Maybe that friend who can't stop talking about herself isn't just a narcissist after all.
Sometimes, depression can be obvious—say, if a person regularly complains about feeling sad, hopeless, or unmotivated. But other signs of emotional distress can be more subtle. Now, a new study suggests a connection between negative emotions and two little words that may come as a surprise: “I” and “me.”
That’s right: People who frequently talk about themselves may not be narcissistic; they might actually be anxious, depressed, or neurotic. The findings are published in the Journal of Personality and Society Psychology, and they align with previous research that “I-talk” (as it’s known in psychology circles) may be a marker for depressive symptoms. In fact, the authors of the new study say, people who use a lot of first-person pronouns may be predisposed to having more negative emotions in general.
For the study, researchers looked at data from more than 4,700 individuals in the United States and Germany who participated in experiments that tracked their use of I-talk, either in written or spoken tasks. The participants also underwent screenings that measured their levels of depression and negative emotionality, also known as neuroticism—the tendency to easily become upset or distressed. Negative emotionality can manifest as depression, but it can also take the shape of anxiety, worry, tension, anger, or frustration.
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The researchers found that the average person speaks about 16,000 words a day, and, on average, about 1,400 of those are first-person singular pronouns. People in the study who were prone to emotional distress, however, used “I” and “me” up to 2,000 times a day.
Previous research has also suggested that I-talk may be linked to depression; some experts even believe screening for I-talk frequency could be used to assess a person’s likelihood of having or developing the condition. But Allison Tackman, PhD, a research scientist at the University of Arizona and first author of the new study, says the connection may be deeper than that.
“The question is, does the fact that someone uses first-person singular pronouns a lot tell us more about their tendency to be depressed, or their tendency to experience negative emotions more broadly?” Tackman says. “It really appears to be the latter. Our findings suggest that I-talk would be better used to get an idea of a person’s risk of experiencing mental health issues in general, rather than depression in particular.”
Tackman and her colleagues also looked at whether gender affected the relationship between I-talk and negative emotions, since some research has suggested that women who are depressed may be more likely to use I-talk than men. However, they found no difference between males and females. “Regardless of your gender, if you are more likely to experience negative emotions, you’re more likely to use first-person singular pronouns,” she says.
In a way, the link between I-talk and depression or anxiety makes sense: It’s easy to think about people with emotional distress saying things like “I can't stop worrying,” “I’m so sad,” or “I hate this.” But the new study also found that there weren’t a lot of interactions between the words “I” and “me” and other words with either negative or positive connotations.
In other words, it didn’t seem to matter what context I-talk was used in—suggesting that a person doesn't have to be complaining or worrying to set off alarm bells. Theoretically, says Tackman, a warning sign of emotional distress could also be people talking about themselves (excessively, that is) in a positive light.
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Being aware of your own use of first-person pronouns may serve as a good self-evaluation as to how you’re doing emotionally, says Tackman, although she acknowledges that it can be hard to notice or keep track of how often you use "I" and "me" yourself. Perhaps more importantly, she says, is keeping this finding in mind when listening to friends and family members—and, yes, those annoying acquaintances who constantly ramble on about themselves.
“When someone is using a lot of I-talk, it can help to be aware and maybe start to wonder if there’s something going on in that person’s life, that maybe they’re not doing so great,” Tackman says. “Having self-focus is good but sometimes too much self-focus is an indicator that something’s wrong.”