- Your inner voice is a powerful problem-solving tool; it may also dwell on harmful thoughts and emotions.
- Chatter occurs when such dwellings become cyclical, degrading your well-being and relationships.
- According to psychologist Ethan Kross, you can harness chatter by cultivating practices that free you from the echo chamber of your mind.
Your inner voice can be the devil on your shoulder or the angel. It depends on where your focus lies.
On October 3, 2000, Cardinal pitcher Rick Ankiel threw five wild pitches in a single inning. His inauspicious performance would go down in baseball’s “wildness hall of fame” — the first time in over 100 years that someone had thrown that many wild pitches in succession.
Ankiel had caught a serious case of the yips. As fear, tension, and doubt roiled in his head, he lost the skills he’d spent his life perfecting. And sadly for Ankiel, it would not be a one-off case. “The monster,” as he referred to his inner critic, returned for his next start. It followed him into the next season and his demotion to the minor leagues. His career as a pitcher was over.
In the book Chatter, psychologist Ethan Kross recounts Ankiel’s story to highlight a danger we all face: becoming ensnared by the voice in our heads.
It’s not crazy to talk to yourself
Looking at Ankiel’s calamitous performance, Kross does not see a lack of skill. Far from it. Just two years earlier, Ankiel was an early-draft pick and all-star pitcher. Kross instead diagnoses the cause as Ankiel’s inner voice. He reasons that by shining a spotlight on the individual components of his pitch, Ankiel inadvertently dismantled his own proficiency.
At first glance, this diagnosis may seem counterintuitive. We use our inner voices to focus on problems and devise solutions. It’s what they do.
Imagine, for example, that you are preparing for a presentation. Using your inner voice — or by speaking aloud in front of a mirror — you can preview your talking points, simulate your audience’s response, and plan how you’ll pause for effect or respond to audience questions. Like a chef tasting her dish, you’re deciding what works and what needs improvement beforehand.
Your inner voice continues to solve problems during the presentation, too. It helps you modify your plan as new information comes in. It lets you know when you’ve made a mistake and suggests corrections. And it can be a source of support by reminding you to breathe and stay calm.
As Kross pointed out in an interview, this example shows a few ways your inner voice helps you solve problems every day: It simulates future events, keeps verbal information active, and helps you maintain self-control.
In fact, you’re so at home with your inner voice that if you’re like most people, you spend a third to half of your waking life not living in the present. Rather, you are play-testing future scenarios, reliving past moments to eke out lessons, or imagining the story of your life in a personalized autobiography. (That last one, Kross notes, promotes maturity, reinforces values, and helps you manage change). All of this is to say: Your inner voice is a blessing.
Chatter: When your inner voice betrays you
In theory, it should have been a blessing for Ankiel as well. His inner voice should have deconstructed his first wild pitch, helped him correct the second, and finally supported his efforts.
Instead, it turned into the monster. It tormented him with self-doubts. It persistently pointed out his flaws and demanded perfection. And it disrupted the flow state necessary to execute the minute mechanics of pitching. In short, Ankiel fell prey to “chatter.”
“Chatter consists of the cyclical negative thoughts and emotions that turn our singular capacity for introspection into a curse rather than a blessing,” Kross writes. “It puts our performance, decision-making, relationships, happiness, and health in jeopardy.” It does this by hijacking your executive functions — a collection of mental skills connected to your brain’s prefrontal cortex that includes focusing, planning, self-monitoring, emotionally regulating, and using your working memory effectively.
Now, typically your brain can process all sorts of emotions, thoughts, and actions effortlessly. You don’t have to concentrate to feel happy or chew gum or admire the trees outside your office window. You just do.
But executive functions are labor-intensive. They demand massive amounts of neural power, and chatter saps away this power by locking your attention on something emotionally distressing — whether it’s a wild pitch, a stressful situation, or a past regret.
“In effect, we jam our executive functions up by attending to a ‘dual task’ — the task of doing whatever it is we want to do and the task of listening to our pained inner voice. Neurologically, that’s how chatter divides and blurs our attention,” Kross writes…