How to Make Inner Chatter Work for You
We all have a voice inside our heads. Here are ways to calm it.
Most nights by the time I get into bed, I am totally exhausted. It doesn't take long after my head hits the pillow for me to fall into a deep sleep.
But there are times that I hear a blaring voice interrupting me just as I am about to doze off. It wants to start a conversation with me when all I want to do is sleep. I'd tell the voice I don't want to talk now, but it's not coming from one of my kids, a noisy neighbor or my bed partner/husband. The voice is my own, resonating inside my head. Thoughts begin to cloud my mind, questions from the mundane to the catastrophic.
Almost everyone has an inner voice that they engage with, creating an internal dialogue. "Being introspective can benefit us. When we turn inward and tap into our inner voice, it can help us problem solve, innovate and create," says Ethan Kross, psychologist and author of "Chatter."
"Chatter, which often comes at times of stress, creates tunnel vision."
But our inner voice can also lead us astray. According to Kross, "We may find ourselves stuck, ruminating over something that happened in the past or catastrophizing what could happen in the future. Instead of connecting with our inner voice, we hear our inner critic."
Kross defines the inner voice that is hurtful instead of helpful as chatter. "Chatter, which often comes at times of stress, creates tunnel vision," he says. "It causes us to over-focus on the problem without allowing us to see that there could be a solution."
Chatter Gets Louder As We Age
Chatter can get louder as we get older. We find ourselves thinking about the past, ruminating about mistakes or a path not taken. Or we are plagued by concerns about the future. We worry about what will happen to us or to our loved ones as we age. Chatter can interfere with our enjoyment of life, our physical health and mental well-being.
The good news is that with practice, people can re-direct their inner voice so it becomes less negative chatter and more beneficial. Even better, the tools are remarkably simple and highly effective.
Kross outlines a total of 26 tools to calm your chatter, divided into three different vantage points. A few are listed below:
Tools to Use on Your Own
Imagine you are talking to a friend. "Many times, people find themselves more insightful about a friend's problems than their own," Kross says. So take a figurative step back and ask yourself, "What would I say to a friend if they were in this situation?"
Create distance from the problem. Ask yourself, "Will this matter in five days, five weeks, or five years?" As Kross explains, "Mental time travel can help people better understand that their current emotional state may be temporary."
Tools to Use With People
Pick healthy chatter advisors. Many of us talk to friends about our problems. And while venting can be helpful, it can keep negative feelings alive. If you find yourself talking in circles about the same issues with no forward movement, it may be time to choose different chatter advisors.
Kross says, "You want someone that supports you, but also helps to change your perspective. You don't want to remain stuck in negative thoughts."
Tools in Your Environment
Change your external view. One of the simplest, most effective ways to calm our chatter is to spend time in nature. "Green spaces restore us when we feel drained. The fresh air, the physical movement, the views outside – our attention will gradually move away from our chatter," says Kross. Looking at the ocean, watching a sunset, or walking in a park can be therapeutic, he adds.
"Nature itself can be awe-inspiring. [Its] expansiveness leads to a shrinking of self. Our problems feel smaller," he says.
Perform a ritual. "Chatter is usually loudest when we feel out of control," explains Kross. "Performing a ritual or repeating a mantra puts something within our control. Something as easy as cleaning out a drawer can quiet your inner voice. The action demands our attention and allows us to create a sense of order."
Taking Control of the Inner Chatter
Kross says one of the biggest mistakes people make is trying to silence their inner voice. He explains, "It's understandable that people don't want to hear the chatter. It's important to remember that it is not the voice that is the problem, it's allowing it to take over. Rather than silence the inner voice, you want to harness its power and use it to help you focus."
"It's important to remember that it is not the voice that is the problem, it's allowing it to take over. "
Suppose you find your inner voice filled with regret over a mistake you made years ago. Wishing that you didn't [make it] or that it didn't happen won't change the outcome. Ruminating about it won't help and may cause more problems if it distracts you from your life or getting a restful night's sleep.
If you have apologized or made amends (or it's not possible), what else can you do to calm your inner voice? What about imagining that this situation happened to a friend? What would you do if they told you that they made a similar mistake?
"You would probably tell them that they are not alone in their feelings and that having regrets is normal," says Kross. "You would treat them with compassion, tell them to forgive themselves."
While the tools that Kross suggests aren't complicated, it may take time to implement them in your life and you may need to use more than a few to calm that inner voice.
"It isn't a one-size-fits-all problem solver. What works for some people may not work for others," he says.
For example, for some people, meditation can be a beneficial way to re-direct chatter, but it may not be effective for others, and it may even cause them to ruminate more. Kross says that if one tool doesn't work, move on to another.
"By trying different tools or using a combination, you will be able to find a way to channel your inner voice effectively," he says.
Recently, I tried some of Kross's techniques to calm the chatter in my head when I couldn't fall asleep. While I couldn't look at the ocean, I was able to picture in my head a recent vacation at the beach.
That visualization, along with giving myself some mental distance (since what I was thinking about was not going to matter in a week or two) allowed me to quiet the chatter and get some sleep.