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  • Dan Connors

How to tell your inner critic to shut the F#@k Up!

Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It

Why do we keep hearing voices inside our head? What do these distracting voices do for us and how can we tame them? Researchers claim that we can think ten times faster than we can talk, and that something like 4,000 words can get processed in our heads every minute!! Four thousand?? If these words drag us down, which they often do, they can make us miserable, and we often feel powerless to stop them. How do we get control of our self-talk and make it work for us and not against us?

These are the questions in a fascinating new book, Chatter. The book's author, Ethan Kross is a PhD and professor at the University of Michigan and director of the Emotion & Self Control Laboratory. This book covers his specialty- the control of the conscious mind.

Kross claims that the most damaging type of self-talk is something called rumination, which is the continuous re-hashing of the same thoughts with no relief in sight. People question a past event and live through it repeatedly in their mind, second-guessing choices that were made. Or they worry about the future, considering the infinite possibilities of bad things that could happen to them or someone they love. Ruminating people worry about their health, the weather, or any number of distractions out there that they can't control.

Social media has given a huge bullhorn to chatter and rumination, as much of what fills Twitter and Facebook is negative, worrisome, and attention-seeking. People feel compelled to talk to others about their negative experiences, much more so than the positive ones. All this negativity builds up day after day and damages both mental and physical health, causing a chronic stress reaction.

Most of this book is filled with helpful pointers on how to extract yourself from the negative chatter that drags you down. When we immerse ourselves in this type of self-talk, it takes over our emotions and it becomes hard to think rationally. Negative feelings feed upon themselves and can produce a cascade of negativity that reinforces itself. In order to get past chatter, the author recommends zooming out to a wider perspective. Be a fly on the wall, look at both sides, do whatever it takes to distance yourself from the disturbing situation and get a better perspective on it. Most of our daily hurts matter little in the grand scheme of things, and we tend to forget that the people around us are more interested in their own problems, and too preoccupied to judge us for our shortcomings.

Some other strategies to combat chatter:

- Imagine how you would advise a friend facing the same problems that are bothering you. What would you say to them? We are kinder to friends than we are to ourselves.

- Travel back or forwards in time to put your problem in perspective. How will you feel about it 5 or 10 years from now? What would future you say to current you?

- Normalize the experience by seeking out others who have experienced it. No matter what your problems, odds are that somebody else has already faced it. What did they do in a similar situation?

- Distance your self talk. Don't use "I" or "me", but use "you" or your actual name when fighting the battle against chatter. ("Get a grip John Smith!") This powerful psychology hack has worked for athletes and performers to get them out of their head and into a neutral, more productive space.

- Re-frame your stressors as a challenge instead of a threat. Threats provoke powerful physical and emotional responses that shut the body down, while challenges invigorate the mind and body and opens them up.

- Have a routine that will help you to feel in control, especially in trying circumstances. Internal order provided by a clutter-free preparation and ritual gives the mind smoother sailing when heading into stormy situations.

- Use the power of touch respectfully and affectionately to bond with others and get out of your head.

- Seek out green, natural spaces like parks, bodies of water, or gardens. Even a few minutes in nature can quiet even the biggest mental tempest, while noisy urban environments amplify and add to the voices in our head.

- Use the power of placebos to calm yourself down. Research has shown that non-deceptive placebos (fake cures for anxiety that people know are fake) still can work if you understand how placebos work and are willing to try them.

- Stay away from passive social media that uses algorithms to stir you up, but look to active social media- (aka actual friends and supporters) to interact with regularly and build connection.

- Look for awe-inspiring experiences to help you shrink your sense of self-importance. Seeing yourself as a part of something much bigger helps you to detach from the petty annoyances that make up a large portion of chatter.

One of the most useful points in the book concerns how self-talk interacts with other people. We assume that talking over your problems with somebody else is always helpful, but that is only partially true. Research done after 9/11 and other tragedies shows that just talking and re-living bad experiences often makes people feel worse and amplifies their chatter. In order to truly make a difference, we need counseling that does two things- meets our emotional needs by sharing our pain, and meets our cognitive needs by coming up with stories and strategies that help us to make changes to get past the pain.

Listening to someone in an abusive relationship is helpful, but not enough. Someone also has to take that abused, vulnerable person and show them new possibilities that include getting out of the relationship. Empathy and compassion are great, but we need tools too, and good therapists and counselors can provide both things at the right times. Sometimes that means splitting up the duties so that one person handles the empathy while another more expert in the problem-at-hand covers the strategies. The book cautions us not to overload others with our internal messes, as that can often push them away and make us more alone and desperate than ever.

I loved this book have struggled with my own internal dialogue. At 4,000 words per minute (mine feels like much more), it's inevitable that some bad stuff gets in there. Calming it down and learning how to deal with it is essential if you want to sleep well at night and be focused during the day. Author Dan Harris, in his book 10% Happier, said that the voice inside his head was an asshole. That monkey mind is full of valuable information, but has to be tamed. Meditation works wonders, but it can take a long time to turn down the volume of your inner voices, especially in this over-stimulated age.

Life is hard enough without having to do battle with the past and the future all of the time.

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