Chatter: The dark side of your inner voice

life hacks, mental health, mindfulness, problem solving, psychology, wellness

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.

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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 turns sour

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.

This is the scenario that played out on the pitcher’s mound in 2000, and it’s the source of many professional maladies. In fact, you may have already encountered chatter by another name. Writers call it writer’s block, performers stage fright, students test anxiety, and, of course, professional athletes the yips.
And chatter can damage your social life, too. When negative thoughts drain your attention, they can lead you to overvent, disconnect from relationships, or lash out in irritation. Such “social repellants,” as Kross calls them, can burden our relationships and lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. These negative emotions further reinforce the chatter in your head, creating a vicious and stressful cycle.

life hacks, mental health, mindfulness, problem solving, psychology, wellness

Pro tennis player Rafael Nadal uses rituals to calm his chatter on game day. (Credit: Christian Mesiano / Wikimedia Commons)

Getting chatter under control

While it’s difficult to break that cycle, Kross’s research has revealed a set of science-based behaviors and practices you can use to harness chatter. He calls it the “chatter toolkit.” These practices include reframing your experiences, creating order in your environment, and distanced self-talk (that is, talking to yourself as you would a friend by being compassionate and using your name and the second-person pronoun you).

While the behaviors and practices vary, they share a common goal: Each helps you step back from what Kross calls the echo chamber of your mind so you “can adopt a broader, calmer, and more objective perspective.”

One instance is the ritual. This practice counteracts the chaos and disorder that festers chatter by providing a sense of control. That control doesn’t have to be comprehensive, merely the sense of it will do. It’s why chefs perform attentive prep before the chaos of the dinner rush and so many professional athletes act out peculiar habits before a play.

For example, pro tennis player Rafael Nadal employs a ritual to calm his inner voices on game day. During breaks, he takes a drink from two water bottles in a specific order. He then returns the bottles to the same spot, each at a specific diagonal to the court.

Because every step is precise and meaningful, Kross notes, the ritual absorbs Nadal’s attention. This absorption directs Nadal’s executive functions away from the things that may bother him — the stress, the crowd, that return that went wild — and places his focus on the ritual itself. And because the ritual is truly under his control, once it’s complete, he can return to the game fully engaged.

Note that a ritual doesn’t need to call upon an otherworldly spirit to work. There’s nothing magical or supernatural happening here. Simply the act of turning your thoughts away from what bothers you is enough. For this reason, many of us may engage in rituals without knowing it. When writing Chatter, Kross himself would clean ritualistically to direct his inner voice away from self-doubt and toward something productive.

Of course, not every ritual or practice in the chatter toolkit will be as useful for every person or team. You’ll need to self-experiment to find what works best for you.

From out of left field

And this brings us back to Ankiel’s story. His pitching career ended in the minors; however, he managed to conquer his chatter by transforming himself into an outfielder. Through the process of learning a new position, he turned his attention away from his past failures and toward refining new skills.

And thanks to the strength of his arm, he became a valuable outfielder who could catapult the ball from the outfield to the infield. His successful transformation led to a return to the majors, where he would play until his retirement in 2014.

As Kross said, “Are you weaker for experiencing chatter? Absolutely not! You are a human for experiencing chatter, so welcome to the human condition.”

Learn more on Big Think+

With a diverse library of lessons from the world’s biggest thinkers, Big Think+ helps businesses get smarter, faster. To access Ethan Kross’s expert class for your organization, request a demo.

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