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Have you ever thought of writing an autobiography? Lots of noncelebrity people are doing that these days: Memoirs are more common, as we become more comfortable sharing intimate details of our personal lives with strangers. But before you start yours, consider this: What you think is riveting about your life might not seem so to others. As one publisher put it, too many submissions are “just the writer’s own story, which is ultimately boring.”
And now that you’re reconsidering your memoir project, you might even think about taking it a step further, and talk less about yourself in general. We like to talk about ourselves because, quite simply, for us it feels good. But like many superficially soothing habits, it comes at a cost to our social lives and overall well-being. With a few nudges, however, this can be quite easily corrected.
Roughly 30 to 40 percent of our speech is self-referential, according to a small study of university students. As for social-media use, results from an analysis of posts on one platform suggest that about 80 percent of us post about ourselves. Cat videos and complaints about airlines aside, social-media platforms are basically autobiographical microblogs.
Why do we talk and write about ourselves so much? Because it has an instant payoff. In research conducted at Harvard and published in 2012, neuroscientists showed that when people impart information about themselves to others, it stimulates the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area of the brain, which are parts of the mesolimbic dopamine system involved in delivering rewards from activities such as sex, gambling, and drinking alcohol.
Not surprisingly, then, we can exhibit symptoms of an addiction to self-referential behavior. This is what the sociologist Charles Derber calls “conversational narcissism” in his book The Pursuit of Attention: Seeking a small dopamine hit, we can develop a habit of reflexively bringing every conversation around to our own life and experiences. Sometimes the mechanism takes a roundabout form, such as talking compulsively about one’s work. Someone who suffers from this syndrome might be a workaholic whose self-worth is built on their job—in which case, talking about work is really a way of talking about him- or herself.
As is common with other addictive behaviors, constantly talking about oneself can signal the presence of an underlying mood disorder, such as depression. For a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2019, scholars surveyed nearly 5,000 people to measure the relationship between depressive symptoms and “I-talk” (using first-person singular pronouns in speech). They found a “small but reliable” positive correlation. Other researchers provide an explanation for this: People with depression spend more time thinking about themselves than nondepressed people do, and have difficulty switching their attention to other people and things.
As is commonly the case with depression, this tendency is counterproductive, in the sense that talking about oneself and disregarding others are off-putting characteristics. Depressed people need love and support, and research shows that they react positively to experiencing a sense of belonging. But conversational narcissism—especially complaining—drives people away, which can make the mood disorder worse.
So if you have a habit of talking about yourself, it’s a good one to break—not just for the relief of your family and friends, but also for your own mental health. Here are two ways to get started.
1. Nudge your default mode network.
We talk about ourselves a lot because, naturally, we think about ourselves a lot. As a matter of fact, we typically default to thinking about ourselves when we have nothing else to think about. Researchers writing in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience in 2018 noticed that the same parts of the brain that are most active when we let our minds wander—the medial prefrontal cortex, including a region called the Brodmann Area 10—are involved in self-referential thinking. We engage this aptly named default mode network, or DMN, when we free our attention from external demands.
In other words, left to its own devices, my mind will mostly wander around me: my day, my lunch, my future. This creates a self-reinforcing pattern, in which more time in the DMN encourages more self-referential thinking.
Some clinicians believe that we can interrupt this pattern by decreasing DMN activity, and they recommend such techniques as meditation and exercise. Although I’m not aware of any research that has shown it, my sense is that many people of faith pray for this reason as well. For example, Eastern Orthodox Christians commonly recite the short, hypnotic “Jesus Prayer” when they find themselves at rest.
2. Reframe the conversation.
When people are blue and use more I-talk than when they are well, you might assume that the problem is the sadness, not the I-talk. But research suggests that how we choose to talk can dramatically affect how we think and feel. I have written previously about the social science showing that if couples choose to use “we words” when they fight instead of “me/you words,” they demonstrate less agitation and experience fewer negative emotions, and report higher marital satisfaction. That difference can simply be that they say, “I think we have a problem,” rather than “You are causing a problem.”
We can use the same principle in our speech. When you want to address a particular topic, find a way to pivot from “I/me” to “we/us.” For example, if you are tempted to complain about your job to someone, instead ask them what they’d do in the particular situation you’re unhappy about. If you’re feeling disappointed with the weather today, depersonalize your complaint by saying, “It looks as if we’re going to get rain today.” These are subtle changes, but they will put you mentally into the company of others, shifting the focus toward them and their experience, instead of orienting it always on yourself. And after all, no one is bored when you talk about them.
One last suggestion: If you use social media, consider whether you might be using it to natter on about yourself—in a way that could be giving you little dopamine hits but that is ultimately at the expense of your overall mental health. Go back and look at your posts from the past few months. Ask yourself, with as much objectivity as possible, if they sound as though they come from someone you’d avoid at a party. If the answer’s yes, then try a new approach. You might look for an inspiring message to post, which would give you a reason to search for positive ideas. You might make a note of the most interesting thing you see or hear every day, and post a link or photo on that. Or maybe you’ll simply engage more with people about their lives instead of yours.
Whatever you decide to do, you will be breaking your I-talk habit, and won’t be priming your DMN with self-referential content. An additional benefit might be having more time on your hands because you’re not constantly checking social media—just don’t use that time to write a memoir.