Many of us today recognize that we regularly experience an “inner voice” inside of us that is sharing all sorts of information. The challenge with that inner voice is that it is often relentlessly negative—offering defeating self-talk that provides a consistent reminder of what we’re not doing well enough.
It can feel like an inner saboteur that tells us we are inadequate in our endeavors, as well as in our lives, relationships and careers. In my time as a therapist and currently in coaching professionals, I’ve spent many hours working with clients who struggle with their inner voices, exploring how that voice has been programmed and shaped over the years, beginning in early childhood, and how important it is to gain greater awareness of the inner voice, and transform it to help us thrive.
Unfortunately, while there are countless books, programs, and courses on the market that talk about how to tame our inner voice, most aren’t grounded in science and are limited in efficacy. And many people still struggle with the debilitating challenges of a negative inner voice that makes growth, happiness and success far more elusive.
To learn more about how to shift our inner voice to something more positive and life-affirming, I caught up this month with Dr. Ethan Kross, award-winning professor at the University of Michigan and national bestselling author. In his latest book, Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It (an Amazon Best Nonfiction Book of 2021), Kross reveals the hidden power of our inner voice and shows us how to harness it to combat anxiety, improve physical and mental health, and deepen our relationships with others.
One of the world’s leading experts on controlling the conscious mind, Kross is the director of the Emotion & Self Control Laboratory, and has participated in policy discussions at the White House and has been interviewed on CBS Evening News, Good Morning America, Anderson Cooper Full Circle, NPR’s Morning Edition and more. His pioneering research has been featured in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New England Journal of Medicine, and Science
Here’s what Kross shares:
Kathy Caprino: Ethan, why did you decide to write Chatter at this time?
Ethan Kross: Several years ago, I was teaching a class at the University of Michigan about the science that explains how we can manage our emotional lives (including our inner voice). During the final class of the semester, a student asked me why no one had taught her about the information we had spent the semester talking about, earlier on in her life. I didn’t have a good answer to her question. And the more I thought about it after the semester ended, the more frustrated I became. That experience motivated me to write Chatter.
Caprino: How would you define our inner voice and the “chatter” we hear?
Kross: When we experience adversity, we often turn our attention inward to find solutions to our problems. But our attempts to do so often backfire and we end up ruminating, worrying, and catastrophizing instead. We get stuck experiencing negative thought loops, which are what I call chatter. Chatter is one of the “big problems” we face as a species. It undermines our ability to think and perform at work, it creates friction in the relationships we share with our friends, loves ones and colleagues, and it damages our physical health. It’s the dark side of our inner voice.
Caprino: When our inner voice becomes our biggest critic, how do we change the narrative?
Kross: While there is no one size fits all solution, there are over two-dozen science-based tools that exist to help people manage their inner critic and transform it into a strength. One of my favorite tools is called ”distanced self-talk.” It involves using your own name as well as using the second person term “you” to silently coach yourself through a problem like you would give advice to a close friend. Research indicates that people are much better at advising other people than they are giving advice to themselves. Distanced self-talk plays on this mechanism. It automatically shifts your perspective, providing you with the distance you need to navigate chatter-provoking situations more effectively.
Caprino: Can you explain the “arsenal of tools” you mention that we already have that can influence the conversations we have in our head?
Kross: I like to organize the arsenal of chatter tools into three buckets.
Tools we can use on our own to manage our chatter
Many of these involve broadening our perspective on the issues we’re struggling with, participating in rituals, and altering our mindsets.
Theseinvolve finding people to talk to about our chatter who are skilled at both empathizing and advising us and finding sources of “invisible support.”
These involve enhancing your exposure to green spaces, seeking out awe-inspiring experiences, and organizing your immediate physical surroundings. Tools for managing chatter literally exist inside us and all around us.
Caprino: What’s the best way for people to harness their inner voice to master emotional decision-making at work?
Kross: Again, different tools work for different people in different situations. That’s why I’m such a strong advocate of adopting a “toolbox approach” to managing chatter. You want to learn what tools are out there and then start self-experimenting to discover which work best for you given your unique psychological make-up.
For instance, I often rely on three tools to manage my chatter: I silently give myself advice using my own name (“distanced self-talk”); I think about how I’m going to feel in the future (i.e., “mental time travel”); and I go for a walk in a green space. But my wife relies on a different set of tools. She organizes her spaces, reframes what she’s going through as a “challenge” (rather than a threat), and seeks out support from her trusted “chatter advisors.”
Caprino: Focusing on the workplace for a minute, how do you recommend people distance themselves from workplace chatter?
Kross: For the workplace, several approaches I recommend are:
Mental time travel – thinking about how I’m going to feel about the source of my chatter in the future—a week, a month, a year from now.
Perform a ritual – when we experience chatter, we often feel like our thoughts are in control of us. Research shows that you can compensate for this feeling by exerting control around you and performing a ritual—a fixed, rigid sequence of behaviors that are infused with meaning—is one way to do that.
Chatter advisors – talking to friends who are skilled at helping me “zoom out” from my current problems and focus on the bigger picture.
Challenge mindset – when you experience a threatening circumstance that you don’t think you can manage, reinterpret it as a challenge that you can handle by, for example, reminding yourself how you’ve succeeded in similar situation in the past.
Caprino: In your book you share some key benefits of people getting out of their desk chairs and into nature to calm their inner voice. What are they?
Kross: Nature can help us in two ways. First, it can help restore our attention, which chatter depletes. Nature is filled with interesting sights that gently draw attention away from our chatter in ways that can be restorative.
Second, nature is filled with awe-inspiring sights. For example, trees that have stood tall for hundreds of years, beautiful flowers, and amazing sunsets. Awe is an emotion we experience when we are in the presence of something vast and indescribable. Experiencing awe leads to a shrinking of the self—we feel smaller when we’re contemplating something greater than ourselves. And when we feel smaller, so does our chatter.
Caprino: Any last words about the positive transformation we experience when we proactively address the chatter in our heads?
Kross: Our inner voice is a remarkable tool. It allows us to keep information active in our mind, exert self-control, simulate and plan, and create stories about our lives that help shape our identity. But when this voice morphs into chatter, it can cause enormous distress. The challenge we all face is to figure out how to harness this chatter so we can free our inner voice up to do all the remarkable things it is capable of.
Fortunately, science provides us with a roadmap to address this challenge.
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