You’ve probably heard of the ego and the id. Freud believed that the human psyche was divided into at least two agencies. He called them the ego and the id. As you know, he added another agency, the superego, a punishing overlord, just to keep it interesting.
Writing in his native German, Freud called the agencies das Ich and das Es. These everyday German pronouns could have been rendered perfectly well in English by the I and the It.
For reasons that make no sense, Freud’s English translators, with, as I recall, his approval, translated everyday German pronouns into Latin and gave us the ego and the id.
Thereby they obfuscated the theory and confused no small number of people.
Admittedly, the term “ego” has become a part of everyday English. Id has also, but to a lesser extent.
When we speak about the ego and the id we are drawn into the mind. When we think in terms of the I, we inevitably direct our attention to the way people speak about themselves in everyday conversation.
Once you start looking at the way people use I in conversation you are out of the mind and into a behavior that can be quantified. Some people say I more often; some say I less often. A researcher can collect data about I-usage and analyze it.
The It, in the Freudian sense, has far too imprecise a reference to be of real interest, unless you are referring to a part of your body whose behavior you want to repudiate.
Recently, James Pennebaker, the chairman of the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin studied how different people use the word I.
Pennebaker is not interested in psychic agencies or mental processing. His domain is social psychology. He cares more about what pronouns can tell us about the social status of a speaker. If so, they also tell us about levels of confidence and social effectiveness.
Pennebaker has observed that people who use I less often tend to be of higher status. And vice versa. People who use I more often tend to be of lower status.
It makes good sense. People in charge direct more of their attention to the real world. They are less about themselves and more about others. They are less concerned with asserting themselves and more involved in understanding what is going on around them and directing the activities of others. Their interest is the enterprise not their person.
This implies either that people who get to the top are more selfless or that when people get to the top they learn to be more selfless. People who gravitate toward the bottom seem more concerned with themselves. Or else, once they hit bottom they are no longer responsible for anyone but themselves… and thus, they indulge a litany of I and Me.
People who use I more frequently tend, Pennebaker has observed, to be more insecure, more worried about pleasing others, more self-conscious and perhaps even in more pain.
If you assume that narcissists are more self-involved, more self-absorbed, less attentive to other people, you would assume that they would say I more often than do people who function more effectively in the world.
Narcissists may pretend to be confident and in charge. Their overuse of the I word gives them away.
These preliminary observations have direct implications for therapy. Isn’t therapy supposed to be about you, about your life, your feelings, your wishes, your aspirations? Most people would say—and not without reason—that the whole point of therapy is to talk about themselves. Unless, of course, they are complaining about other people.
Patients might believe that therapy will help them to be better able to assert themselves, to promote themselves, to represent themselves. Isn’t therapy about becoming more self-aware by gaining more insight into how your own mind works?
If Pennebaker is right, much therapy is a systematic effort to teach people a habit that will designate them as of lower status. It might also demoralize them and make them less effective.
When therapists ask questions like: How do you feel about that? or How did that make you feel? or I wonder why you thought of that... they are telling their patients that I-talk is therapeutic.
With the notable exception of cognitive-behavioral treatments, most therapy promotes introspection, and thus I-talk.
And yet, there is no law that forces therapists to keep asking idiot-questions that make it appear that introspection is therapeutic. They might do better by helping their patients to redirect their focus, away from their personal feelings by showing them how to make a more objective analysis of their dilemma. As I have often mentioned, emotions might provide useful clues about your situation, but only if you take a step back and examine them objectively.
Knowing what you feel is not the same as knowing what your feelings are trying to tell you.
If we know that more competent and higher status individuals use the word I less often, a therapist who wanted to enhance his patients’ competence would not be encouraging them to become self-aware or to assert themselves. He would show them how to step back from the situation, analyze it objectively and decide on a plan of action.
But, researchers also suggest that when speaking to your spouse, it is better to use I more often and You less often. As they see it You tends to be accusatory while I tends to take more responsibility.
Having limited himself to I and It Freud had no real use for You as a psychic agency. It makes some sense: after all, You cannot really be considered to be part of your individual psyche.
Still, people ask about You and refer to You. They ask you what you think, how you feel and what you are going to do. When they do so, they expect a response headed by I.
It is true that in some cases You might be confrontational and accusatory, but in others—when you tell someone, I love you—it obviously is not.
But, if someone yells out, Hey, you!, he is obviously being condescending and rude.
This is another way of saying that You adds new and intriguing level of complexity.
This discussion brings to mind a wonderful book written by Julienne Davis and Maggie Arana: Stop Calling Him Honey and Start Having Sex!, the authors suggest that if you want to keep lust alive in your marriage, you should stop using terms of endearment and use his or her proper name.