Zen Buddhists refer to the constant chatter of the mind as the monkey mind. Ethan Kross, a professor from the University of Michigan, in his new book Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It, calls the negative voice in your head simply chatter.
We all have it. But what can we do to stop it, or at least put it to good use?
My mind chatters incessantly, with both positive and negative thoughts. It doesn’t help I’m a writer, which requires spending a lot of time in my brain — chattering. Thinking of something to write about, drilling down on ideas, and trying to get into deep thought — all things that only exacerbate inner dialogue.
What we do:
- Chatter about all that we have to get done in a day.
- Chatter filled with judgment of the present moment.
- Chatter creating catastrophic “what-if” scenarios of the future, or for me, every time I get onto a plane, I see it falling from the sky. I drive to more places because of this.
- Chatter rattling off fears, both real and imaginary. If you have children, you’re probably very familiar with this.
Early life experiences play a role.
Where does this voice in our heads come from? Where do we pick it up?
Far too many of us still hear the voice of a critical parent or caregiver as our loudest inner voice. Inner chatter is tuned to surroundings and continually shaped by caretakers’ voices that seep into our minds and sometimes stay there. Messages we received in early childhood remain with us. If you had a critical parent, for example, their voice informs your inner critic. Whether you realize it or not. That doesn’t mean if you grew up with a negative parent or an abusive caregiver that their negative messaging is stuck as your inner chatter forever. You are in control of the voice in your head.
You can turn your inner critic around to more positive self-talk.
How do we stop our inner gremlins from sabotages us, especially when we figure out they aren’t our original voice, to begin with, but perhaps someone else’s?
First, become aware, and realize you don’t want their chatter to shape yours. When we become conscious, we can change the monkey mind through awareness, mindfulness, and practice.
What is Chatter?
What is the voice in our head, why do we have one, and what does it do for us?
Author Ethan Kross says, we all have it. It comes in a lot of shapes and forms, “like the Swiss Army Knife of the brain.”
On the upside, there are good things the come from our brains’ chatter. It lets us think about and plan how we are going to act in certain situations. Language is a feature of the human mind that separates us from different species. Some cultures consider our inner voice to be God. While others consider it demonic.
The inner voice isn’t always that inner demon on the shoulder nudging you toward unethical or questionable behavior, as we see in cartoons, with the devil on one shoulder, the angel on the other. Often, the voice in our heads is a superpower. It helps us innovate, problem solve and do things like writing this blog post. Minds are useful when we need to conceptualize, plan, and theorize.
What Kross means when he refers to chatter is the negative form of going inside yourself that tries to make sense of your problems but often gets stuck in a negative thought loop. We don’t question our mind enough. We have a thought — my plane is going to crash, how do planes stay in the air anyway, what if the pilot’s been drinking— that evokes a corresponding emotion (anxiety, fear) and we’re suddenly renting a car to drive across the country.
This can be damaging to our health, our relationships, and to our work. It isn’t productive; it is like spinning your mental wheels. It’s when you start working on a problem in your head and see only the adverse outcomes, regrets, worries. Nothing positive comes from negative thinking that keeps spiraling downward.
All that negativity affects our mood — makes us unhappy, unpleasant to be around, angry, and anxious. It affects our ability to have positive interactions with people. It affects our ability to concentrate and focus, harming our behavior.
When our minds are in this state, it’s nearly impossible to slow down and enjoy the present. How can you be peaceful and present when your mind is coming unhinged with imagined plane crashes.
When we find our negative chatter perking up, what can we do to silence it and make our inner voice work for us instead of against us?
“You’ve always had the power my dear, you just had to learn it yourself.” — Glinda
First, know that your quest to calm your chattering mind is very possible. Your thoughts shouldn’t rule you. You rule your thoughts.
Use your inner voice as a tool. The voice captures the verbal side of our mental minds, so use it well.
We have control over our voice. How do we turn it around from chatter that produces anxiety to an inner voice that is less doomsday and more positive talk?
Use self-critique for good. Don’t take an all-or-nothing stance when it comes to your inner critic. You don’t have to rid yourself of all negative talk. Critical thought helps us not make mistakes, but too much can turn us into an unpleasant person and sabotage us from trying new things and living in the moment.
A few science-based tools to help ourselves out
When we experience negative chatter, we tend to zoom in on our problems. Step outside of yourself to get a picture of the broader perspective.
Understandably, many of us have been more anxious over the past year. This is the first time in our lifetimes we have experienced a pandemic, killing thousands per day. We don’t know the outcome. With great uncertainty comes great anxiety for most humans. Negative chatter about covid is a natural response.
1) Temporal distancing
Use temporal distancing to travel in time in your mind.
Think about your family and yourself on a beach, sipping piña coladas ten months in the future when most of the country is vaccinated, and life is ‘normal’ again. This can bring a sense of relief and calm to the mind. A mind is a powerful tool. Athletes do this before big races. They imagine themselves winning. Studies show athletes who use visualization have proven to enhance performance.
This is one way to stop a negative thought loop.
When you imagine a positive future, it clarifies that no matter how awful everything might be right now, the same is not necessarily true for the future. Hope is the antidote to negative thought loops that won’t cease. Hope can be taught and learned.
2) Travel to the past in your mind.
Following the same example, taking a realistic look at history can stop negative chatter caused by anxiety. We have seen a far worse pandemic in the past, the Spanish flu, also known as the 1918 influenza pandemic. Guess what? We got through that, and we will get through this latest pandemic as well.
This kind of talk creates hope.
3) Use your inner voice to talk to yourself in the third person
When you use your inner voice to talk to yourself in the third person, it allows you to see yourself as you do other people in the world, differently with more compassion.
We know we are much better at giving compassion and more realistic advice (with a less fatalistic slant) to our friends and loved ones. Talk to yourself as you do a friend and take the more compassionate advice. This is a linguistic tool that can help us relate to ourselves like we are a different person.
Think of it as a linguistic hack or psychological ju-jitsu.
Well, Jessica, what are we going to do about this situation? This kind of inner voice can help us improve how we perform under stress and get us out of anxious self-talk that gets us nowhere but leaves us more stressed.
Coming up with real-life solutions to our problems is far more productive than being mired in the abusive or negative talk from our inner voice.
Turn your voice around.