image. That’s why some think that folks who talk about themselves in the third person might actually be revealing their narcissism. For narcissists, of course, it’s always about image.

Just because someone is concerned about their social image, however, doesn’t make them a narcissist. People of genuine honor often guard their reputations with considerable passion. They may have worked very hard to forge their character and their public image as well, so they hate to see that image tarnished in any way. For that reason they might emphatically assert something like “John Smith is not the kind of man that would say or do a thing like that!” when defending themselves against unfounded accusations or other attempts at character assassination. But sometimes people who talk about themselves in the third person can in fact be displaying an air of haughtiness and grandeur. It’s their way of asserting that their very name or identity is important, inherently carrying significant social weight, and should command your respect. In recent years, several political figures have been criticized for that possibility; Bob Dole was famously parodied in popular TV sketch comedies for referring to himself repeatedly in the third person during his campaign for president of the United States. Recently, Donald Trump has also been criticized for illeism, and it’s his frequent referencing of himself in the third person that has so many of the blogs buzzing about how this reveals his narcissism.

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While some have suggested that illeistic people are most likely narcissistic, for a period of time in recent years there appeared a consensus among researchers that high usage of the first person singular personal pronoun was itself the more reliable indicator of narcissism. Most recently, this notion has lost support, even among the original researchers who came up with the notion. So it seems that how folks refer to themselves simply isn’t a reliable tip-off about their character. Fortunately, there are a few other and much more reliable signs you might be dealing with a narcissist, even if you’re not sure which of the two main types of narcissist they are (see “Two Types of Narcissism and How to Tell the Difference”).

For one thing, when speaking about themselves narcissists frequently “fish” for compliments, validation, approval, etc.. If they’re of the more “vulnerable,” neurotic variety, they get anxious and feel easily hurt or slighted if you fail to heed their invitations to stroke their ego, whereas if they’re the more “grandiose” or character disturbed type, they’ll show their disdain for you if you fail to recognize what they already know to be their greatness. (You can find much more information on narcissism and narcissistic characters in Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].) Also, when talking about their affairs with others, narcissists will rarely acknowledge error or personal shortcomings. Somehow, they’re always right and everyone else is wrong. If they have a history of failures in their relationships it’s never their fault and always the other party’s — or it’s bad luck, bad timing, circumstance, etc. Lastly, it’s not so much how someone references themselves that will reveal their narcissism but rather how they regard and refer to you. If someone’s repeatedly ignoring, disregarding, or stepping all over your feelings (even if they claim it’s not “intentional”), or acting like you don’t exist, don’t count, or especially, don’t compare, you’re probably dealing with a narcissist, or at least someone with a fair degree of narcissism in their character. So, if you’re involved with someone who has the unusual habit of referring to themselves in the third person, beware for sure, but don’t necessarily panic. Be less concerned with how they reference themselves and more concerned about how they regard you and the other people in their lives. That’s the surer test of their character.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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