People often say we need to watch how we talk to others, but we also need to watch how we talk to ourselves. In this podcast (episode #252) and blog, I speak with award-winning psychologist and professor at the University of Michigan Dr. Ethan Kross about the hidden power of your inner voice, how to harness it to live a healthier and more satisfying life, how the silent conversations we have with ourselves impact our health, performance, decisions and relationships, and more!
As Ethan notes in his excellent new book Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It, when we start understanding the science behind how we manage our thoughts and feelings, we can benefit from this research in our own lives. We can learn to develop our mind management skills and use them every day!
Yes, it is important to take the time to look inside ourselves, but if we don’t do it correctly we can end up doing more harm than good, especially if doing so leads to toxic rumination. Introspecting and reflecting on our feelings can be good, if done in a way that helps us.
Indeed, we need to learn the mental tools to break out of negative self-chatter and rumination, so that we don’t end up getting stuck in our own minds, thinking incessantly about all our problems. As Ethan points out, some warning signs that we are doing this are:
- Constantly thinking about the problem, not a solution.
- Constantly talking about the issue.
- Feeling anxious and worried all the time about something in our life.
Of course, if something is bothering us, we naturally want on focus on the issue and figure it out. However, when we magnify and focus on the problem too much, we can’t get a broader perspective, and can end up getting stuck in our own heads. As a result, we lose sight of different ways to manage the experience. When we become too immersed in a problem, it is difficult for us to think about or access solutions to the problem.
Thankfully, as Ethan points out in his book Chatter, research has shown that there are specific things we all can do to combat negative self-talk and rumination, such as:
1. Using distant self-talk. We are much better at giving other people advice than taking our own advice. One way we can avoid or quit negative self-talk is to coach ourselves through the issue as if we were giving someone else advice, but using our own name as that “someone”. We essentially trick ourselves into thinking we are talking about someone else. When we do this, we leverage the power of language to help us break free of a negative thinking pattern and shift our perspective.
2. Leveraging the power of close relationships. Other people are often in an ideal position to help us work through our own problems because they have distance from them. However, we need to be careful and deliberate about who we go to for help. We need to talk to people who can both empathize with us AND help us break out of the immersed way of negative thinking we have gotten ourselves into. Empathy alone, although important, won’t lead to sustainable change.
If someone in your life is struggling and they don’t specifically ask you for help, there are still things you can do to support them that is outside their direct awareness—this is called “invisible support”. Make dinner, pick up the groceries, run errands; do things that can help them indirectly by lessening their own work load/burdens.
3. Making changes to our physical environment. Interacting with the world around us can influence the kind of conversations we are having in our heads. Creating order in our physical environment, for example, can help us manage our anxiety and stress and focus on the task at hand, rather than giving into negative mental chatter. It can help us feel that we are in control of our own thoughts.
4. Practicing temporal distancing. When we find ourselves going down a negative thinking rabbit hole, we should practice temporal distancing. This is especially useful during the current pandemic! Think about how you are going to feel when all this is over—transport yourself in the future and imagine it. How will you feel? Or, go back in time: think about similar events in the past and how we as a species overcome them. Mental time-traveling like this helps us recognize that where we are now, as awful as it is, won’t last forever. Seeing something bad as temporary (word is missing here) can give us hope and help us carry on.
For more on self-talk and mental health, listen to my podcast with Ethan (episode #252) and check his book Chatter. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
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3:12 Why Ethan wrote his amazing new book Chatter
8:22 Why introspection is a double-edged sword
10:38 How to recognize the difference between negative self-talk & positive introspection
12:14 How to quit negative self-talk
29:30 How to help someone who hasn’t asked for help
35:40 The power of the default mode network in the brain & why allowing our minds to wander can be a good thing
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