Ep 166: How to Harness the Voice in Your Head

Episode Summary

Dr. Ethan Kross, author of Chatter, briefs us on his research on internal chatter: what it is, why it matters, and how to help your teen harness it before it gets out of control.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

There’s a lot to be worried about these days!  Whether you’re feeling anxious about the ongoing pandemic or just concerned that your teen is struggling in school, it’s easy to let distress clutter your mind. When we let that anxiety crawl around in our brain, we often find ourselves distracted from the better moments in life, thinking obsessively about a work meeting when we’re supposed to be spending quality time with our families. 

Interestingly, that voice inside our head–the one that’s always muttering about the past and the future–can be useful, if we know how to harness it. This inner dialogue comes from an evolutionary need to learn from past mistakes to survive the next challenge, and can help us immensely when tackling life’s challenges! If parents can learn to steer this voice in a positive direction, they can help teens do the same. That way, these young adults will know how to handle that tricky inner dialogue before they head off into the real world.

Our guest this week is one of the world’s leading experts on controlling the conscious mind as well as an award-winning professor of psychology and business at the University of Michigan! His name is Ethan Kross, and his new book is called Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It. In our interview, Ethan and I are getting into how and why we talk to ourselves, and what we can do to make the most of our inner voice.

In this week’s interview, we’re discussing the idea of being “present”…and why it doesn’t always help us feel better. Plus, we’re diving into tons of other strategies for harnessing your inner voice that might be the perfect solution to that constant worrying!

What is “Chatter?”

Before we can learn to make the most of our mental chatter, we’ve got to know where it comes from! Ethan explains how this persistent voice in our heads was built in to help us make predictions about the future and learn from the past. For some people, it’s stronger than others, and it serves a different purpose for each of us, says Ethan. It can help us prepare for important speeches at work or a terrifying first date. It boosts our working memory, allowing us to keep phone numbers or passwords in our head. It even helps us define who we are and build a stronger sense of self!

However, if we don’t learn to use it for good, we might end up worrying about the future or ruminating on the past. When we’re trying to watch a movie with our families, we might find ourselves obsessing over tomorrow’s work meeting or paying the electricity bill. Or maybe we’re thinking so much about a mistake we made in a past relationship that we’re too scared to enter a new one. With some help from Ethan, however, we’re giving you some tips this week to help keep that chatter under control when you don’t want it running through your head.

Have you ever been told that you should live in the present? This is a common way people tend to grapple with chatter, as it helps them stop worrying about what came before or what will happen next. However, Ethan says this doesn’t work for everyone. Some people need that chatter to plan or reflect and, and won’t find being “present” to be very helpful! In the episode, we’re covering plenty of other tools you or your teen can use–and you might just find that one of them works especially well for you or your family!

How Can We Keep Chatter Under Control?

Say your teen is preparing for a big game and is pretty overwhelmed with the voice inside their head. Or maybe they’re really worried about getting into UCLA, to the point where they’re struggling to pay attention to anything else. You want to help them manage their internal voice…but you’re not sure how! Don’t fear–Ethan is here to help you manage your teen’s chatter by giving us a few tips.

The first solution you might think of is encouraging them to vent their feelings. However, Ethan brings up some fascinating research that might surprise you. Several studies have found that when someone is dealing with intense negative feelings, venting them to someone often actually makes them feel worse! If they just share their misery without adopting a strategy to feel better, they’re perspective on the situation will only become more dismal.

Instead, Ethan emphasizes the importance of venting to someone who will help you reframe the situation in a more positive light, or provide solutions to the conflict at hand. Instead of just reinforcing your stress or sadness, this can actually help you move forward! If you’re talking to a teen, Ethan recommends listening and digesting what they have to say, and then asking patiently if they want to receive some advice. Every teen needs a different amount of time to vent before they receive some constructive assistance, but receiving that guidance can be a lot more helpful than just listening!

There are a few other interesting, even counterintuitive ideas about handling chatter that Ethan shares in this episode.

More Tips for Managing Chatter

Have you ever found yourself worried about an upcoming job interview or a court date and suddenly…you just have to clean out your linen closet? Or maybe it’s the fridge that suddenly needs four hours of organization. Ethan explains how when we feel like we don’t have control internally, we try to control our external environment to compensate. Although it may sound avoidant, Ethan says that it can actually be a really helpful way to lighten our mental load.

Similarly, participating in rituals can help you feel more in control. These rituals could be daily, like doing yoga in the mornings, or weekly, like watching a movie with your kids on Saturday nights. By keeping to the structure, the predictability helps keep chatter in line, says Ethan. These periods of time help your mind reset and help you return to chatter with a clearer and more intentional mindset. In our interview, Ethan and I discuss how these rituals exist across every culture in one form or another, helping people stay calm amongst the chatter.

In the episode, Ethan and I also talk about an interesting technique that helps teens get some distance from the voice in their head. If your teen is struggling to emotionally process something that happened in the past and finds their mind overrun with chatter, it can be useful for them to try and separate themselves from it. One way they can do this is examine what happened, but refer to themselves in the third person. Ethan explains this further in the episode! The technique helps teens find a more objective perspective and see a path to a solution that isn’t guided by all the chatter.

During the interview, we go deeper into distancing, even discussing how giving your kid a cape and asking them to assume a role of a superhero can help! And although distance can make things feel a little clearer, Ethan reminds us that we shouldn’t distance ourselves from joyful events! Those happy times with our kids can be some of life’s brightest moments.

In the Episode…

I loved sitting down with Ethan this week to talk about how we can change our internal voice to be more positive–especially when there’s so much to worry about these days! On top of the topics above, we also discuss…

  • How to avoid negative thought loops
  • Why social media leads to negative chatter
  • How “temporal distancing” can widen our perspective
  • Why you should think of your brain as a swiss army knife

If you enjoyed learning about chatter from Ethan, there’s much more to explore on his website, www.ethankross.com. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week!!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. If your teen is leaning too hard into any one coping mechanism:

“Think about tools like a hammer that we use to build things. There’s a context in which you want to use a hammer. You want to use a hammer to pound a nail. You don’t want to use a hammer to cut some wood. And if you pound a nail too hard, you can cause destruction. The same is true for all these [psychological] tools. You want to use them to the appropriate degree. You don’t want to use them to an extreme.”

-Ethan Kross

2. Before giving advice, check in with your teen:

(Members Only)

3. Empathize with a chaotic state of mind:

(Members Only)

4. When you notice your teen seems to need a lot of control suddenly:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: This is really going to be an interesting topic of conversation, because your book is about the voice in our head. And I think that’s so relevant, because so much of our job as parents is helping our teenagers figure out how to deal with the voice in their head and leverage it in a positive way.

Andy: And also, how to do that ourselves when we’re at the end of our rope, dealing with our kids sometimes. So I think there’s so much relevant stuff to talk about.

Ethan: Totally. Well, we are in complete agreement. And it’s interesting because I think the voice in your head, when you start talking about it, some people are like, “Wait, what does that even mean?” And one of the things I hoped to convey in my book was that we all have a voice in our head.

Ethan: And actually, it plays an out-sized role in our lives. And there are things we can do to manage it better, and help others do the same. So I’m delighted to be here to chat with you.

Andy: Okay. So, shouldn’t we not have a voice in our head because we’re supposed to be living in the present moment and all of that?

Ethan: No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. Let’s start with that one. I love it. I call that a myth. We often hear that we should be in the present. And being in the present can be really useful at particular times. You’ll need to focus to just be in the moment. Great. But the human mind evolved to be able to travel in time. We possess this amazing ability.

Ethan: We can learn from our past, a savored past experience. We can plan for the future. We can simulate. And those are vital, vital functions. So the issue is that sometimes when we start traveling in time in our minds, mind wandering and so forth, sometimes we don’t end up doing good things. We end up getting stuck, worrying and ruminating or experiencing what I call chatter. One way to deal with that is to refocus on the present.

Ethan: But there are also a number of tools people can use to just figure out how to travel in time more effectively in their heads. So focusing on the present, that’s one kind of tool. But there are dozens of other ones where rather than if a person is getting stuck in the past, to just figure out, well, how can we help you focus on the past or future more effectively? And that’s an approach that I subscribe to.

Ethan: If our ability to travel in time in our minds is one of our greatest assets, I don’t want people to shut it down and just be in the moment. Lower level animals are just in the moment. This human brain lets us not be in the moment. So what I think, what I’m more interested in doing is figuring out, how can we figure out how to help people become better mental time travelers? And that’s all about managing chatter effectively.

Andy: And it sounds like a little new age about time traveling, but it’s really based in research. And you’ve got a lot of science in here. How do you even study something like the mental voice?

Ethan: Yeah. And I’m glad you pointed that out because I am a scientist, and the book is all science-based. And the interesting thing about the inner voice is that it tends to be this light concept that’s put out there.

Andy: Right.

Ethan: But one of the points that I try to make in the book is that there’s a great deal of science behind it. So let’s break it down. What do I actually mean when I use this term? When I use the term inner voice, I’m talking about our ability to silently use language to reflect on our lives. And we all have that capacity. If our brains are working properly, we all have that capacity. So if you could talk to someone else, you can talk silently to yourself.

Ethan: Now, this is a tool. It’s a tool of the mind. I like to think of it as a Swiss Army knife that helps us do lots of different things. And we wrote that some people rely on it to do some things more than others. So just to give listeners a sense of the terrain, at the most basic end of the spectrum, our inner voice is part of our working memory system. So this is a basic system in the brain, in the mind, that allows us to keep information active at any given moment in time.

Ethan: So if you go to the grocery store and you want to remind yourself of what’s on your grocery list, milk, cheese, eggs, and you repeat that silently in your head, you’re using your inner voice. If I give you my phone number and I say, “Hey, my phone number is 209-0501,” and you then want to rehearse it for a second to remember it, you repeat it silently, just use your inner voice. So our inner voice lets us do that. It then lets us simulate and plan.

Andy: Oh, sure.

Ethan: Before a presentation, I’ll go over what I’m going to say in my head. A lot of people before a date, they report doing that.

Ethan: And it also lets us create stories that help us make sense of who we are. So let’s say you get rejected. And so, how do you make sense of that? Well, we make stories to explain those experiences, and our inner voice helps us do that.

Ethan: So this inner voice that we have, really, it’s a basic feature of the mind. Serves as well a lot of the time, but sometimes it runs off track. And that’s when we get stuck worrying and ruminating. And I think that’s where there’s a big opportunity to figure out how we can use science-based tools to manage it.

Andy: There’s one study in here that I thought was interesting. You talk about this study that says that scientists found inner experiences consistently dwarf outer ones. What participants were thinking about turned out to be a better predictor of their happiness than what they were actually doing.

Ethan: Yeah. So the idea there is, and I think this is a common one, we’re engaged in something that should be fun. But our mind is somewhere else.

Andy: Ah. Right. Totally. It can ruin the best day.

Ethan: Best experiences, right?

Andy: Yeah. Yeah.

Ethan: I had a day with my daughter and this is as good as it gets, right?

Andy: Yeah. Yeah, totally.

Ethan: We’re just hanging out and playing sports. But I’m thinking about the problem at work.

Andy: Stressed out. Yeah. Right.

Ethan: Yeah. So, that’s this idea that what’s happening in our minds is what is determining how we feel, not necessarily just the experiences that we’re engaged in. And so that’s another reason why I think it’s so critically important to figure out how to manage that mind. When people are experiencing chatter, what often happens, and I don’t think I’ve defined that for folks, so I think of chatter as getting stuck in a negative thought loop. So if it’s a negative thought loop about the past, that’s rumination.

Ethan: If it’s a negative thought loop about the future, that’s worry. And when we experience chatter, we get totally immersed in that negative thought loop. So it’s all we could think about. It soaks up all of our attentional resources. And when all that attention, when that attentional spotlight in our mind is focused on just that one problem we’re thinking about, it becomes really hard to have other kinds of experiences, or to do anything else for that matter.

Andy: Yeah. It’s like it completely narrows us in on only one set of options, or behaviors or perspectives to think about. You talk about a Belgian psychologist, Bernard Rimé did some interesting research in the late 1980s. And what was it that was so interesting about his findings?

Ethan: Well, essentially what Bernard was trying to do is figure out, well, what happens when we experience an emotion? What are we motivated to do? And consistently, he found that experiencing emotions act like a kind of jet fuel that propels us to want to share what we’re feeling with others.

Ethan: Now, there are a couple of exceptions to that rule. We tend to not want to talk about experiences of shame or certain kinds of trauma, but all the other kinds of emotions we experience, positive and negative, we often want to share them with other people.

Ethan: And so he then looked at, well, what happens when you share your emotions, you talk about them with other people, in particular the negative ones? And what he found was in contrast to what a lot of people thought at the time, talking about your feelings, didn’t often actually make people feel better. It often made people feel worse, or had no effect at all. And that’s directly contradictory to the claim that you should just vent your emotions.

Ethan: And so over the course of lots of research, he and others have figured out why that is. And what they’ve discovered is that talking to other people can be an amazingly useful way of managing chatter, but it can also be counterproductive. It really depends on who you’re talking to and how you’re talking to them.

Andy: Interesting.

Ethan: And many people think that the way to use other people, and/or leverage our relationships to feel better, is to just vent our emotions. Just get it out.

Andy: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Ethan: Where it’s very common. And where the research goes, it shows that venting can be really good for strengthening the friendship bonds between two people. So yeah, it feels really good to know Andy, that you care enough about me, that you’re willing to take your time and listen to what I’m going through.

Andy: Right.

Ethan: But if all you do is ask me questions about what I felt and what I’m feeling and validate what I feel, you’re like, “Oh my God, Ethan, really? That happened on the interview? That sounds terrible. I would feel the same way.” That just keeps those negative feelings active. So at the end of the day, you like me, you’re really close, but I haven’t done anything to work or reframe the experience.

Ethan: And so the best kinds of conversations are those where you talk to someone who does take the time to listen to you, but at a certain point in the conversation starts helping you to reframe the experience. “Hey, so why don’t you think about it this way, or here’s what I’ve done in a similar situation.” And so that’s really the formula for getting good chatter support.

Ethan: And actually, and also, being a good chatter advisor to others. So there are two take homes I think, that come from this science, which is when you’re looking for chatter support, someone to talk to, think really carefully about who you speak to. Don’t just haphazardly talk to anyone, right?

Andy: Yeah.

Ethan: Think about it. Who actually does empathically connect with you, but is also really useful in helping you see that bigger picture, which we often have trouble doing on our own? And then the flip side is if someone comes to you for help, be mindful of these principles, too, so you can be useful to them as well.

Andy: Yeah, it’s interesting that we have that urge to share what we’re feeling. But you also talk about a study that you published in 2015, demonstrating that more time people spent on Facebook looking at other people’s lives, they felt worse.

Ethan: Yes. The idea there is that social media has basically pretty, pretty rapidly changed the way we live our lives as a species. And what we’ve learned is that social media provides opportunities for people to curate the way they present themselves. So it’s possible when you are posting, to make sure that what you say is free of typos and fillers. And if it’s pictures, it’s a really good picture.

Ethan: And so people’s feeds tend to be populated by glamorized portraits of their lives. And so if you’re scrolling through those feeds and are constantly bombarded with these positive images of others, but are cognizant of how ordinary your own life is, that can lead people to feel envy and feel bad. So, that’s one way that engaging with social media can undermine how good people feel.

Andy: Yeah. And you have also an interesting study in here. You talk about, from Harvard, that says people would prefer to share information about themselves with others, than receive money, which seems crazy. But yeah.

Ethan: Yeah, people like talking about themselves.

Andy: Right. Which just shows partially, what makes social media so addicting.

Ethan: Yes. Yes, exactly. You get these reinforcements, so we share with other people. We get likes indicating that other people enjoy that, and that reinforces this motivation to share things.

Andy: So you did a really interesting study, where you had people imagine that they were reliving memories, but as a fly-on-the-wall perspective. Okay. So, can you walk me through why you did that, and what was the point of that?

Ethan: Yeah. So basically, when we experience chatter, we get immersed in our experience. So we focus on it very narrowly from a first-person point of view. There’s research that shows the more intense the emotional experience, the more likely we are to, when we visualize those experiences in our minds, to replay them from that first-person perspective.

Ethan: And so we also know that memory is not fixed. And we have of the ability to reflect on our experiences from different vantage points, different perspectives. And people tend to adopt a more distanced perspective, or a fly-on-the-wall perspective. They see themselves in the experience. It’s like they’re looking at the entire scene like a director in a movie.

Andy: Yeah.

Ethan: Yeah, less emotional events. And so the idea was, well, if people are ruminating about a negative event, why don’t we have them step back in their imaginations?

Andy: Totally.

Ethan: And view it from that bird’s eye, fly-on-the-wall perspective?

Andy: Right.

Ethan: And then try to make sense of it, and why that person over there who I’m looking at, act the way they did. And how can they do it better? And so, that’s what we did in those studies and found that people were better able to work through their experiences without getting stuck in chatter, when they adopt that kind of distanced fly-on-the-wall perspective.

Ethan: Over time, we’ve done other studies to build on that. And what we’ve learned is that there are lots of tools people have for gaining distance. Visualizing an event from a fly-on-the-wall perspective is one thing they can do. But there are even easier things like you can use language to help you distance from an experience, for example.

Ethan: We’ve done studies on what we call distanced self-talk, which involve thinking about a negative experience and then trying to work through it, using your own name. If you think about this, so I already did it. How are you going to deal with this with a second-person pronoun, you?

Ethan: It may sound odd. But if you think about, when do you use names and second-person pronouns, you use those parts of speech when you think about and refer to other people. It’s like-

Andy: Yeah, somebody else. Yeah.

Ethan: Somebody else. The word, you, is like the verbal equivalent of pointing a finger at someone else.

Andy: Yeah. Yeah.

Ethan: “You.” Right?

Andy: Right.

Ethan: Likewise, names, names are others. And so the idea is that when you use your name to refer to yourself and the pronoun, you, it’s a way of using language to shift your perspective, to be able to think about your experience like you were thinking about someone else. And we know from lots of work that it is much easier for us to advise other people than it is to take our own advice. If you think of the old saying, “Do as I say, not as I do,” right? Right?

Andy: Yeah. Yeah.

Ethan: It’s easier to give advice than to take our own. And so we find in lots of experiments that encouraging people to engage in that linguistic shift, “All right, Ethan, how are you going manage this,” can be really predictive for helping people manage chatter. It’s another distancing tool.

Andy: Ah, that’s cool. Is that something that if your kid is caught in one of those loops of a mistake they made or something, that you could help them adopt more of a distanced language towards their thoughts?

Ethan: Yeah. Yeah. Whenever you find yourself looping, that’s my go-to strategy personally.

Andy: Oh, interesting. Okay.

Ethan: One theme of the book, so in Chatter I talk about like 26 different tools and the science behind them, and how they were discovered. They’re all summarized at the back. But one point is, there’s no single tool that works for all people in all situations. Different tools work for different people, different combinations of tools. And distanced self-talk happens to be one of my personal favorites. It’s easy to use. And it’s probably the first thing I usually do when I find myself on the verge of having some chatter.

Ethan: Now, we’ve done some studies to look at how kids, younger kids can benefit from of it. And that’s led to what we call the Batman Effect. And what that involves is asking a kid to pretend they’re a superhero that they admire.

Ethan: And if they’re working on a difficult task, one that requires perseverance, as an example, we ask them to imagine that they’re Batman or Dora the Explorer working on this task. And in our studies, we haven’t put on a cape, so it’s like adopting an alter ego. And we tell them, “Hey, we want you to coach yourself through this experience.”Use your name, Batman or Dora. And we find that that helps them persevere on these difficult tasks and regulate their emotions. And one reason why we think that works is it’s giving them some distance from the experience. It’s not about me. I’m not Batman, right?

Andy: Ah, right. It’s like an extra layer of removal sort of.

Ethan: Yeah. And then the other bit is, we’re also giving them an identity to adopt that.

Andy: Sure. Yeah, a superhero is great.

Ethan: That is an identity that thrives. Superheroes don’t stop when they’re under stress. They keep going right?

Andy: Right.

Ethan: In some interesting follow-up work that I don’t think is published yet, some of my collaborators have played with this to see, well, what happens if you adopt not the perspective of a superhero, but a supervillain?

Andy: Ooh.

Ethan: And so what’s interesting about that is, that also provides people with some distance from their identity. But what do we know about supervillains? They don’t like to do good things. And so actually, and that’s what they find in the study, it doesn’t help. So really, it depends on the particular identity you are taking on

Andy: Ah, interesting. Huh. So, it was important being the superhero.

About Ethan Kross

Ethan Kross is the author of Chatter. The book was chosen as one of the best new books of the year by the Washington Post, CNN and USA Today and the Winning Winter 2021 selection for Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Grant, Susan Cain and Dan Pink’s Next Big Idea Book Club. 

Ethan is one of the world’s leading experts on controlling the conscious mind and an award-winning professor in the University of Michigan’s top ranked Psychology Department and its Ross School of Business. Kross studies how the conversations people have with themselves impact their health, performance, decisions, and relationships. During his time at the University of Michigan in 2008, he founded the Emotion & Self Control Laboratory.

Ethan’s research has been published in Science, The New England Journal of Medicine, and The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, among other peer-reviewed journals. He has participated in policy discussion at the White House and has been interviewed on CBS Evening News, Good Morning America, Anderson Cooper Full Circle, and NPR’s Morning Edition. His pioneering research has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, Harvard Business Review, USA Today, The Economist, The Atlantic, Forbes, and Time.

Ethan lives in Ann Arbor with his wife and two daughters.

Want More Chatter?

Find Ethan on his website, Twitter, and LinkedIn.