Dealing With Negative Inner Chatter – A Problem We All Face
We don’t often think about it, and may never discuss it with others at all, but pretty much everyone has voices in their heads.
A murmuring stream of thoughts that run along inside our minds most of the time.
Sometimes, the inner voice is encouraging, calling for you to complete that task you’re working on: “You’re nearly there. Keep going. You’re doing a good job!”
Or urging you to calm down and telling you, don’t worry, it will be ok in the end.
However, most times, the inner voice is not very kind at all. It is defeatist, punitive, panic-ridden and humiliates us.
It doesn’t represent anything like our best insights or most mature capacities.
It’s certainly not the voice of our better nature. We find ourselves saying: “You’re a fool,” or “You always mess up.” or “You useless idiot!”
Where Does This Inner Voice Come From?
Inner chatter is one of the big problems we face as a species. We spend between one-third and one-half of our waking hours not living in the present.
And what do we do during that time? We’re talking to ourselves.
Your inner voice is your ability to use language to reflect on your life silently.
Chatter refers to the dark side of the inner voice.
When we turn our attention inward to make sense of our problems, we don’t usually find solutions. We end up ruminating, worrying, catastrophizing.
We get stuck in a negative cycle that takes this remarkable tool that we possess – this inner voice – and it turns it into a curse rather than a blessing.
Why Do We Even Talk To Ourselves?
In terms of whether there’s an evolutionary purpose to the inner voice, many scientists believe that this language is a tool that helps us navigate the world.
Our ability to use language not only to communicate with others, but to communicate with ourselves, provides us with a survival advantage.
In itself, its actually an incredible problem-solving device. At the most basic end of the spectrum, our inner voice is part of what we call our ‘Verbal Working Memory System.’
It’s a basic feature of the human mind that helps us keep verbal information active in our heads.
Our inner voice also lets us simulate and plan.
As an example, let’s say you have to give a public speech.
You’ll go over in your head what you are going to say – what are the different talking points that you’re going to present.
You’ll hear what questions the audience is going to ask you, and then you will respond in turn. You are effectively simulating that exchange, and using your inner voice to help you do that.
Our inner voice can also help us control ourselves.
Think about the last time you may have wanted to reach for a tasty snack late at night, but then you think to yourself, “Don’t do it, you’ll regret it in the morning.” That’s your inner voice.
The Inner Voice Also Helps Us ‘Storify’ Our Lives.
Many of us turn our attention inward to develop a narrative that explains our experiences. In ways that give shape to our understanding of who we are – our identity.
Sometimes, this inner voice can be an incredible source of help, but at other times (most times) it can make things very difficult for us.
Firstly, it makes it incredibly hard for us to focus, because the chatter consumes our attention.
Ever notice how sometimes you can’t follow a conversation that you’re having with someone because your inner voice is constantly ‘chatting’ to you – giving you subtle messages, telling you ‘stuff’ And those messages are very often unhelpful.
This is inner chatter at its most frustrating – a dialogue within our minds that won’t stop.
The Inner Voice Gets In The Way Of Relationships
It often prevents us from listening to our partners properly and ultimately can create friction.
That’s because our mind is essentially having a conversation with itself, which naturally makes it difficult to be a great listener to others.
Inner chatter can also make us more irritable and lead to ‘displaced aggression.’
Displaced aggression, is a psychological concept where we redirect our anger or frustration and aggression towards a safer or more convenient target.
In other words, we take out the frustration and anger (that stems from our own internal dialogue) on someone or something else.
The negative emotion in our inner voice has resulted in us taking that frustration out, often on another innocent party.
The Dark Side Of Inner Chatter
This is truly the dark side of inner chatter. And because it tends to be almost always negative by nature, it leads to a rise in unpleasant emotions.
This leads to real outcomes that are usually not good for us or others.
Inner chatter can have severe physical health consequences.
You’ve probably heard that stress kills- well, that’s not 100% true. A stress response is simply an adaptive response.
What makes stress toxic is when it remains chronically elevated over time. This is precisely what inner chatter is capable of.
We experience a stressor in our life, which perhaps then ends. However in our minds, our chatter perpetuates it.
We keep thinking about that event over and over and over again. That is called rumination. Inner chatter and rumination are close companions.
That stress response is active in ways that can actually cause things like cardiovascular disease, chronic inflammation, and even cancer.
It’s hard to overstate how impactful the implications of negative inner chatter can be.
Using Techniques To Overcome Inner Chatter
The good news is there is a science-based toolkit that you can use to regain control of your inner voice.
There are things we can do on our own, ways of harnessing our relationships with other people, and even ways of interacting with physical environments.
One really great example of these tools are rituals.
We love having control. However, when you experience chatter, you often feel like your thoughts are in control of you.
One of the things that we’ve learned through science is that we can compensate for this feeling out of control by creating order around us- rituals are one way to do that.
A ritual is an ordered sequence of behaviours that you rigidly perform the same way each time. By engaging the same sequence of behaviours every time, the same way.
That gives you a sense of order and control. That can feel really good, especially when your inner dialogue is in full flow.
How some well known people deal with the inner chatter
Rafael Nadal once said that the hardest thing that he struggles to do on the tennis court is manage the voices inside his head.
So he engages in rituals. During breaks between play he goes over to his bench. First, he takes a sip out of one water bottle. Then he takes a sip out of another.
Then he puts each water bottle back exactly where he picked them up from on a diagonal to the court.
It’s a ritual he does to manage his chatter.
Experiment With What Works for You
There are no individual tools that work for all people, in all situations, to help manage your chatter.
Instead, the real challenge is to figure out what are the unique combinations of tools that work best for you?
Use Cognitive Restructuring To Challenge Your Inner Thoughts
Cognitive restructuring is a technique commonly used in cognitive-behavioural therapy to challenge and reframe negative or unhelpful thoughts.
By recognizing and questioning the validity and rationality of our thoughts, we can reduce inner chatter and alleviate any associated anxiety or stress.
Ask yourself whether your thoughts are actually based on facts, or merely assumptions. Are they helpful or harmful?
Are there alternative perspectives or explanations?
Challenge the accuracy and usefulness of your thoughts and try to reframe them in a more positive or realistic light.
For instance, if you constantly worry about a future event, remind yourself that you cannot predict the outcome – and focus on the present moment instead.
You can disrupt the cycle of negative inner chatter through cognitive restructuring and create a more balanced and positive mindset.
Are you weaker for experiencing chatter? Absolutely not. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t experience this inner voice.
However recognize it for what it is. It’s there primarily to keep you safe. However, when it gets darker and influences your mood, that is the time to challenge it