How do you experience the chatter in your head, that inner voice that keeps you company all day long? Is yours busy, with plenty to say on every subject you can think of, or a bit more subdued?
Is yours constantly criticising you, finding fault in everything you do? Or is it more like an internal cheerleader, telling you how great you’re doing today (now wouldn’t that be nice!).
Maybe it shows up differently, depending on what’s going on in your life on that particular day, or even in that particular moment. Compassionate and discerning in some situations and vicious and brutal in others.
Now I know what it’s like to have an inner critic who’s constantly telling you that you’re not good enough, not clever enough, not skinny enough, not strong enough, not fast enough, not ‘whatever’ enough. “Quite frankly honey you’re just not enough, full stop”.
And that voice, that critical companion, is tiresome, exhausting, overwhelming, unbearable, soul destroying and full of blame – it’s all your fault. Making you feel terrible about yourself, guilty, full of self loathing, self hatred and of course, shame. Sound familiar?
As well as being completely brilliant (one giant leap for mankind and all that), the human mind can also be the source of incredible misery and suffering. So, where’s our ‘users manual’? Why aren’t we taught from a young age how to deal with the chatter if it becomes all consuming, trapping us in negative thought loops? How do we befriend this inner voice? How do we tame the beast?
The award-winning psychologist, Ethan Cross, author of ‘Chatter, the Voice in Our Head and How to Harness It' has some great practical top tips that I’d like to share with you.
But before we look at what we can do to help ourselves, let’s take a look at the inner voice from a different perspective. What’s its purpose? What does it enable us to do?
Kross explains that ‘chatter’ gives us the ability to silently use language to reflect on our lives. He describes it as a multi-purpose tool, a bit like a Swiss Army Knife.
It allows us to keep nuggets of information alive (making mental notes – i.e. repeatedly saying a number over and over again so you don’t forget it).
It allows us to simulate and plan ahead (we use our inner voice to plan for the future)
It helps you to make sense of experiences in the world (telling ourselves a story to explain what we’re going through, giving shape to who we are)
But problems arise when we start to overthink, getting caught up in negative thought spirals. During an Action for Happiness webinar where Kross was the speaker, he quoted a friend of his who said “the voice in my head is an a-hole”, and asked the audience who agreed with this statement. The response suggested that an overwhelming number of us feel exactly the same! So, it’s not just you then!
The thing is, sometimes harsh thoughts are useful. They bring with them important information that serves a function. They can spring us into action and help us to plan and prepare.
But what makes harsh thoughts toxic is when it’s continual, and it starts to bring you down. Instead of being helpful it becomes a major handicap in your life.
So, how can we use science to help us turn those harsh words into helpful support?
Now, as with everything in life, I’m really sorry to tell you that there is no magic wand. I know that’s what we all want, especially in this day and age when everything is so immediate, but this requires practice. Want the good news? Well, the more you practice, the easier it becomes, until it takes you no effort at all. So put in the hard-work now and you will reap the benefits later.
There are multiple tools that you can use. Think of it like being in a shop changing room. Try them out and see which ones fit you. You may find that different combinations work well for you, depending on the situation. Below I’m going to outline 4 of these tools for you to try.
1. Distanced self-talk:
When you spot your inner critic on the warpath, stop a for a moment and try out this simple brain hack. This hack leverages the structure of language to help shift your perspective. Quite simply you start by referring to yourself using your name and the second person pronoun (i.e. you). What does this look like in practice?
So instead of ‘I’m such an idiot, I was supposed to eat a healthy salad for lunch, and I blew it with a massive portion of burger and fries, what a complete loser, I hate myself, I’m totally useless” it would look something like this:
‘I’m such an idiot… (notice, take a breath and begin again). “Sarah, you had planned to eat a healthy salad for lunch, but instead you went out with your work mates and ate burger and fries. Instead of a big meal tonight, you could swap it out for a healthy salad”.
So how does it work? We’re better at giving advice to others than we are to ourselves.
There’s even a name for it! Google “Solomon’s Paradox” and you can read all about it.
Referring to yourself in second-person makes it easier to work through problems objectively, instead of berating ourselves. Doing so is linked with less activation in brain networks associated with rumination and leads to improved performance under stress, wiser thinking and less negative emotion.
2. Imagine you’re talking to a friend:
Another way to think about your experience from a distanced perspective is to imagine what you would say to a friend experiencing the same problem.
Now I know that I would never dream of speaking to my friends the way I speak to myself!
Let’s say you’re on a diet and you polished off a giant bar of your favourite chocolate. You’re feeling really annoyed with yourself and you mention it to your bestie. Her response:
“I’m not surprised you ate that whole family sized bar of chocolate, you’re such a useless, disgusting pig. No wonder you’re so fat, you should be ashamed of yourself. You’re never going to lose weight, you’re going to be fat forever.”
What vitriol. What hatred. How horrible!
Now let’s take some time to think about it for a moment. Are those remarks helpful? Are they going to stop in your tracks next time? Or are they just going to make you feel even more rubbish about yourself (and on the look out for a new best friend!).
What you’re really looking for is a bit of comfort and some support or advice. A bit more like:
“I know it’s not great that you ate that whole bar of chocolate. Did you have a stressful day? Maybe you were looking for comfort. I’m wondering what else you could do to give yourself the comfort you were looking for? A bath maybe? Or a quick chat on the phone with someone who makes you laugh? Have you ever thought about distraction techniques? Play Tetris on your phone for 5 minutes, or go and do something else for 20 minutes until the craving subsides. Maybe try that next time?
Sounds a bit more like it. Comfort, support and some good ideas for planning ahead to help you reach your goal.
3. Recruit your external cheerleaders:
What do we mean by this? Phone a friend. But not just any old friend. You want to call the friend who has the ability to not only let you vent your upset, but also help nudge you to look at the bigger picture and find solutions.
Be deliberate in who you share things with and who you seek support from. According to Kross, research suggests that it doesn’t always help to just share the ‘chatter.’ If you pick the wrong person to share with, it can actually make it worse. How so? Because you’ve spent all that time talking about how terrible you feel without looking for solutions.
Think about who you need for the specific problem you have. While a colleague may be skilled at advising you on work problems, your partner or close friend may be better suited to advising you on more personal dilemmas.
Who do you go to for support? Do they fit the bill?
4. Create some order:
When negative thoughts start to buzz around and around in your heads, they take over which feels really unsettling. As human beings we like control and this constant whirring can become really unmanageable for you to deal with.
So, Kross suggests that you compensate for the lack of order you feel in your mind by exerting order around you. You boost your sense of control by imposing order on your surroundings. This is why people reflexively clean and organise. Imagine how good you’ll feel once you’ve tidied your desk, organised your home space or updated your ‘To-Do’ list.
Our inner voice is all part of being human, we all do it! I’d suggest that when this voice takes a negative turn, have a plan. This will enable your brain to focus on something positive, instead of rumination and self battery!
Try out the tools as outlined above and see how you get on. There’s loads more tools to try here too. Just remember that it takes practice. And the more you practice, the easier it will become until it starts becoming your natural reaction.
Ethan Kross is the author of Chatter and one of the world’s leading experts on controlling the conscious mind. An award-winning professor in the University of Michigan’s top ranked Psychology Department and its Ross School of Business, he is the director of the Emotion & Self Control Laboratory.
Action for Happiness are a movement of people taking action to create a happier and kinder world, together. They run webinars, groups, courses, talks and happy cafes. If you’ve not heard of them, please do check them out
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