“Chatter consists of the cyclical negative thoughts and emotions that turn our singular capacity for introspection into a curse rather than a blessing. It puts our performance, decision making, relationships, happiness, and health in jeopardy.” Ethan Kross
Most of the time, our inner voices function well. However, when we are stressed, emotional from facing high stakes, our inner voice can turn to chatter. The chatter may be rehashing the past, worrying about the future, or making up stories. Sometimes we jump from one negative feeling to the next. When chatter takes over, we torment ourselves and often feel paralyzed. We often act unskillfully and sabotage ourselves.
“It is as if your brain is stuck in the wrong gear and the judgments are quietly whirring just below your perceptual threshold, gnawing away at you and draining precious mental resources. In this state of mind, it can be difficult to think clearly or make decisions. It can feel like your brain is frozen and you’ve lost the antifreeze.” Mark Coleman
We think about how we screwed up at work, said the wrong thing, mistreated someone, and end up feeling bad about ourselves. Then we think about it again. And again. And this negative thought tends to activate another negative thought, which triggers another, and so on. We are so busy running from one negative thought to the next that we lose sight of the big picture. So instead of moving past, we are stuck on the hamster wheel of reactivity.
“We introspect hoping to tap into our inner coach but find our inner critic instead.” Ethan Kross
All these negative thoughts hog our neural capacity. Our attention narrows to the thoughts that cause us the most distress. We use our executive function to listen to our inner critic instead of solving the problem or doing what we want to be doing at that moment. Try reading a really good book when you are ruminating about being mistreated. Your mind can’t stay on the story. Each time you think you have read a page, you can’t remember what you read. That is how our chatter divides and blurs our attention.
“Attention is what allows us to filter out the things that don’t matter so that we can focus on the things that do. And although much of our attention is involuntary, like when we automatically turn toward a loud noise, one of the features that make humans so unique is our ability to consciously concentrate on the tasks that require our attention.” Ethan Kross
Chatter happens when we zoom in close and inflame our emotions so we don’t see new ways of thinking that might cool us down. In other words, we lose perspective. But when we get on our hamster wheel and lose the ability to zoom out and see different perspectives, our inner voice becomes rumination.
When we ruminate or worry, we build more robust neural connectors to those negative thoughts and feelings. That is how chatter can block out everything else, destroying our ability to concentrate on the tasks that require our attention. Thus, self-sabotage.
“The mind will not become quiet upon command. Instead, what most people experience is the inner waterfall, a cascading stream of thoughts.” Jack Kornfield
We practice mindfulness so we are aware of those thoughts and can make a conscious decision whether we want to continue to pay attention to those thoughts or change the channel. We can choose to pay attention to the thoughts that tell us we are not good enough and do not deserve happiness, or we can change the channel to a better life story.
Ethan Kross says our chatter helps us “storify” our life. The stories we tell ourselves sculpt our past and set up our narrative for the future. By flitting around our memories, we weave a narrative that we think is our identity. News flash, it is not our identity.
“The words streaming through our heads can unravel us, but they can also drive us toward meaningful accomplishments… if we know how to control them.” Ethan Kross
Some Ways to Control the Chatter from Ethan Kross
- Distanced self-talk – use your name and the second-person you to refer to yourself. Referring to yourself in second-person makes you less likely to ruminate and generate negative emotions and more likely to improve performance under stress and think more skillfully.
- Imagine advising a friend – talk to yourself as you would to a friend going through the same experience.
- Broaden your perspective – think about how this experience compares to other adverse experiences you have navigated and how it fits into the broader scheme of your life.
- Reframe your experience as a challenge – instead of thinking of the experience as a threat that you can’t manage, turn it into a challenge you are up for.
- Normalize your experience – Know that you are not alone; think of all the others in the world who are facing or have faced this experience.
- Engage in mental time travel – think about how you will feel in a month, a year, or even ten years out.
- Journal – write your deepest throughs and feelings for fifteen to twenty minutes a day for three days.
- Create order in your environment – chatter makes us feel we are losing control. Boost your sense of control by cleaning, organizing, making lists, or arranging objects.
Our minds are extraordinary; they allow us to survive and thrive. We can choose what we want to do with the thoughts that pop into our heads. We can let the negative ones derail us, or we can choose to savor the positive ones. We can look at obstacles as threats or as opportunities. We can be supportive of ourselves, or we can be our own worst critic. Most of us have been creating unhelpful neural pathways, so it will take practice to strengthen the good ones while letting the unhelpful ones atrophy.
To practice some of these tools, try the Distancing from Your Memories meditation
“You’ve been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.” Thich Nhat Hanh