Reflexive Verbs in Spanish and How to Use Them

It’s a fact of life: As we grow up, we have to start doing all kinds of things for ourselves. In Spanish, we have a whole different class of verbs to talk about those things!

They’re called reflexive verbs. Thankfully, the rules of reflexive verbs are actually very simple. Once you learn all you need to know in this ultimate guide to reflexive verbs, you’ll be set—no matter what stage you’re at.


What’s a Reflexive Verb?

A reflexive verb is a verb that refers to something the subject does to itself. Any given day is full of tasks that you need to complete “upon yourself,” such as brushing your own hair or waking yourself up. These verbs reflect upon themselves, hence they’re known as “reflexive” verbs.

The easiest way to recognize an infinitive (unconjugated) reflexive verb is that, rather than ending with -ar, -ir or -er, it’ll always end with se. For example:

Standard verb: lavar to wash 
Reflexive verb: lavarse to wash oneself

The reflexive verb pattern could be explained as referring to an instance when the subject completes action on itself.

On the other hand, with a regular verb the subject completes an action on another subject or object.

Most reflexive verbs are simply regular verbs with a –se added to them to indicate that the subject and object are the same. Some, however, are unable to be anything except reflexive. Consider the verb “repent” in English. Only the subject can repent, for themselves. The subject can’t repent for someone else.

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Therefore, in Spanish, arrepentirse (to repent, to regret) can’t be used without the –se or reflexive element. The same can be said of quejarse  (to complain).

Reflexive verbs are also sometimes used to describe an emotional response. The English equivalent of this is “becoming something” (e.g., I became sad) or something “making you” feel a certain way (e.g., “I get bored” or “it makes me happy”).

In Spanish, the reflexive verb format is:

Te alegras de leer. It makes you happy to read.
Me aburro de estudiar. I get bored with studying.

Now that you know what a Spanish reflexive verb looks like, let’s learn how to use them.

How to Use Reflexive Verbs in Spanish

Using reflexive verbs in Spanish will soon become second nature—a reflex, if you will—but this will only happen if you take the time now to really learn how reflexive verbs function.

I’m going to break it all down into five neat steps for you. By the end of this post, you’ll be well on your way to conquering these pesky verbs!

1. Know Your Pronouns

To understand how to use reflexive verbs, you’ll need to understand pronouns. Pronouns are those pesky, two- or three-letter words that reflexive verbs need to make sense. They’re the equivalents of “myself,” “yourself” and so on.

Reflexive pronouns are almost the same as indirect object pronouns.

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There’s just one key difference: Instead of le or les for the third person singular and plural, reflexive pronouns use se .

Spanish pronoun
Singular1st person (yo): me
2nd person (tú): te
3rd person (él/ella, usted) se
Plural1st person (nosotros): nos
2nd person (vosotros): os
3rd person (ellos/ellas, ustedes): se

Let’s see that in action!

The reflexive verb lavarse could be conjugated as:

Me lavo las manos. — I wash my hands.
Te lavas las manos. — You wash your hands.

When the subject is yo, the pronoun me is used. When the subject is , the pronoun te is used and so forth.

It’s good to hear these pronouns in action. The time we most often use them is when talking about our daily routines. Try this YouTube video to watch a native Spanish speaker talking about her daily routine.

If you want to practice them yourself, you can search the authentic Spanish videos on the FluentU program to find more video examples of these words being used by native speakers.

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2. Place Your Pronouns

One of the hardest parts of learning reflexive verbs is knowing where to place a pronoun.

They’re often the most confusing part about reflexive verbs for non-Spanish speakers, but if you know the key rules it won’t seem so hard anymore! Soon it will become second nature. 

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Here are the three big rules that you need to remember about placing pronouns:

1. Usually, a pronoun goes before a reflexive verb.

Formula: subject + pronoun + verb + object

Example: Yo me cepillo el pelo. — I brush my hair.
Yo (subject) me (pronoun) cepillo (verb) el pelo (object)

2. When there are more verbs next to the reflexive verb, the pronoun is placed before the first verb.

Formula: subject + pronoun + auxiliary verb + reflexive verb + object

Example: Yo me he cepillado el pelo. — I have brushed my hair.
Yo (subject) me (pronoun) he (aux verb) cepillado (reflexive verb) el pelo (object)

Example: Yo me estoy cepillando el pelo. — I’m brushing my hair.
Yo (subject) me (pronoun) estoy (aux verb) cepillando (reflexive verb) el pelo (object)

Example: Yo me voy a cepillar el pelo. — I’m going to brush my hair.
Yo (subject) me (pronoun) voy a (aux verb phrase) cepillar (reflexive verb) el pelo (object)

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3. But when the reflexive verb is in its gerund or infinitive form, the pronoun can also go at the end of the verb itself. So, the last two examples can also be written as follows:

Formula: subject + auxiliary verb (if any) + reflexive verb-pronoun + object

Example: Yo estoy cepillándome* el pelo.
Yo (subject) estoy (aux verb) cepillándo (reflexive verb) me (pronoun) el pelo (object)

Example: Yo voy a cepillarme el pelo.
Yo (subject) voy a (aux verb phrase) cepillar (reflexive verb) me (pronoun) el pelo (object)

*Note that there’s an accent placed on the a. The accent should be placed on the in -ando (in -ar verbs) and the in iendo (in -er and –ir verbs) when the verb and the pronoun are merged into one word. 

Lastly, commands are a special case worth mentioning:

In a positive command, the pronoun must always go at the end of the conjugated reflexive verb. ¡Vístete! — Get dressed!
In a negative command, the pronoun must always go before the conjugated reflexive verb. ¡No te levantes! — Don't get up!

To learn more about sentence structure in Spanish, check out this post.

3. Get Those Negatives Right

The no always goes before the pronoun. Imagine the formula like this:

Formula: No + pronoun + conjugated reflexive verb

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Example: No me ducho. — I don’t shower myself.
No (no) me (pronoun) ducho (conjugated reflexive verb)

The no may only go immediately before the pronoun in this case. When the pronoun is at the end of the verb, things look a little different. Consider the following.

Formula: No + verb + reflexive verb + pronoun (In this formula the reflexive verb and pronoun are merged into one word)

Example: Ella no está peinándose. — She isn’t combing her hair.

Example: Ella no va a peinarse. — She isn’t going to comb her hair.

“That’s a fair few rules,” I hear you saying. Once you master them you won’t even have to think about them anymore. Just like you don’t think about how you speak in English—you just do it.

4. Nail Objects and Ownership

The detectives among you might have noticed something unexpected: The articles of objects involved in reflexive verb actions don’t change to become owned by the subject. In English we’d say “I wash my hands.” The article before hands is changed to the first person, so that the listener knows that the hands belong to us. The same could be said of many other sentences.

In Spanish, however, changing the ownership via the article isn’t necessary. You’ll instead see sentences like:

Me lavo las manos. — I wash my hands.

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Look carefully, las manos (the hands) hasn’t been changed to mis manos (my hands). That’s because, thanks to the reflexive verb, it’s very clear in Spanish that the subject is washing their own hands. Remember that in all constructions of Spanish sentences with reflexive verbs it’s unnecessary to reiterate ownership through articles in front of objects.

5. Conjugate with Confidence

Conjugate a reflexive verb just as you would a regular verb.

Remember that the subject is doing the verb to themselves, so you would conjugate in that form. For example, in me peino  (lit. I comb myself, meaning: I brush my hair) the conjugation of peino is in the first person singular as is the pronoun.

Remember: Reflexive verbs are usually regular in their conjugation and the key rules of pronoun placements never change. If a verb refers to a subject completing an action upon themselves, it’s reflexive! Just add se!

Let’s take a look at some conjugations in the present, preterite, imperfect, conditional and future tenses:

Regular -ar verbs: Peinarse — to brush one’s hair

Yo Me peino Me peiné Me peinaba Me peinaría Me peinaré
Te peinas Te peinaste Te peinabas Te peinarías Te peinarás
Él/Ella, Usted Se peina Se peinó Se peinaba Se peinaría Se peinará
Nosotros/as Nos peinamos Nos peinamos Nos peinábamos Nos peinaríamos Nos peinaremos
Vosotros/as Os peináis Os peinasteis Os peinabais Os peinaríais Os peinaréis
Ellos/Ellas, Ustedes Se peinan Se peinaron Se peinaban Se peinarán Se peinarán

Regular -er verbs: Comerse — to eat

Yo Me como Me comí Me comía Me comería Me comeré
Te comes Te comiste Te comías Te comerías Te comerás
Él/Ella, Usted Se come Se comió Se comía Se comería Se comerá
Nosotros/as Nos comemos Nos comimos Nos comíamos Nos comeríamos Nos comeremos
Vosotros/as Os coméis Os comisteis Os comíais Os comeríais Os comeréis
Ellos/Ellas, Ustedes Se comen Se comieron Se comían Se comerían Se comerán

Regular -ir verbs: Aburrirse — to become bored

Yo Me aburro Me aburrí Me aburría Me aburriría Me aburriré
Te aburres Me aburriste Te aburrías Te aburrirías Te aburrirás
Él/Ella, Usted Se aburre Me aburrió Se aburría Se aburriría Se aburrirá
Nosotros/as Nos aburrimos Nos aburrimos Nos aburríamos Nos aburriríamos Nos aburriremos
Vosotros/as Os aburrís Os aburristeis Os aburríais Os aburriríais Os aburriréis
Ellos/Ellas, Ustedes Se aburren Se aburrieron Se aburrían Se aburrirían Se aburrirán

Must-know Spanish Reflexive Verbs

Now that you’ve learned how to use reflexive verbs in Spanish, here are some more common reflexive verbs that you can start incorporating into your vocabulary:

SpanishEnglishExample sentence
Despertarse To wake up No importa qué día de la semana sea, siempre me despierto a las 6 de la mañana. — No matter what day of the week it is, I always wake up at 6 a.m.
Enamorarse To fall in love Se enamoraron después de conocerse en un vuelo a Madrid. — They fell in love after meeting on a flight to Madrid.
Preocuparse To worry Me dijo que no me preocupara por perder su fiesta ayer. — He told me not to worry about missing his party yesterday.
Llamarse To be called El hombre me dijo que se llamaba Alejandro, pero todos lo llaman Alex. — The man told me that his name was Alejandro, but everyone calls him Alex.
Mudarse To move/relocate
Después de graduarse, ella se mudó a España para comenzar su carrera en traducción. — After graduating, she moved to Spain to start her career in translation.
Desmayarse To faint Pablo me dijo que no se sentía muy bien y se desmayó. — Pablo told me that he wasn't feeling very well and fainted.
Perderse To get lost Se perdió después de tomar el autobús equivocado y tuvo que llamar a sus hermanos mayores para pedir ayuda. — She got lost after taking the wrong bus and had to call her older brothers for help.
Parecerse To look alike No me sorprende que sean hermanos. ¡Se parecen mucho! — It doesn't surprise me that they are siblings. They look so much like each other!
Caerse To fall Esta mañana me caí y me lastimé el tobillo después de resbalar en el hielo. — This morning I fell over and hurt my ankle after slipping on ice.
Despedirse To say goodbye Ella se despidió de su familia y subió al tren hacia Barcelona. — She said goodbye to her family and got on the train to Barcelona.
Irse To go, to leave Mi compañero de trabajo nos dijo que tenía que irse temprano debido a una emergencia familiar. — My colleague told us that he had to leave early due to a family emergency.
Divertirse To have fun ¡Nos divertimos mucho en la boda de Juan y Marina! — We had so much fun at Juan and Marina's wedding!
Reírse To laugh Siempre me río cuando estoy con Antonio. ¡Es la persona más divertida que conozco! — I always laugh when I'm with Antonio. He's the funniest person I know!


With practice, you’ll be able to start using Spanish reflexive verbs naturally in your own conversations! 

¡Diviértete! (Have fun!)

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