Your inner voice or mental chatter isn’t always nice or helpful. When we turn our attention inward, we tend to focus on problems rather than solutions.
This causes us to worry, ruminate, and catastrophize, which traps us in a negative thought cycle.
The good news is that there is a science-based toolkit that can help you regain control of your inner voice. Psychologist and neuroscientist Ethan Kross explains how it works and illustrates how greats like Rafael Nadal use it to regain control of their minds.
ETHAN KROSS: I think chatter is one of the big problems we face as a species. We spend between one-third and one-half of our waking hours not living in the present. And what do we do during that time? We're talking to ourselves. Your inner voice is your ability to silently use language to reflect on your life. Chatter refers to the dark side of the inner voice. When we turn our attention inward to make sense of our problems, we don't end up finding solutions. We end up ruminating, worrying, catastrophizing. We get stuck in a negative cycle that takes this remarkable tool that we possess, this inner voice, and it turns it into a curse rather than a blessing.
My name's Ethan Kross, I'm a professor of psychology and management, and I'm the author of the book, "Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It."
In terms of whether there's an evolutionary purpose to the inner voice, many scientists believe that language is a tool that helps us navigate the world, and our ability to use language not only to communicate with others, but to communicate with ourselves, provides us with a survival advantage. It's an incredible problem-solving device. At the most basic end of the spectrum, our inner voice is part of what we call our 'Verbal Working Memory System.' It's a basic feature of the human mind that helps us keep verbal information active in our heads. Our inner voice also lets us simulate and plan.
So before a big presentation, I'll go over in my head what I'm gonna say, what are the different talking points that I'm gonna run through- I'll hear what questions the audience is gonna ask me, and then I'll respond in turn. I'm simulating that exchange, and I'm using my inner voice to help me do that. Our inner voice helps us control ourselves. Think about the last time you may have wanted to reach for a treat late at night, but then you think to yourself, "Don't do it, you'll regret it in the morning." That's your inner voice. And then finally, the inner voice helps us 'storify' our lives.
Many of us turn our attention inward to come up with some narrative that explains our experiences in ways that give shape to our understanding of who we are, our identity. So sometimes this inner voice can be an incredible source of help, but at other times it can really sink us. First, it makes it incredibly hard for us to focus. Chatter consumes our attention. Chatter can also create friction in your relationships because you're talking about your problems over and over again, and not being a great listener to others. It can also make us more irritable, and lead to something called 'displaced aggression.' Finally, we know that chatter can have severe, negative, physical health effects. You've probably heard that stress kills- that's not exactly true.
A stress response is a really adaptive response. What makes stress toxic is when it remains chronically-elevated over time. This is precisely what chatter does. We experience a stressor in our life, it then ends, but in our minds our chatter perpetuates it. We keep thinking about that event over and over and over again. And that keeps that stress response active in ways that can predict things like cardiovascular disease, chronic inflammation, and even cancer.
It's hard to overstate how negative the implications of chatter can be. The good news is there is a science-based toolkit that you can use to regain control of your inner voice. There are things we can do on our own, ways of harnessing our relationships with other people, and even ways of interacting with physical environments. One really great example of these tools are rituals. We love having control. When you experience chatter, you often feel like your thoughts are in control of you.
One of the things that we've learned through science is that we can compensate for this feeling out of control by creating order around us- rituals are one way to do that. A ritual is an ordered sequence of behaviors that you rigidly perform the same way each time by engaging the same sequence of behaviors every time the same way. That's giving you a sense of order and control. That can feel really good when you're mired in chatter.
The tennis great, Rafael Nadal, he said the hardest thing that he struggles to do on the tennis court is manage the voices inside his head. He engages in rituals. During breaks between play he goes over to his bench. First, he takes a sip out of one water bottle. Then he takes a sip out of another. Then he puts each water bottle back exactly where he picked them up from on a diagonal to the court. It's a ritual he does to manage his chatter.
There are no individual tools that work for all people in all situations to help manage your chatter. Instead, the real challenge is to figure out what are the unique combinations of tools that work best for you? Are you weaker for experiencing chatter? Absolutely not. You are human for experiencing chatter, so welcome to the human condition.