Should we refer to ourselves in the Third Person?
Joe is sitting at one of his favourite coffee shops writing a blog post. He is writing a blog post exploring whether we should refer to ourselves in the third person. Joe is a promising young writer with great ideas, and this might be another one of them.
I am sitting at one of my favourite coffee shops writing a blog post. I am writing a blog post exploring whether we should refer to ourselves in the third person. I am a promising young writer with great ideas, and this might be another one of them.
Which do you prefer?
The third person – “Joe is”… or the first person – “I am”? Which sounds more self-indulgent and subjective, and which one sounds more objective?
In day-to-day life we refer to ourselves in the first person, we use the “I” – but should we be doing this? Would we be better served referring to ourselves in the third person, as if we were separate from ourselves, an outsider watching a human shell walk around and talk all day?
The case for the Third Person.
This piece is most directly built on two previous ideas, which you can catch up on here in full if needed:
These pieces challenge the idea that we exist as incredibly important and independent individuals – that in fact, we are actually best understood as a collective. What does that mean, to be a ‘collective’?
I understand this to be looking at ourselves as if we are the sum of many independent parts. We are the sum of our natural homo sapien wiring and Astro the Dog, plus cultural influences, plus the experiences we have in our upbringing modulated by our culture, environment and base wiring, as well as the context of our existence in relation to all living things.
We probably confuse all of ‘us’ to be the part of ‘us’ that we can hear
The point of Astro the Dog is to give us a metaphor that helps the everyday person understand their thinking with the right perspective, to realise that a lot of their thoughts are actually ‘suggestions’ from other parts of our ‘collective’ identity – that we are not our thoughts.
From a neuroscientific perspective, the part of ourselves that we are conscious of is most closely associated with the prefrontal cortex, the latest and greatest part of our brains to evolve; our biggest point of difference and advantage over the other inhabitants of the globe.
From a Freudian perspective, the conscious part of us was understood as the ‘Id’ or ‘ego’, (different to other definitions of ego) – under this framework, the conscious part is not all of us, but just a section.
More broadly, Western culture and religion focuses more on the understanding of people as completely in control and self-contained individuals, whereas the idea of us as a collective is more associated with Eastern philosophies. It is not a definition you have to accept, but surely one you must consider.
If the part of us that is conscious is so small, should we refer to ourselves as a ‘collective’?
If you subscribe to these ideas, you might consider it worthwhile distancing yourself from yourself.
There is a fantastic line in Anthony De Mello’s book about being complemented for his home country. To paraphrase, he refers to situations where new people comment on India; “Oh you’re from India? I love India, it’s a beautiful country!” to which he would reply, “thank you”. But then, he catches himself saying ‘thank you’ – after all, he didn’t make India, he didn’t curate India, and he did not edit India… he was just born there. He can’t take credit for India!
Imagine you lived in a lovely house and that when people complimented you for the house, it made you feel warm and fuzzy inside. Do you identify as the house? Do you identify with the house? How healthy is that identification with the house? How does it serve you?
If the house were destroyed in a storm, and you identified heavily with it, where would that leave you?
You are the keeper of the house.
You are the living, conscious part of the house. You maintain, improve and upgrade the house over time. You mow the lawn, you fix the leaks, you respond to the alarm and protect the house. You monitor who gets let into and out of the house. You vet them; the erratic toddlers who will damage the drapes and furniture are not welcome, but civilised guests are.
You are the player in the house who has agency, but you are not the house. What an arrogant proposition!
You do not identify with the flaws of the house, and you do not identify with its strengths either. If there is a hole in the house, you will be vulnerable to the weather, but that does not mean that there is a hole in you.
If the house is the biggest on the block, it does not mean that you are the biggest and best on the block. If your house provides shelter to the most people, don’t forget, it is the house that is providing the shelter – you are just allowing it to be the vehicle.
You are not ‘afraid’.
In our language we say things like “I’m afraid”, “I’m not good enough”, “I’m the best”, “I’m the sexiest”, “I’m the smartest” and so on. These attributions are too direct, making our ego and self-esteem too volatile. This phrasing, “I am”, does not serve us.
Replace it with “I am feeling afraid”, “I appear to know the most on this subject”. Do not identify directly with praise or criticism. Praise and criticism describe your abilities, your actions, your performances, and project onto you the biases of others. It is hard for them to accurately summarise you.
Rather, we might say, “Joe is afraid right now” or “Joe feels like he is not good enough”, to give a healthy distance, a buffer. To look at a subjective, temporary experience for the collective that we are steering through life; the house we reside in and are responsible for.
If we neglect the house, we outsource its fate to the elements. If we mistake ourselves as the house, we grow too attached to it and develop a harmful ego.
Perhaps then, we should identify the small conscious voice in our heads as the small conscious voice in our heads
And refer to the whole of ourselves in the third person.
Joe is really considering this idea right now.
You are not the movie, you are the director.
You are not the book, you are the author.
You are not the song, you are the singer.
You are not the painting, you are the painter.
One small part of a living and dynamic organism that should not be taken too seriously.