We all talk to ourselves all the time. This kind of inner dialogue can be a good thing, helping us focus and work through problems, but it can also go off the rails, turning into worry and negative rumination.
My guest today calls this negative self-talk “chatter,” and in a book of the same name he outlines how to get a handle on it. His name is Ethan Kross, he’s a psychologist and the director of the Emotion & Self Control Lab, and we begin our conversation with the way introspection can be both good and bad, and the function of the voice in our heads. We discuss why negative emotions make us want to reach out to other people, and how this impulse can be harnessed in either a positive or detrimental way. We then unpack how managing the way we talk to ourselves really comes down to zooming out and getting distance from the self, and how this can be accomplished with a variety of tools, from engaging in a kind of time travel to going out into nature.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- What distinguishes healthy self-talk from harmful chatter?
- The amazing superpower of our inner voice
- Is everybody’s self-talk the same?
- When chatter went crazy in Ethan’s life
- Why we feel a desire to share negative emotions more than positive
- How chatter adds friction to our relationships
- Tools for curbing the harmful chatter in your life
- Harnessing self-talk as a force for good in your life
Resources/Articles/People Mentioned in Podcast
- 3 Simple Steps for Stopping Negative Self-Talk
- Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life
- How to Perform Your Best Under Pressure
- Nostalgia — Its Benefits and Downsides
- How to Develop Greater Self-Awareness
- The Meaning, Manifestations, and Treatments for Anxiety
- Good Shame; Bad Shame
- Memory Is Moral: Why Every Man Should Do His Genealogy
Connect With Ethan
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. We all talk to ourselves all the time. This kind of inner dialogue can be a good thing, helps us focus and helps us work through problems, but it can also go off the rails, turn into worry and negative rumination. My guest today calls this negative self-talk “Chatter”, and in his book of the same name he outlines how to get a handle on it. His name is Ethan Kross, he’s a psychologist, the director of Emotion & Self-Control Laboratory. And we begin our conversation with the way introspection can be both good and bad, and the function of the voice in our heads. We discuss why negative emotions makes us wanna reach out to other people and start talking, and how this impulse can be harnessed in either a positive or detrimental way. We then unpack how managing the way we talk to ourselves really comes down to zooming out and getting distance from the self, and how this can be accomplished with a variety of tools, from engaging in a kind of time travel, to going out in nature. After the show’s over, check out our show notes today at aom.is/chatter. Ethan joins me now via ClearCast.io.
Alright, Ethan Kross, welcome to the show.
Ethan Kross: Thanks for having me, delighted to be here.
Brett McKay: So you’re a psychologist and you spent your career researching and writing about something that people, you know, they do all the time, but they don’t like to talk about it, because they think they might be crazy, but you researched how people talk to themselves in their head. How did you fall in that line of research, when you were like a young psychology student? Why did you say, “I’m gonna look into that.”
Ethan Kross: Great question. Actually, it started before I was a psych student. So it started way back when I was a little kid, when I was like three or four years old. My dad was always really into eastern philosophy and things that didn’t seem very cool or exciting when I was a kid. He used to always encourage me to introspect when bad things happen. So if I was having trouble with something, he’d tell me to go inside and try to figure out a solution to the problem so I could move on. And I, by and large, listened to his advice, and it served me well throughout my childhood and adolescence. And then I got to college, and I took a class on psychology, and I learned that, yes, introspection can be really, really good for lots of people a lot of the time. Bad things happen, focus inward, try to make sense of what you’re feeling, and language is involved in doing that. Our inner voice. It helps us storify life.
What I also learned is that this process of going inside, it often backfires in spectacular ways. So people often do exactly what my dad used to tell me to do, but they don’t end up feeling better, they end up worrying and ruminating and catastrophizing, and engaging in what I call chatter, which is… Captures that… The reverberating negative thoughts that often run through our head, that lead us to feel like we’re spinning, we’re not getting anywhere, where we’re trying to solve a problem. And so the big puzzle for me was, “Well, why is introspection sometimes really helpful and other times really harmful? What distinguishes between the healthy versus harmful way of talking to ourselves?” and I spent my career trying to figure that out.
Brett McKay: And we’ll unpack those differences, but before we do, what do we know about that internal dialogue that we have with ourselves? Does everyone do it? How old are we when we start doing it, etcetera?
Ethan Kross: Yeah, so when we’re talking about the inner voice, in technical terms we’re talking about silent verbal processing, so using language silently in your head. And this is an amazing super power that we all possess, and it’s one that serves many different functions. So the inner voice isn’t just one thing. It’s not just the ongoing stream of thoughts that’s narrating your life. The inner voice also captures lots of other things, like if I were to ask you to repeat a phone number silently in your head. So repeat right now, the numbers 2090501, take a second to do that. Were you able to do it?
Brett McKay: Yes.
Ethan Kross: Yeah, so that’s tapping into your verbal working memory, which your inner voice is involved with. It’s this ability to rehearse verbal information, everyone who has a well-functioning mind can do that, it’s part of the basic architecture of the human mind. Language helps us process information, but it can also help us do other things, like simulate how we’re gonna behave in the future. So before I have a high stakes speech, I’ll often in my head rehearse what I’m gonna say. I’ll then imagine what an unruly audience member is gonna ask me to try to trip me up, I’ll hear what they’re gonna ask me, and then I’ll hear myself respond, so our inner voice is helping us plan and simulate there.
It can also help us control ourselves, like when you’re doing a really difficult problem. “Alright, put this piece here, then put this piece here, and then do this.” I’m of course projecting right now, ’cause I’m talking. That was an example of putting together like a kid’s toy, which I’m terrible at, so… But that’s another usage of your inner voice. So it does lots of different things. In terms of when it develops, some of the earliest research studies that speak to this, suggest around 18 months. That’s not to say it doesn’t develop earlier, but that’s as early as I’ve seen a documentation of it in a scientific article.
Brett McKay: And when you say that everyone does it, every… You have even… This includes deaf people who can’t hear, and I thought this was really interesting. What they do is they kind of have an internal sign language dialogue going on with themselves.
Ethan Kross: Yeah, so there’s evidence that people who are deaf, they basically talk to themselves, but using their sign language. So it’s like inner… It’s called inner signing instead of inner speech. So they’re using the same modality that they use to communicate with people in the world, they’re engaging that modality silently in their head. So I do wanna point out that different people may rely on their inner voice to do different things, more or less than others. A couple of years ago, there was a big hoopla on the internet, about some people saying they don’t have an internal voice or running inner monologue. I think it’s possible that those individuals may not constantly narrate their life, they don’t have that inner stream constantly flowing, but at the other end of the spectrum, can they use language silently to do things like rehearse a number? Yes, that’s a basic feature of the human mind.
Brett McKay: And also this inner voice is fast. It’s like, you give this example, it’s basically spitting out tons of State of the Union addresses in a matter of minutes.
Ethan Kross: Yeah, so we can talk to ourselves much faster than we can speak to other people out loud. And the reason for that is there are really two factors. First, when we’re talking out loud, that’s a complicated process. We take it for granted, but we’re actually… There is a lot of motor movements involved. We’re moving our mouth and our muscles, our diaphragm is going up and down. And so it’s a complicated behavior, and we don’t have to engage in the same steps when we’re silently speaking to ourselves. The second thing is that although we can talk to ourselves in full sentences, like when I’m practicing what I’m gonna say to someone else, I’ll say it out loud… I’ll say it silently in a full sentence, but we can also talk to ourselves in a more compressed form. So we’re not actually talking to ourselves in full sentences, it’s more like taking short-hand notes. Inner speech can take that more compressed form, and that gives us a lot of verbal punch in a short period of time.
Brett McKay: So as you said, we do this for… We have this internal monologue for a variety of reasons. There’s… It helps with our working memory, it helps… It allows us to remember, call back numbers, but also people… There’s researchers who’ve looked and just asked people like, “Tell us what you’re thinking, like stream of conscious,” and it’s really the content of internal dialogue. So there’s some of the, “Okay, I gotta remember this thing”, but then it also, it’s just a lot of like, “Hey, I see this thing, and this is what I think about this thing. I know this reminds me of this memory.” Well, that’s the other thing too. Is that how a lot of times with our internal dialogues, there’s a lot of time travel going on, time jumping.
Ethan Kross: Yeah, I think this is really fascinating. We hear nowadays a lot about the importance of living in the moment. And I’m all for being present in the appropriate times, but I think it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we spend a lot of time not living in the moment, traveling into the future and past. And this is actually… That’s not a problem, that’s a really amazing capacity. It’s an amazing capacity that distinguishes us from other animals. We can go back in time and reminisce about things that happened, experience nostalgia. We can try to figure out why we said that stupid thing that got us in trouble, so we don’t say that stupid thing again in the future. We can think about the future and try to plan or fantasize. I’m regularly fantasizing about what I’m gonna do when this pandemic ends, and I’m on a beach having a pina colada. So this ability to travel in time is something that we are uniquely equipped to do, and we spend a lot of time doing it. And so when you ask people what they’re thinking about, they’re often not in the moment, they’re dipping back and forward in time.
Brett McKay: And this allows… I mean, it’s basically how we’re trying to make… It sounds like when we do that, we’re trying to make sense of our reality. It’s all sense making essentially, or easing ourselves.
Ethan Kross: Yeah, I think that’s a big piece of it. We know that… Human beings, we like to… In an ideal world, we would just navigate the world on auto-pilot. And when I say ideal, I say ideal in the sense of how you could effortlessly live life. You’re just traveling along, you’re not expending any resources to make sense of what’s happening around you, ’cause that’s hard work. Making sense of things is not easy. You wouldn’t wanna be doing it all the time. And so when do we tend to try to make sense of things? When we get stuck. And so the other interesting thing coming out of the studies that you reference, that ask people about what they’re thinking, oftentimes, the majority of the time that people are having these verbal thoughts, they tend to be negative in their tone. So we tend to be talking to ourselves about problems. And I think one of the reasons why that’s the case, is because problems are often what we’re trying to solve, what we’re trying to make sense of, and that’s why they occupy so much “real estate” in our minds.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned there could be some people who don’t use this internal dialogue or voice as much as other people do, but there’s that… We actually know of cases where people lose their ability to talk to themselves, and this happened to a person who’s actually… I think she was a neuroscientist, correct?
Ethan Kross: Yeah, she was a neuro-anatomist. I tell this story in Chatter, and it’s fascinating. So this woman has a stroke and she loses… This stroke is localized in a part of the brain that is involved in language, and so she not only loses temporarily the ability to talk to other people, but also to talk to herself. And initially she thought that this would be great and initially she reported being elated. She no longer had the worries, the ruminations, that inner critic chirping her, chirping up telling her she wasn’t good enough, and so forth and so on. And that felt really good, but as time went on, what she realized is she also couldn’t rely on her inner speech to help her make sense of who she was.
We often use our inner speech, these… We have conversations with ourselves to figure out things about who we are as we navigate this world, it helps shape our identity. And she lost that capacity, which ended up being quite problematic for her. So I think an important take home from that lesson is the inner voice, although it can be the source of a lot of pain, like when we’re ruminating or worrying, it is not in and of itself a bad thing. To the contrary, it’s an amazing tool, it helps us do a lot of things. It’s just that it can slip into the negative territory when we start ruminating or worrying. And so when it slips into the negative territory, I think the challenge is to figure out how you can rein it in. And the good news is that there are lots of science based tools to help people do that.
Brett McKay: Well, you start off the book talking about how even you as a psychologist, who studies and knows the research behind, on what causes our inner voice to go negative and how to rein it in. You had an experience where chatter, what you call this sort of negative voice, just went crazy in your life. Can you tell us about that, ’cause I thought it was… I think it’s relatable. I think a lot of people might have experienced something similar to what you went through.
Ethan Kross: Yeah, well, before I tell the story, let me preface it by saying that there’s a lot of research which shows that we’re much better at giving advice to others, than we are following that advice ourselves. And I unfortunately experienced this firsthand about 10 years ago when I received a threatening letter in the mail, and it really… It sent my chatter churning. So I had never received a threat before and it was scary. I had to file a police report and that didn’t do much to help allay my concerns. And so I ended up doing wacky things, like pace my house until 3:00 in the morning with my baseball bat, making sure no one was coming after my newborn daughter and wife and me. And it was an experience where my self-talk, my harmful self-talk, my chatter, was really taking over. I didn’t have control of it, it had control of me, and it really negatively affected me for a couple of days.
I could not focus at work. It created friction in my relationships, because I kept talking about this concern to my wife over and over and over again, and she was trying to get me help but I wasn’t listening. And there’s no question that it momentarily impacted my health as well. I wasn’t sleeping, I didn’t have my appetite, and so it really exerted a negative toll. Fortunately, I was able to break out of that funk after a few days, using some science-based tools that we now know of and we know how they work. But when I was caught in the chatter, it was not fun. And this raises another question that I often get is like, how do you know when you’re experiencing chatter? People often ask me that. And my response is, you typically know it, when you’re experiencing it, because it’s really a very unpleasant state. It doesn’t feel good to be so hyper-focused on this one problem that you can’t think about anything else. So yeah, that was my personal experience with chatter that I hope to never duplicate. Have you ever had something like that happen to you?
Brett McKay: Oh no, all the time. I can… Yes, that… I’ve said this before on the pod. I’m like Larry David, tend to be a neurotic, and I’ll think worst case scenario, and then I’ll see… Yeah, I’ll do that and I’ve done what you did. Like the low point for you during all this, when you googled “bodyguard for college professors”, thinking…
Ethan Kross: Let me… I considered googling.
Brett McKay: Oh, you considered. Okay.
Ethan Kross: Actually, it was when I actually started typing it out, before I actually hit enter. I didn’t, because that was a moment that broke me out of this, and I thought to myself, “Ethan, you are being insane.” so… But carry on. You’ve investigated the bodyguard podcast hosts.
Brett McKay: No, yeah, not bodyguard… But whenever you get some weird health symptom. You’re like, “Well, I’m gonna go to Dr. Google and great, I’ve got this terminal disease.” And you start freaking out.
Ethan Kross: Yeah, you don’t wanna do that, it always ends with cancer. You just, you don’t wanna do…
Brett McKay: Exactly. It always ends… So I thought what’s interesting about the voice in our head, whenever we experience negative emotions one of the natural responses that our internal dialogue actually starts talking more. And not only does our internal dialogue want to talk more, we actually want to talk more to other people when we have negative emotions. What’s going on there? What causes that? Do we know?
Ethan Kross: Yeah, well, so negative emotions act like jet fuel, that propel us to wanna share what we’re feeling with other people, with really two exceptions. That’s not true when we’re experiencing shame, which we tend to not wanna share with other people, or trauma, which we often try to avoid. But the other kinds of negative emotions, anger, anxiety, sadness, there’s a lot of research which shows that when those emotions activate, we’re really motivated to talk to other people about them. So we talk more when we feel bad because A, we’re looking for people to connect with empathically. We want support, we want someone to help us, we wanna know that there’s someone who cares enough about us that they’re willing to listen. And so finding someone to talk to can be great for that. You’re sharing your experience and you’re connecting with another person. But what we also are looking for is advice or help broadening our perspectives. So when we experience chatter, when our inner monologues take a wrong turn and lead to worry and rumination, we often hyper-focus on our experience, we zoom in, tunnel vision. All we can think about very narrowly, is the awfulness of what we’re feeling, what we’re experiencing. And so what we’ve learned is, what can be really useful when that happens, is to zoom out, to broaden our perspective, and other people are in a great position to help us do that, right.
So if you come to me with a problem, you had a really bad argument with your partner. You tell me about it, so I hear a little bit about it and, “Oh, that sounds terrible.” so we’re empathically connecting, but then I can do things like, “You know what? But you know, you probably had arguments before and you got over it, right. So not the end of the world.” So I’m broadening your perspective there, or I could say things like, “Yeah, you know what? I’ve got into arguments like that with my wife over similar things, and here’s how I deal with that situation.” Again, I’m shifting the focus away from you being so zoomed in on what happened to you that you can’t think of anything else, and I’m trying to help you look at the bigger picture. And so other people can do both of those things for us, they can give us support, and also advice. There’s an important point I wanna emphasize though, which is this, in popular culture we often hear that when you’re feeling bad and experiencing chatter, what you should do is vent about your emotions to others, just find someone to talk to and unload how you feel.
The research does not support that being an effective tool for helping us work through our emotions, and the reason for that is when we vent our feelings, that does make us feel closer and more connected to the people we are talking to like… So no, that’s a good thing, but it doesn’t do anything to help shift our perspective or change the way we think about things, so what you end up having happen is you get stuck in what we call a co-rumination session where you and I feel really close to each other, because we’re harping on how bad that thing was… Can you believe what she said? Oh my God, that sticks. I’m never gonna talk to her again, but we’re essentially keeping the fire ablaze, we’re not doing anything to work through the situation, so venting alone is not an effective tool for managing chatter.
Brett McKay: And the other interesting too about venting to someone else, it might make you feel close in the short term, but if the problem with negative chatter is that the more you do it, it sort of perpetuates itself, and if you keep going to someone with like your just your negative just harping, that actually turns people off and they’re gonna start pushing you away ’cause they don’t wanna be around you anymore.
Ethan Kross: Exactly. So, that’s one of the negative relational effects that chatter can have, it creates friction in our relationships because we just keep talking about it over and over and over and over again, and guess what? It’s not fun to be on the other side of that conversation when all you’re doing is re-hashing the same thing, ad nauseam. So, chatter can affect us negatively in a variety of ways, it can undermine our social relationships by creating friction in them, in the way that I just described, it could get under the skin to influence our health by keeping our negative feelings alive over time, that exerts a real wear and tear in the body that can be harmful, and it makes it impossible to focus on the task at hand, and for anyone who questions how that might work I would ask you to think about trying to read a book when you are ruminating or worrying about something. The experience most people have when that happens is they read five pages, but they don’t remember a thing that they’ve actually read because their mind was focused on something else, and so it can be a really big problem.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about some of the tools we can use to rein in on this negative chatter, and a big part of it is, it’s what you call, you have to distance yourself from the negative voice. What do you mean by that?
Ethan Kross: Well, so if chatter zooms us in really narrowly on the experiences that are driving these negative… This negative inner voice, then one natural antidote to that is to zoom out, “to take a step back” and try to think about your experience more objectively from a broader perspective. And it turns out there are lots of ways to do that, and I’ll tell you about just two to make it concrete. So, one thing that I do in particular with respect to COVID, which is a chatter-provoking event, I think for many of us, is I’ll do something called mental time travel. So, I’ll think about how I’m gonna feel 12 months from now when I’m vaccinated, when I do that, what that little mental exercise does, that distancing exercise does, is it makes it clear that what I’m experiencing right now, as awful as it is, it’s temporary, it will eventually pass, and that gives me hope, and we know that hope can be a really powerful tool for soothing chatter.
I’ll also go back in time. I’ll think about the pandemic of 1918, and the fact that as awful as that pandemic was, and it was quite possibly worse than what we’re experiencing right now, we made it. You and I are sitting here talking right now is a testament to that, and so those are ways of helping me step back and see the bigger picture in ways that put my problems in perspective and that reduce the intensity of the chatter and improve the way I feel.
Another distancing tool that people can use is to try to coach themselves through a problem like they were talking to someone else, as I said before, we’re much better at advising other people on their problems than we are taking our own advice. And what we’ve learned is that language can provide us with a tool for forgetting distance and thinking about ourselves like we were someone else, and it’s as simple as using your name or the second person pronoun, you. So, when I’m really stressed about something, I’m like, “Alright Ethan, here’s what you’re gonna do,” and then I’ll instruct myself along. That small linguistic shift is… It’s like a psychological ju-jitsu technique. It’s shifting my perspective. It’s no longer… I’m no longer in the first person, it’s now like, okay, here’s what I would say to someone else, and that can be helpful too.
Brett McKay: Alright, so yeah, you talk to yourself in the second person, right?
Ethan Kross: Second person, yeah.
Brett McKay: Or how would you might have been… Is that right? I’m always…
Ethan Kross: Well, if you’re gonna get the academic in me.
Brett McKay: Let’s get academic.
Ethan Kross: It’s actually… Using your name as the third person.
Brett McKay: Third person.
Ethan Kross: So we actually call it distanced self-talk.
Brett McKay: Distanced self-talk.
Ethan Kross: The idea is we’re breaking you out of thinking in I, me, my and you’re using words that you typically use when you think about other people, names, or you.
Brett McKay: Do you need to do this out loud or can you just do it inside your head like internally?
Ethan Kross: No, no, no, no, no. Don’t do it out loud if other people are around. That’s a little disclaimer here. In our experiments, in our studies, we always do it silently and ask people to do it silently in their head. If you’re alone at home, you could do it out loud if that works for you, I don’t see why that would be problematic. If you do it out loud in front of other people though, that will violate social norms in ways that I think you probably don’t wanna do, because we’re not used to people talking to themselves out loud. And so even though it might help you, there might be some social ramifications that you probably want to avoid.
Brett McKay: And how quickly does this work, it seems you just start having that internal dialogue with yourself, referring to yourself, that distanced self-talk, how quickly does it silence or mute that chatter?
Ethan Kross: What’s interesting is that a lot of distancing tools take our effort role, you gotta work at it for a while. And there has been research on this distanced self-talk, which shows that you start to see reductions in how negative people are feeling within milliseconds. And so Jason Moser, our neuroscientist at Michigan State University did a study where he had people look at pictures that were designed to really elicit a very strong negative reaction as he monitored their brain activity while people were using distanced self-talk, and within a few hundred milliseconds he saw a reduction in how negative they were feeling according to their brain activity.
Brett McKay: So it’s fast. So yeah, there’s other distancing skills, like cognitive behavioral therapy is that’s what, it’s basically just distancing yourself, it’s teaching you techniques, but that can take a lot of effort thinking about, “Is this really the worst case scenario?” But it sounds like this distanced self-talk, it can happen right away, how long does the effect last… Is it, if you do it more often, does the voice tend to quiet down permanently?
Ethan Kross: That’s a great, that’s a great question. We actually don’t have an answer to that question just yet, I don’t know research has looked at how durable and enduring those effects are. But I do wanna emphasize that there are no magic pills. I think the formula for really being good at managing chatter involves using a number of different tools, interchangeably. And I think one of the challenges that both listeners and trying to face is trying to figure out what are the unique combinations of tools that work best for different people in different situation. There are no single magic pills that I’m aware of. So, when I experience chatter about something, I’ll typically use a few different tools, I’ll use distanced self-talk, I’ll use mental time travel, I’ll find someone to talk to who’s skilled at not just show me that they care, but also can help broaden my perspective. And then I’ll do other things like go for a walk in a green space.
We know that exposure to green spaces can be really rejuvenating in ways that help us with our chatter, so I’ll do that. So, I’ll take the equivalent of a chatter cocktail to help me manage that state, and I think that’s really the key. So not specific strategies, but combinations of them.
Brett McKay: Yeah, going out in nature was interesting and how it kinda quieted the mind, and the reason why it does that is because you’re basically diminishing the self, you’re feeling smaller, but in the process, it makes you feel better when that happens.
Ethan Kross: Well, there are a couple of different ways that nature helps, but that what you just described is definitely one of them, and that has to do with nature’s ability to promote feelings of awe, so the emotion of awe, that’s something we feel when we’re in the presence of something vast, that we have trouble explaining like looking at a tree in the local park that’s been here for hundreds of years, through all the blizzards and all the other terrible weather, like this tree has been here, how is that possible? Or when you look up at the sky and think about the billions of stars out there, I can’t even compute how many planets there actually is.
And so what science shows us that when we have that emotional experience, that when we’re in the presence of something vast like that, we ourselves and our concerns, we feel smaller by comparison, and that’s a good thing. We’re no longer the center of the world and our concerns are no longer the center of the world, and that can be alleviating in terms of the chatter we’re experiencing.
Brett McKay: You just mentioned that time travel thing. Another thing you mentioned, another tool is genealogy can be a useful thing to soothe the chatter, you just think back, “Well, my great, great whatever came across on a boat and had lice and had to be quarantined for a long time, and now they went up and started a business and here I am today. If he could do it, I could do it too.”
Ethan Kross: Yeah, exactly. I had grandparents who lived in the forest for a year during World War II, and they made it, and boy, does that put the last rejection I got from a journal editor in perspective when I compare it to that, so that’s another… Broadening as a perspective, broadening tool that we possess. And these are simple mental shifts that can make a difference, that can make a difference in how we feel, but they’re mental shifts that I don’t think are always apparent to people, because when we’re so consumed with chatter, it’s all consuming. It’s hard for us to remember that there are other ways of thinking about this that might make us feel better. And so one of my hopes with the book was trying to really lay out what all these different tools are, show the science behind them to explain how they work, so that people could add these to their repertoire so that the next time they experience chatter, they can activate them.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s good to have them in an advance because as everyone might have experienced, once you start experiencing that chattering, you start going down the downward spiral, it’s hard to get out, so you have to stop it pretty quickly, or else it gets harder and I’ve seen… You can see when people have gone down that spiral and you say… You start offering suggestions. They’re like, “No, that’s not gonna work. No way.” We talked about this before we got on. You give this advice to your kids like, “Hey, just talk to yourself, do some distanced self-talk,” whenever you see them really frustrated, they’re like, “That’s so dumb, it’s not gonna work, this is the worst problem ever,” and then they do it and they feel better, but it’s hard, it’s really hard.
Ethan Kross: Yeah, look, I think this is without exaggeration, this is a multi-trillion dollar problem. If you look alone at the impairments we have like in the workforce due to mental health issues that are chatter-related, it’s a huge problem that doesn’t even take into account the health concerns. This is something that I think our species has struggled with probably since we started talking to ourselves, quite frankly, I mean, these are biblical problems. Adam and Eve and the snake, people have been worried about stuff for a very long time. And so I think just understanding that is important for just normalizing this experience so that if people are listening and you experience chatter at times like, “Great, you’re a human being.” But again, the good news is that we evolve not only to have these destructive conversations with ourself or harmful conversations, but we also evolved to possess tools to manage them. And I think that’s the uplifting side of the story, is that there are things we can do to help.
Brett McKay: So, we’ve talked about managing or reining in that negative internal chatter, are there instances where chatter… Not chatter… Internal dialogue is positive, we should encourage it, encourage the voice in our head to talk more or…
Ethan Kross: Yeah, yeah, I would hate to… I would not wish on my worst enemy a life without an inner voice, because our inner voice helps us do wonderful things like problem solve and innovate and create, and so you wanna have that tool at your disposal. The problem is that when that inner voice is devoted to chatter, you can’t use it to do all of the constructive things that we can do with it, and so that’s why I subtitled the book harnessing the voice in your head, it’s not about shutting it down, it’s not about silencing your inner voice, it’s about figuring out how to wield it. By way of analogy to think of a hammer, a hammer is an amazingly useful tool, I think no one would disagree with that. You could build houses and other things with it, but if you don’t know how to use the hammer or if you use it improperly, as I often do as someone without a handy bone in my body, it could be a destructive force, and so it’s about how to figure out how to use the tool, and that’s what the science that I talk about in the book speaks to.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that one bit advice is, if you’re going through a tough, complex problem, you’re trying to work through, like talking to yourself in your head, it’s like, I’m gonna do this and then I’m gonna do this. I’ve done that and I’ve found that it helps and it’s really useful, it’s a quick little tool.
Ethan Kross: Well, and we actually like the internal dialogue, we didn’t have a chance to talk about it, but it’s heavily involved in our ability to control ourselves, in fact, according to many psychologists, self-talk is how we first learn to control ourselves. So our parents, they give us instructions, they explain how to do things, like this is how you brush your teeth… No, you don’t say that to someone else, that’s rude. And then what little kids do is they then go off in a corner and they repeat those instructions to themselves, so… You said you’ve got a 10-year-old son, when he was little. I’m guessing there were probably instances in which you saw him just talking out loud to himself, is it fair to say that?
Brett McKay: Yes, I still see him talk to himself.
Ethan Kross: You still see him do it. So this is common, like many kids will have full-blown conversations with themselves out loud, that’s how they are learning self-control, they’re repeating what their parents are saying to them, and at first they do it out loud, but over time, they start giving themselves instructions silently, using their inner voice, and we hold on to that throughout our lives, so we rely on that inner voice to control ourselves, so we wouldn’t wanna give it up.
Brett McKay: Wouldn’t wanna give it up. Well, Ethan, this has been a great conversation, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Ethan Kross: They can go to my website www.ethankross.com, it’s K-R-O-S-S. And you’ll be able to find information about me, my lab, and the book there. So ethankross.com.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Ethan Kross, thanks for your time, It’s been a pleasure.
Ethan Kross: Super fun. Thanks so much for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Ethan Koss, he’s the author of the book Chatter, it’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere, you can find out more information about his work at his website, ethankross.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/chatter, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper in this topic.
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