- The Art of Illeism: Making Better Decisions and Keeping the Ego in Check
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May 2, 2023

Illeism: a strange word but a powerful concept. The practice of referring to oneself in the third person, illeism, might initially seem like the domain of narcissists or eccentric personalities. But as we dig deeper, we find that it offers an intriguing and practical tool for making better decisions, managing our emotions, and keeping our egos in check.

The Origins of Illeism

Illeism traces its roots back to Latin, where the pronoun "ille" means "he" or "that." It is the act of referring to oneself in the third person, a linguistic quirk that has been employed by some of history's most notable figures. Julius Caesar, for example, famously wrote about his own military exploits in the third person in his "Commentaries on the Gallic War." More recently, LeBron James has been known to speak about himself in the third person in interviews.  The Mic breaks this down in another article

A study conducted by psychologists Ethan Kross, Marc Berman, and Ozlem Ayduk, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2014, found that using non-first-person pronouns and one's own name (a form of illeism) while engaging in self-talk can provide emotional regulation and self-distancing.

This study showed that participants who used illeism during self-talk experienced less distress, rumination, and negative emotions when confronted with a stressor compared to those who used first-person pronouns. The researchers concluded that using one's name and non-first-person pronouns helps create a self-distanced perspective, enhancing emotional regulation and decision-making.

Another study, published in 2017 by Ariana Orvell, Ethan Kross, and Susan Gelman, found that using generic-you language (a form of illeism) could also promote self-distancing and emotional regulation. This form of illeism involves using the pronoun "you" to refer to oneself, as in "You win some, you lose some."

Iilleism can be a beneficial tool for emotional regulation and decision-making, supporting that this linguistic technique has practical applications in everyday life.

Dr. Benjamin Hardy, an organizational psychologist and bestselling author, incorporates illeism in his future self-work to help individuals create a psychological distance between their present and future selves. By referring to one's future self in the third person, Dr. Hardy encourages people to envision their goals and aspirations more vividly, facilitating more effective decision-making and personal development. This approach enables individuals to objectively assess their current actions and habits, identify misalignments with their desired future, and take steps to bridge the gap between who they are now and who they aspire to be. In doing so, illeism becomes a valuable tool in Dr. Hardy's methodology for personal growth and transformation.

The Power of Detachment: Making Better Decisions

At first glance, illeism might seem like an odd and self-aggrandizing habit. But there's more to it than that. When we talk about ourselves in the third person, we create a psychological distance that allows us to evaluate our thoughts, feelings, and actions more objectively. This detachment can help us make better decisions by removing the emotional component and focusing on the facts at hand.

Imagine you're facing a tough career decision: should you take the well-paying but uninspiring job or follow your passion and risk financial instability? By asking, "What should [your name] do?" you separate yourself from the emotions that cloud your judgment, enabling you to weigh the pros and cons more rationally.

Mapping Your Future Self

Illeism can also be a powerful tool for envisioning and planning for your future self. By referring to your future self in the third person, you create a sense of separation that allows you to imagine the person you want to become and the choices you need to make to get there.

Try asking yourself, "What does [your name] want to achieve in five years?" or "What kind of person does [your name] want to be?" By adopting this perspective, you can more effectively plan for your future and make decisions that align with your long-term goals.

In a 2010 interview discussing his decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join the Miami Heat, LeBron James utilized a form of illeism to express his thought process, stating, "I want to do what is best for LeBron James and what LeBron James is going to do to make him happy." His comment underscores his ability to distance himself from the emotions and pressures associated with such a high-stakes decision to focus on his long-term well-being and goals.

By referring to himself in the third person in this statement, LeBron effectively adopted a more objective viewpoint, allowing him to assess the potential impact of his decision on his career, personal brand, and future opportunities. This approach likely played a significant role in his ability to make a well-considered choice, which resulted in his successful tenure with the Miami Heat, where he won two NBA championships and further established his legacy as one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

Keeping the Ego in Check

The practice of illeism is not only helpful for decision-making but also for managing our egos. By referring to ourselves in the third person, we remind ourselves that we are not the center of the universe and our actions and choices affect others. This shift in perspective can lead to greater humility and self-awareness, making us more empathetic and understanding of others' needs and feelings.

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote his famous "Meditations" as a series of personal reflections. In this philosophical journal, Aurelius often referred to himself in the third person, creating a sense of detachment that allowed him to evaluate his actions, thoughts, and the nature of the self. By adopting this perspective, he maintained a level of humility and self-awareness, recognizing that he was not the center of the universe and that his actions and choices affected others. This practice of illeism, combined with his Stoic philosophy, enabled Aurelius to cultivate a balanced and rational mindset, despite being one of the most powerful individuals in the world at the time.

A Few Potential Pitfalls

While illeism can offer various benefits, such as promoting objectivity and keeping the ego in check, it is essential to consider its potential downsides. Overusing or employing illeism in inappropriate contexts might lead to misunderstandings or give others the impression of arrogance or eccentricity. Additionally, excessive detachment from one's emotions and experiences could hinder genuine self-reflection, self-expression, and emotional growth. Ultimately, balancing using illeism as a valuable psychological tool and maintaining an authentic, emotionally connected relationship with ourselves and others is crucial.

Three Ways to Practice Illeism

Ready to give illeism a try? Here are three simple ways to start incorporating this powerful technique into your life:

  1. Journaling: Writing about your thoughts and experiences in the third person can help you gain perspective and clarity. Try keeping a daily journal where you narrate your day and reflect on your actions and feelings as if you were an outside observer.
  2. Self-Talk: Replace "I" with your name when considering decisions or planning for the future. This shift in language can help you evaluate situations more objectively and make choices that align with your goals.
  3. Mindfulness: When you are consumed by emotions or ego-driven thoughts, take a step back and observe your feelings as if they were happening to someone else. This detachment can help you regain control and maintain a balanced perspective.

Illeism is more than just a linguistic curiosity – it's a powerful tool for self-reflection and personal growth. By practicing illeism, we can cultivate greater objectivity, make better decisions, and keep our egos in check. So, the next time you find yourself grappling with a difficult choice or overwhelmed by emotion, try referring to yourself in the third person. You might be surprised at the clarity and insight it brings to your life. Embrace illeism, and discover the transformative power of this simple yet profound linguistic shift.

author avatar
George Morris
I use my 20+ years of entrepreneurial experience and training to coach businesses on scaling up rapidly using Verne Harnish's Scaling Up framework. By doing so, my clients are more efficient and profitable, giving them the ability to make bigger impacts in the world. I deeply believe entrepreneurs are the best equipped to be the vehicle for meaningful change, and in the decade ahead, we'll see a substantial shift in how business is done. We'll move to a model where company purpose, impact, curiosity, and team health will be differentiators in overall business success. As Simon Sinek has pointed out, the finite games are the legacy of the past; we're moving to an infinite game.