As naturally as we breathe, we “decouple” from the here and now, our brains transporting us to past events, imagined scenarios, and other internal musings. This tendency is so fundamental it has a name: our “default state.” It is the activity our brain automatically reverts to when not otherwise engaged, and often even when we are otherwise engaged. You’ve no doubt noticed your own mind wander, as if of its own volition, when you were supposed to be focusing on a task. We are perpetually slipping away from the present into the parallel, nonlinear world of our minds, involuntarily sucked back “inside” on a minute-to-minute basis. In light of this, the expression “the life of the mind” takes on new and added meaning: much of our life is the mind. So what often happens when we slip away?
We talk to ourselves.
And we listen to what we say.
Humanity has grappled with the phenomenon of the inner voice since the dawn of civilization. Early Christian mystics were thoroughly annoyed by the voice in their head always intruding on their silent contemplation. Some even considered these voices demonic. Around the same time, in the East, Chinese Buddhists theorized about the turbulent mental weather that could cloud one’s emotional landscape. They called it “deluded thought.” And yet many of these very same ancient cultures believed that their inner voice was a source of wisdom, a belief that undergirds several millennia-old practices like silent prayer and meditation. The fact that multiple spiritual traditions have both feared our inner voice and noted its value speaks to the ambivalent attitudes to our internal conversations that still persist today.
The flow of words is so inextricable from our inner lives that it persists even in the face of vocal impairments. Some people who stutter, for example, report talking more fluently in their minds than they do out loud. Deaf people who use sign language talk to themselves too, though they have their own form of inner language. It involves silently signing to themselves, similar to how people who can hear use words to talk to themselves privately. The inner voice is a basic feature of the mind.
Although the inner voice functions well much of the time, it often leads to chatter—the cyclical negative thoughts and emotions that turn our singular capacity for introspection into a curse rather than a blessing.
If you’ve ever silently repeated a phone number to memorize it, replayed a conversation imagining what you should have said, or verbally coached yourself through a problem or skill, then you’ve employed your inner voice. Most people rely on and benefit from theirs every day. And when they disconnect from the present, it’s often to converse with that voice or hear what it has to say—and it can have a lot to say.
Although the inner voice functions well much of the time, it often leads to chatter—the cyclical negative thoughts and emotions that turn our singular capacity for introspection into a curse rather than a blessing. This often happens precisely when we need our inner voice the most—when our stress is up, the stakes are high, and we encounter difficult emotions that call for the utmost poise. Sometimes this chatter takes the form of a rambling soliloquy; sometimes it’s a dialogue we have with ourselves. Sometimes it’s a compulsive rehashing of past events (rumination); sometimes it’s an angst-ridden imagining of future events (worry). Sometimes it’s a free-associative pinballing between negative feelings and ideas. Sometimes it’s a fixation on one specific unpleasant feeling or notion. However it manifests itself, when the inner voice runs amok and chatter takes the mental microphone, our mind not only torments but paralyzes us. It can also lead us to do things that sabotage us.
The key to beating chatter isn’t to stop talking to yourself. The challenge is to figure out how to do so more effectively.
But the instruments necessary for reducing chatter and harnessing our inner voice aren’t something we need to go looking for. They are readily available, waiting for us to put them to work. The key to beating chatter isn’t to stop talking to yourself. The challenge is to figure out how to do so more effectively.
In my book, I review the different tools that exist for helping people resolve the tension between getting caught in negative thought spirals and thinking clearly and constructively. Below are several tools that you might try out to help calm your own chatter and to provide chatter support to others.
Tools You Can Implement on Your Own
- Imagine advising a friend. One way to think about your experience from a distanced perspective is to imagine what you would say to a friend experiencing the same problem as you. Think about the advice you’d give that person, and then apply it to yourself.
- Reinterpret your body’s chatter response. The bodily symptoms of stress (for example, an upset stomach before, say, a date or presentation) are often themselves stressful (for instance, chatter causes your stomach to grumble, which perpetuates your chatter, which leads your stomach to continue to grumble). When this happens, remind yourself that your bodily response to stress is an adaptive evolutionary reaction that improves performance under high-stress conditions. In other words, tell yourself that your sudden rapid breathing, pounding heartbeat, and sweaty palms are there not to sabotage you but to help you respond to a challenge.
- Engage in mental time travel. Another way to gain distance and broaden your perspective is to think about how you’ll feel a month, a year, or even longer from now. Remind yourself that you’ll look back on whatever is upsetting you in the future and it’ll seem much less upsetting. Doing so highlights the impermanence of your current emotional state.
Tools for Providing Chatter Support
- Address people’s emotional and cognitive needs. When people come to others for help with their chatter, they generally have two needs they’re trying to fulfill: They’re searching for care and support, on the one hand (emotional needs), and concrete advice about how to move forward and gain closure, on the other (cognitive needs). Addressing both of these needs is vital to your ability to calm other people’s chatter. Concretely, this involves not only empathically validating what people are going through but also broadening their perspective, providing hope, and normalizing their experience. This can be done in person, or via texting, social media, and other forms of digital communication.
- Tell your kids to pretend they’re a superhero. This strategy, popularized in the media as “the Batman effect,” is a distancing strategy that is particularly useful for children grappling with intense emotions. Ask them to pretend they’re a superhero or cartoon character they admire, and then nudge them to refer to themselves using that character’s name when they’re confronting a difficult situation. Doing so helps them distance.
Adapted from Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It by Ethan Kross. Published by Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2021 by Ethan Kross. All rights reserved.
Full Disclosure: Evan Nesterak of the Behavioral Scientist worked as an editorial consultant on Chatter.