Ethan Kross, Ph.D. is a Professor of Psychology and Management at the University of Michigan, where he directs the Emotion & Self Control Laboratory. His research on controlling the conscious mind has been featured in the New York Times, The New Yorker, the New England Journal of Medicine, and Science.
Below, Ethan shares 5 key insights from his new book, Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It (available now on Amazon). Download the Next Big Idea App to enjoy more audio “Book Bites,” plus Ideas of the Day, ad-free podcast episodes, and more.
1. Introspection is a double-edged sword.
Introspection—the ability to observe one’s own mental processes—is a valuable tool for reflection and decision-making. In fact, some scientists think it is one of the defining evolutionary advances that distinguishes human beings from other species. But more often than not, people’s attempts to use this tool backfires. Rather than make people feel better, introspection often leads them to experience something else—chatter.
Chatter is the cycle of negative thoughts and feelings that turn our capacity for introspection into a vulnerability rather than a strength. We worry, ruminate, and catastrophize rather than think clearly in ways that allow us to solve problems, innovate, and create. If you can master the art of introspection without the chatter, you can get your internal conversations back on track.
2. Talking to yourself can be helpful—if you do it the right way.
Many people wonder how they can control their chatter. One way to do so is to talk to yourself using your name and the word “you,” as if you were advising someone else, a technique called “distant self-talk.” Research shows that it’s much easier for us to advise other people on their problems than it is to advise ourselves, a phenomenon called “Solomon’s paradox.” (The Bible’s King Solomon was famously adept at doling out sound advice to others, but floundered when it came to exercising good judgment in his own life.)
“It’s much easier for us to advise other people on their problems than it is to advise ourselves.”
Distant self-talk capitalizes on this idea. Silently talking to yourself like you’re someone else—using “you” and your own name—helps you take a step back from your experience and put your problems in perspective, thereby enhancing your ability to perform under stress, control your emotions, and reason wisely. Research shows this is true not only for adults, but for children as well. Indeed, subtle shifts in the words we use to refer to ourselves can influence how we think, feel, and behave, sometimes in surprising ways.
3. Be careful who you talk to.
Popular wisdom suggests that venting your negative thoughts by sharing them with friends can be helpful—but in reality, many studies suggest the opposite. At best, venting doesn’t help us recover from negative experiences, and at worst, it exacerbates how bad we feel.
This is because when we go to other people for help, there are two needs we’re trying to fulfill. On the one hand, we’re looking for support, which we often get when we share our feelings with others. But we also need advice; we need help with broadening our perspective, which other people are in a unique position to help us do. The problem is that many of the people we turn to for help tend to prioritize providing us with emotional support, rather than giving us advice. So although talking to others about our chatter can be an exceedingly valuable tool, not just any conversation will do.
“When you feel smaller in the midst of awe-inspiring sights, so do your problems.”
4. Creating order quiets chatter.
Rafael Nadal, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, once said, “What I battle hardest to do in a tennis match is to quiet the voices in my head.” To do so, he engages in a series of quirky rituals, like sipping his power drinks and water in a specific sequence, and arranging the bottles in a particular pattern. Science shows that many people reflexively engage in similar behaviors when they’re struggling with chatter. While some people turn to rituals, others focus on tidying up or organizing their spaces. Importantly, research shows that engaging in these behaviors, as long as they’re not taken to an extreme, can provide people with relief.
The way this works is through a process called “compensatory control.” In essence, when our thoughts are racing and feel disorganized, we can compensate for that by controlling other areas of our lives. Ritualized and organizing behaviors provide us with a means of doing precisely that.
5. Awe heals.
Awe is an emotion we experience when we’re in the presence of something vast that we can’t explain. Some people feel it when they stare up at the night sky and ponder the number of stars in the universe. Others experience it when they look at a great piece of art, or watch their kids achieve a momentous feat. Or we may feel it when we take a stroll through nature and contemplate how the physical world came to be.
Research shows that experiencing awe doesn’t just make us feel good; it also provides us with a tool for broadening our perspective in ways that help keep our chatter at bay. When you’re in the presence of something vast and difficult to explain, it’s hard to maintain the view that you and your chatter are the most important things in the world. In other words, when you feel smaller in the midst of awe-inspiring sights, so do your problems.
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