"WOAH....who turned up the volume? Oh wait, that was me"
-the voice in my head
They are happening all the time, the silent soliloquies in your mind. Often they are only faint whispers as you navigate the day. But occasionally, or in some cases often, the volume gets turned up.
Chatter, also known as ‘self talk’, can sometimes take the form of heated debates: you versus you. Difficult to determine the winner. This type of chatter scenario is normal BUT there are times when it can feel out of control and that, my friends, is not good.
These days we talk often about managing ‘distractions’. We blame technology for everything from lack of productivity to anxiety. There is merit in this causality, but the distraction few talk about out loud is the chatter in their heads.
I can tell you from experience - my inner voice can get in the way of productivity, creativity, and ability to handle stress. It has impeded me from solving problems with the bigger picture in mind.
In his new book: Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why it Matters, and How to Harness It, Ethan Kross describes how introspection, the process of paying attention to our thoughts and feelings, can transition to negative rumination and describes tools that can help one keep them in check.
“Much of life is the mind. So, what often happens when we slip away? We talk to ourselves. And we listen to what we have to say.”
Before describing the methods to manage chatter it’s important to know that your inner voice is a fundamental feature of your mind. Self-talk has a purpose.
Why Do We Talk To Ourselves?
Our mind’s ability to time travel allows us both to learn from past experiences and to facilitate present and future decisions. While many promote “staying present” to manage stress, reflecting on our past is also important.
Verbal processing allows us to understand our emotions, desires and needs. This essential function of the brain is termed ‘working memory’ and it occurs as part of a phonological loop as our inner ear and voice transcribe our daily life.
One universal truth we don’t readily admit is that we all spend A LOT of time thinking about ourselves. It is our default state. The layers of our upbringing and individual histories influence how our inner voice speaks.
“We are like Russian nesting dolls of mental conversations”
There are several reasons we talk to ourselves:
● Self evaluation as we construct goals and plan our way towards them
● Self narratives that help form our identities
● Sense making of our emotions and the world at large
It’s easy to see how these functions are both necessary but also tenuous if the thoughts turn negative.
One of the biggest problems with incessant chatter is that it can hijack our attention. When we are overwhelmed by certain emotions we struggle to focus on anything else: losing the capacity to see the bigger picture.
This is when normal chatter backfires.
“Your labor-intense executive functions need every neuron they can get, but negative inner voice hogs our neural capacity. Verbal rumination concentrates our attention narrowly on the source of our emotional distress, thus stealing neurons that could better serve us.”
Let’s talk TOOLS to deal with Chatter
Kross gives a lot of suggestions on how we might harness our inner voices. The following four I found especially useful.
Get Zoom Variability
In order to effectively problem solve we need to be look at a situation from multiple perspectives. Rumination narrows our view and often magnifies the negative. Learning to zoom out allows us to develop psychological distance from our inner voice.
With this distanced perspective, we still engage with our thoughts and emotions but appreciate that they exist within a much larger context. Kross notes that this is different from ‘mindfulness meditation’, where the goal is often to observe one’s thoughts without engagement.
Think of zooming out as taking a step back to make sense of your experiences.
Developing a different perspective helps reroute negative chatter and affords more objective decision-making.
Mental time traveling into the future is called temporal distancing and studies have shown its power in helping individuals appreciate that experiences are temporary. Kross states that this can be an effective tool to deal with any kind of personal stressor but is especially useful when making decisions about your health.
Go ahead and send me a dollar if you haven’t mentally time traveled past 2020 and 2021!
The Value in a Third Person Perspective
“ Could talking to yourself as if you were someone else be its own form of distancing?”
Research suggests the answer is yes. Distanced self-talk can help subdue your inner voice just by changing your pronouns to third person "you" or using your own name. Stop using "I"
How does this work?
1) It allows us to reframe our experiences of stress from threat to manageable challenges.
“Research shows that distanced self talk leads people to consider stressful situations in more challenge-oriented terms, allowing them to provide encouraging, “you can do it” advice to themselves, rather than catastrophizing the situation.”
2) This technique works because acting like you are talking to someone else naturally changes your tone. How many times have you heard “Talk to yourself like you would someone you love”?
Go ahead, speak up
3) It allows you to gain a distanced perspective that can add clarity and priority.
For example: Instead of ruminating on all the ‘what if’s’, I might simply say to myself
“ What facts is Aline considering when making this decision?”
An important benefit to distanced self-talk is that it works quickly. Emotional regulation tools often take time and aren’t always easy to implement in the heat of the moment. Distanced self-talk allows you to get ahead of the chatter-storm.
Find a Chatter Advisor
The value of a good listener is undeniable. After listening and validating your feelings, a chatter advisor guides one to the crucial next step of finding perspective.
Pivoting from ‘validation’ to ‘providing bigger picture advice’ can sometimes feel like walking a tightrope.
“Offering advice without considering the person’s needs can undermine a person’s self efficacy - the crucial belief that we are capable of managing challenges. In other words, when we are aware that others are helping us but we haven’t invited their assistance, we interpret this to mean that we must be helpless or ineffective in some way- a feeling that our inner voice may latch onto.”
An Outside -> In Approach
Ever wonder why you gain such peace of mind by being outside in nature?
One reason is our environment can influence what goes inside our bodies.
According to Kross, nature captures our involuntary attention via subtle but stimulating properties known as soft fascinations. Trees and green spaces help manage chatter by adjusting our neural resources subconsciously allowing our voluntary attention to reboot.
Our connection to nature is so strong that studies have shown there are positive effects to observing nature in the form of a picture or film, and even by listening to nature sounds. That picture up there might have helped.
Nature helps us to release: it is the complement to controlling our chatter by creating order.
order on the "inside" :)
World class tennis player Rafael Nadal is famous for his rituals of perfectly organizing his water bottles at the start of a match, and running his hand through his hair before a serve.
“What I battle hardest to do in a tennis match,” he says, “is to quiet the voices in my head.”
Rituals like his are common in high level sports and use a process called ‘compensatory control’. Creating order in your physical environment can assist in achieving order internally.
Maybe you don’t have the same rituals as Nadal or your favorite MLB pitcher but I bet you’ve noticed your ability to focus is influenced by your environment.
I’m no Marie Kondo (or a knitter) but have found that organizing my desk and putting my phone out of sight are like magic pills for improving attention. Kross states that making these adjustments to our surroundings help us feel in control. Our simulated sense of order on the outside can extend to the inside and help focus our attention to a completely unrelated topic.
“The fascinating thing about seeking compensation for chaos in one area (our minds) by creating order in another (a.k.a. the physical environment) is that it doesn’t even have to have anything to do with this specific issue that is throwing off our inner voice.”
Our inner voices are helpful and important guides. A key point of this book is that real value emerges when we can hear more than one perspective, especially when warding off negative chatter.
This certainly isn’t the first book to address negative self-talk. Steven Pressfield conquers “the Resistance” in The War of Art and Katie Byron asks 4 questions in Loving What Is. Jocko Willink and David Goggins have no BS rule based approaches and that will work for some.
However, Ethan Kross does an excellent job of blending science and real life struggles with suggestions that leave room for an individual approach. We are, after all, each unique. So, too, should our toolbox be for dealing with chatter that gets in our way.
Developing a broader perspective by zooming out and distanced self-talk, working through some thoughts with chatter advisors, time in nature and creating order in my work environment are the tools that have worked for me. You can find others in the book Chatter.
Finding the tools that work for you is like solving a puzzle. When you master the tone of your inner voice and learn to manage its volume, you can transform distracting chatter into a productive conversation.
Photo credits: Casey Horner, Nine Koepfer, Andy Beales, Nick Fewings, Paul Hanaoko, Pine Watt, Cesar Carlevarino and Mitsuo Komoriya from Unsplash.com