Overcoming the Negative Voice in Your Head
Our inner voice performs all kinds of important tasks—but when it gets negative, it can be hard to turn off. Ethan Kross, a psychologist and neuroscientist who studies introspection, has a solution.
We’ve all got a voice in our head. (Maybe you can hear yours, right now, reading these words.) And though you’re intimately familiar with that inner voice, since it talks to you all day long, you might be surprised to learn just how incessant it is. According to one study, it can spew up to four thousand words a minute. If you’re awake for sixteen hours, that’s more than 3.8 million words every day. That’s because that voice does so much for you: It helps you keep information in your head (remembering, say, a phone number or items on a grocery list), simulates and plans for upcoming events, like a date or an interview, coaches you through problems, and even narrates your life to make sense of your experiences. It’s a good thing. Mostly.
“We’re talking about this fundamentally important feature of the human mind, which is the inner voice,” says Ethan Kross, a psychologist and neuroscientist who studies introspection at the Emotion & Self-Control Laboratory he founded at the University of Michigan. “It does lots of good stuff for us but sometimes becomes our worst enemy.” It tips into worst-enemy territory, Kross says, when it becomes chatter. “Chatter is the dark side of the inner voice,” he continues. “Sometimes shit happens, we turn our attention inward to try to make sense of the problem, but we don’t come up with solutions. Instead, we start spinning. We worry, we ruminate, we catastrophize, we get stuck in the negative thought loop.”
Chatter is what happens when athletes choke, when their inner voice becomes so loud and critical that it disrupts their ability to perform otherwise routine and automatic feats. It’s also what jolts you awake in the middle of the night, keeping you fixated on that awkward exchange from earlier in the day or wondering if maybe that afternoon headache was the sign of an advanced neurological disease. You’ve likely experienced it during the pandemic, worrying about how and when you might catch the virus. Chatter makes it hard for us to focus on our work and be present in our relationships, and has even been shown to negatively impact our physical health to such a degree that it can alter our DNA. Scary stuff.
But Kross thinks that your inner voice doesn’t have to be a burden. Which is why, last year, he wrote a book called Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It. Using tools he’s picked up from his own experience and from the work he’s done in his lab, he wants to not only provide useful ideas for how to cope with chatter at this particularly uncertain moment; he’s also hoping to normalize chatter, to help us realize that negative talk comes standard with the rest of our human software. As Kross puts it, “When people say, ‘Oh my god, I’m experiencing chatter, is something wrong with me,’ I say, ‘No, welcome to the human condition.”
You have a long list of techniques in the book that can be helpful in drawing us out when we’re stuck in negative thought loops. Which ones do you find most useful?
Ethan Kross: Chatter is like a microscope. It zooms us in on our problems. All we can think about is the stuff that’s driving us nuts. What can be useful are strategies that help us zoom out, help broaden our perspective, and help us think about it more objectively.
One tool is something called distanced self-talk, which involves trying to give myself advice like I would to a good friend, and actually using my name to help do it. “Here’s what you’re going to do.” It’s much easier for us to give advice to other people than to follow our own advice. Distanced self-talk shifts our perspective. It puts us into this coaching mode. We stop thinking about these issues we’re facing as threats that we can’t handle, and instead think of them as challenges that we can.
Another distancing strategy is called temporal distancing, or mental time travel. I’ll think about how I’m going to feel about this thing that’s bothering me some time down the road. If I wake up in the middle of the night, and think, Oh my God, what about this thing? I’ll think, How am I going to feel about this in the morning when I’m fully recharged? How am I going to feel about this a week from now, or a month from now, or a year from now? It makes clear that what you’re going through is temporary. It’ll eventually pass.
What have you changed your mind on, or evolved your thinking on, in the year since the book came out?
There are a lot of myths out there about how to manage ourselves that are not grounded in reality, and that are important to correct. The idea that venting is a way to manage our feelings—well, that’s a myth. There’s lots of data that suggests that that is not true. Also, the idea that we should always be in the present. The human mind did not evolve to always be in the present. We have this ability to travel in time in our minds, and that’s often vilified in popular culture: Oh no, your mind’s wandering, bring it back to the present, you’re not in the moment. If we were always in the moment we wouldn’t be doing things like building space ships to go to Mars, or developing vaccines that are protecting us from this pandemic.
To be clear, I think there is enormous value in being in the moment at times. Meditation can be very helpful to some people. But what we often do, unfortunately, is overcorrect. Rather than, “This can be useful in conjunction with other things some of the time,” it’s like, “This is what you should do always.” It’s problematic because it’s impossible for a person to always be in the moment. So it’s giving people goals that are unattainable, and not necessarily healthy.
One of the ways I’ve found meditation to be useful is that it helps you contain uncomfortable feelings, so you don’t get swallowed by them when your chatter starts to pick up.
Some forms of meditation teach how to accept your negative thoughts and feelings, and recognize that they’re passing mental events. That’s a great tool. But houses don’t get built with individual tools. No carpenter comes to a job with just a hammer. You’ve got a whole toolbox. So why limit ourselves to one individual tool? That’s the big idea I’m trying to convey.
It seems like part of the line to toe here is knowing when to engage with your chatter, and knowing when to just let it go. I’m just wondering if every time I start contemplating what tool I should use, if that might end up being counterproductive. As opposed to being like, “Okay, you’re just doing some rumination, let it be, and eventually it’ll pass.”
I would just say that’s a different tool, that acceptance. Although, interestingly, what you just described was a version of distance self talk. You used the second-person pronoun you—“You’re doing it again, it’s going to pass”—and temporal distancing. The actual process of what it means to accept a thought means talking to yourself with your other-person language, and recognizing the impermanence of what you’re going through.
Many of us are using these tools in our lives already. For example, a lot of people have the intuition that they should talk to other people when they’re experiencing chatter, so they’re doing that already. But they’re venting about their emotions. They’re talking to people who are just keeping the chatter brewing, rather than helping them suppress it. So that’s one place where science can help you do something that you’re already doing, but much more effectively.
The other thing that knowing about science can do for us is it can allow us to be much more proactive and deliberate with respect to how we manage our chatter. For instance, I didn’t realize this until after I was working on the book and covered some of this research, but I’m not someone who used to keep a very organized office, or home. There’s a trail of towels, pajamas, throughout the house, in my closet. Stacks of books and papers in my office. When I experience chatter, though, I always put stuff away, I organize.
Turns out there’s science that explains why I and many other people clean and organize when we’re experiencing chatter. When you’re experiencing chatter, when you’re ruminating or worrying, you feel like you don’t have control over your circumstances. The thoughts are taking over, and you no longer have agency, and that doesn’t feel good. Human beings love control. So organizing and cleaning compensates for that experience.
If somebody does come to you, how do you help them suppress the chatter instead of facilitating their venting?
When people come to us with their problems, they’re typically coming to us because they have two needs. They have social and emotional needs. They’re looking for people to empathize with them, to help them normalize their experience and realize there’s nothing wrong with them. But then they’re always looking for people to help them actually resolve this turmoil they’re struggling with.
The way you help people satisfy those needs is, first, taking the time to listen actively and empathetically. You learn about what they’ve gone through, you show that you care. Then at a certain point in that conversation, after you’ve done those things, you start nudging them to try to get them to broaden their perspective on the issue. So you might ask questions like, “You’ve gone through this in the past, how have you dealt with this?” Or, “Think about how you’re going to feel about this a week from now, or a year from now.” Doing the kinds of things we talked about earlier, but just cuing the person to do it, trying to get them to zoom out.
The art form to doing this well is that, depending on the person and the problem they’re struggling with, it’s not always clear when to shift from just listening to helping advise them. When my wife comes to me about something she’s ruminating about, at some point I’ll say, “Totally get it, I understand why you’re feeling this way. Can I offer my view on this, or say something like that?” Some of the time, she’ll be like, “No. Just keep listening. I’m not done telling you how I feel.” Then I keep listening for a while and I try again. At other points she’ll be like, “Yes, please, what do you think I should do? Tell me.” So you want to just feel that out. That is the art form involved in doing this well.
Knowing this lets you think strategically about who you should call for help, who you should talk to. Not everyone who we know and love is a good chatter advisor. On the flipside, if someone comes to you for support, be mindful of these two goals that you’re trying to achieve.
What tips normal self talk into psychopathology? Where’s the line there?
There are two issues here. First, let’s talk about the issue of voices, and hearing voices. Oftentimes, the way that that experience is portrayed in the media is that that’s a sign of serious psychopathology. Certain forms of psychosis, schizophrenia. The distinction between the kind of inner voice that I’m talking about in the book, and disordered versions of that experience, is if I were to ask you right now to, in your head, try to hear your mom telling you to clean up your room, could you do that?
So you’re able to come up with a representation of your mother’s voice in your head here telling you to do something. You’re hearing a different voice, but importantly, you know that you are the source of that voice, that it’s a representation that you have generated. That’s different from people who hear voices of other people and don’t realize that they’re generating them. They think those other people are actually occupying their mental space, causing them to do things. That’s a disordered kind of experience that you get into when you’re talking about some of those conditions I mentioned before.
Another piece is that though chatter is common, if you find that it is significantly impairing your ability to think, feel, or behave the way you want to on a daily basis, for a long stretch of time—like continuously over two weeks—that could be a sign that the problem that you’re dealing with is more severe, and might require checking in with a mental health professional. But this exists on a continuum, and there’s no clear tipping point. I’d argue that most of the cases of chatter that people deal with, though, are really just part and parcel of dealing with the problems of living that are epidemic to all of us.
Since culture affects our self-talk, how do you think the breakdown of civility in our public discourse might affect the way we talk to ourselves, if at all?
One way the current climate is impacting our self-talk that isn’t particularly good has to do with some of the echo chambers that we see developing on social media. Where we talked before about how venting and expression can sometimes be harmful, if you take it to an extreme, I think we see that happening on social media oftentimes. We now have this ability to share what’s going through our head, and we’re encouraged to do so by many platforms. People are very motivated to share their emotions, so you have people jumping on there and sharing, sometimes, unproductive thoughts and feelings that are hurtful to others. Other people jump on those bandwagons, and it’s like a co-rumination. That is not very productive. We start spinning as a group.
What current projects are you working on or studying in your lab that you’re excited about?
The one that’s most relevant to this is a kind of personalized medicine or personalized intervention approach to dealing with chatter—we’re doing research to try to figure out what combinations of tools work best for different people dealing with different kinds of situations. That’s a really exciting frontier of work. We’ve done a pretty good job at identifying individual tools. There are 26 in the book, and probably more beyond that out there. We know how those individual tools work, but what we don’t yet know is how they come together for different people. So if you and your buddy come to me with a problem and describe it to me, we don’t have the knowledge yet to say, “You should use these seven and you should use these eight.” That’s what we’re working on doing.