4 Tips To Make The Voice In Your Head Helpful Vs. Hurtful

Over the past year, many of us have had more time alone. Even if you live with a houseful of people, we’ve all had to slow down a bit since our external activities have been drastically limited.

More blank space on the calendar translates to more time for introspection.

For some, that has been a blessing. Self-reflection can lead to wise, beneficial choices, which makes for a more fulfilling life.  For others, a curse. Why is that?

The book, Chatter by Ethan Kross explores the voice in our heads and what he learned from recent research. When we are in distress, engaging in introspection often does more harm than good.

He defines chatter as the cyclical negative thoughts that jeopardize performance, decision-making, relationships, happiness, and health.

I’m constantly amazed at how our brains work, and this “inner voice” is essential in helping the brain with “working memory.” Working memory enables us to remember what was said moments ago to engage in meaningful discussions, read a menu, then place our order, write an email, act on habits – generally function out in the world.

Our inner voice is also what helps us strive toward goals and ultimately create who we are. “We use our minds to write the story of our lives, with us as the main character.” It’s how we sort through our values, make choices about how we want to live, and mature as a human being.

What happens with our inner voice becomes destructive?

We focus on obstacles, ruminate on bad decisions, and immerse ourselves in a problem. It’s when the “analysis paralysis” kicks in and depletes the neurons that could better serve us, using our executive brain functions. Our brains’ executive functions are the foundation of our ability to steer our thoughts and behavior in ways we desire.

What I loved about Kross’s book are his suggested techniques for helping people break the cycle of negative self-talk and move into the constructive thinking of introspection. Here are my favorites:

  1. Use distanced self-talk – Appy your name or the 2nd person, “you,” to refer to yourself. “What next step would help Martha move past this resentment?” It’s a way to break the link in the brain network to ruminate, reduce negative emotion, and lead to wiser thinking. Using the universal “you” is another way to refer to people in general and normalize the experience…you are not the only one facing this situation.
  2. Imagine you are advising a friend – What advice would you give to a friend in this situation and apply it to yourself.
  3. Broaden your perspective Think about how the situation you’re worrying about compares to adverse events that others endure. How have they overcome more complicated problems? In the grand scheme of things, my issue may not as big a problem as I initially thought.
  4. Get out in nature – Spending time in green spaces, even if it’s a virtual image, helps the brain replenish limited attentional reserves, which is useful in combating chatter. Nature is also a place where you can enjoy some awe-inspiring experiences. An awe-inspiring event/sight leads to a phenomenon described as “shrinking of the self.” The operative power of awe is its ability to make us and our problems feel smaller.

Remember, the stories you tell yourself shape your life.

Recognize when that inner voice becomes your critic, and you get caught in a cycle of negative thoughts and emotions. Stop the Chatter by applying one or more of these tips to change the narrative in your self-reflection and tap into your inner coach instead.


Martha Duesterhoft is a Partner with PeopleResults. Follow her on Twitter @mduesterhoft or connect via email at mduesterhoft@people-results.com.