Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness Itby Ethan Kross
All of us talk to ourselves. In fact, our inner voice is critical in helping us solve problems and make sense of situations. However, many of us fall into a negative spiral of chatter, which refers to all the useless and unnecessary noise in our brain that becomes especially overwhelming in difficult situations. Chatter doesn’t help us in any way, it only causes us to doubt ourselves more and become even more stressed.
Luckily, pushing chatter out of our minds is a fairly straightforward process!
Why We Talk To Ourselves & When It Backfires
“At any given moment, we are bombarded with information - countless sights and sounds, and the thoughts and feelings that these stimuli spark.”
Our inner voice can help us evaluate ourselves, work through difficult situations, figure out what to do next, and so on. However, sometimes it devolves into cyclical negative thoughts and emotions, known as chatter. This often occurs during periods of high stress - after receiving bad news, for example - but we do have control over whether we allow chatter to take over our mind.
Humans have a unique ability to consciously concentrate on tasks that require our attention. We do this every day at work and at home. When we are overwhelmed by emotion, a similar thing happens - we narrow our attention to the obstacle we are encountering. In the process, we lose track of everything else around us.
Chatter eventually ends up affecting the people around us. We tend to voice the chatter in our mind, which can push people away if it happens too frequently. It can also lead us to displace our aggression against people when they don’t deserve it, hold grudges for a long time, and engage in other such behaviors that hurt relationships.
Chatter actively damages the important parts of our lives. It can cause us to become physically weaker, freeze up during important moments, or push the ones we care about away. Our inner voice can be a powerful tool, but we must first learn to push the chatter out.
Actions to take
“Taking a step back could be effective for helping people manage their chatter in a variety of everyday contexts.”
When we engage in chatter, we focus so closely on one thing that we lose our perspective of everything else. We can distract ourselves from it, but this distraction is only temporary and doesn’t actually fix the underlying issue that is causing us to chatter.
What does help with chatter is distancing ourselves and objectively scrutinizing our thoughts. Instead of avoiding them or watching them drift by, it refers to actively engaging your thoughts from a distanced perspective to better understand them.
You already practice distancing every day - when you think back on your memories, for example. Applying this skill to problems that overwhelm you will enable you to work through them without emotion and make connections you weren’t able to before. This will help you actually solve your problems instead of becoming consumed by them.
Distancing yourself from chatter is a calming experience overall. When you distance yourself from a situation and adopt the perspective of an observer, you’ll notice that you feel negative emotions for a much shorter period of time. However, it’s important to only use this technique when facing negative experiences - you don’t want to dampen your experience of positive ones!
Actions to take
When I Become You
“There is a potent psychological comfort that comes from normalizing experiences.”
A surprisingly simple way to regain control of our inner voice is to use our names when we talk to ourselves, as if we are talking to someone else. This is known as distanced self-talk, and many of us already do this subconsciously.
One of the most notable examples of this technique is that of the Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Malala Yousafzai. In the face of the Taliban, she coached herself to use her name when talking to herself so she could gain a more objective understanding of her situation. Simply asking herself questions like, “What would you do, Malala?” and continuing the conversation from there helped her gain fresh perspectives.
This phenomenon is rooted in our biology. People who tend to use distanced self-talk when confronted by negative situations or problems also tend to quickly feel emotional relief from the situation. This doesn’t mean that the problem has been resolved - just that the overwhelming emotions that cloud judgement are now gone.
Actions to take
The Power and Peril of Other People
“Other people are only one facet of our environment that we can harness to improve our internal conversations.”
Sharing our thoughts with others can help us cope with chatter to a certain extent. It definitely makes us feel better, as though we are less alone in our struggles. However, it doesn’t actually help us get rid of chatter. In fact, it does the exact opposite - it increases the amount of chatter in our minds and makes us more likely to pick up avoidant coping strategies.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t share our thoughts with anyone at all. Of course we can, and other people can be a useful tool in subduing chatter. The problem only arises when we focus too much on receiving empathy as this makes us stop looking for practical solutions.
Another thing to keep in mind is that it is easy to fall into a negative thought cycle when describing our experiences to others. When we focus on a negative aspect of our experience, that tends to activate another relevant negative thought, and so on.
Actions to take
“The internal conversations we have with ourselves are influenced by the physical spaces we navigate in our daily lives.”
Our environment has a significant impact on our mood and overall well being. Nature has a unique ability to calm our mind, improve our attention and reduce the amount of chatter we hear. Increasing our exposure to nature can lift our spirits and provide us with some clarity of mind. Even just looking at nature, whether in real-life or in pictures and videos, can impart the same benefits.
Nature, among other things, can be awe-inspiring. When we are in the presence of something vast and indescribable, we find it hard to maintain the view that we are the center of the world. Similarly, our problems no longer take center stage.