I am writing a blog series, Talking To Ourselves, and dedicating it to me. Throughout my life, my inner voice has been a tough critic, sending me into spirals of depression. Lately, it questions why I continued to write. In my continual fight to stay out of the pit, I picked up the book, Chatter, The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It by Ethan Kross. This scholarly work, written with the public in mind, addresses this issue. I’ll be sharing his insights through my own lens. Hopefully, the lessons will stick, freeing me from so much self-flagellation. If you’re in the same boat, I hope you will find this enlightening and freeing.
We spend endless hours a day talking to ourselves, our mind flitting here and there, to the past, to the future, to a song running in our heads, even to something quirky we see around us. Stream of consciousness, according to Merriam Webster, is the continuous unedited chronological flow of conscious experience through the mind.
If you’ve ever read (or tried to read) James Joyce’s Ulysses you become acutely aware of this phenomenon:
“Heavenly weather really. If life was always like that. Cricket weather. Sit around under sunshades. Over after over. Out. They can’t play it here. Duck for six wickets. Still Captain Culler broke a window in the Kildare street club with a slog to square leg. Donnybrook fair more in their line. And the skulls we were a-cracking when M’Carthy took the floor. Heatwave. Won’t last. Always passing, the stream of life, which in the stream of life we trace is dearer than them all.”
This is perfectly normal. Our miraculous brain multitasks, moving easily from one thought to another. Meanwhile, our working memory allows us to participate in dinner conversations and work discussions. The inner voice works right along with the other pieces, allowing us to control our behavior and define who we are.
TALKING TO OURSELVES: THE INNER VOICE
Our inner voice begins to develop as we interact with our primary caretakers shortly after birth. Then, it continues to develop as we interrelate with the broader culture. Eventually our own unique identity is formed.
The inner voice helps us control our behavior by evaluating us as we strive toward goals. Am I meeting my benchmarks? Did I make the right choice? That voice even helps us brainstorm handling sticky situations.
Without it, we can’t function in the world or achieve goals. Creating, connecting, and defining, ourselves would be impossible.
TALKING TO OURSELVES: THE DARK SIDE
But sometimes the inner voice runs amok. Ethan Kross calls this “chatter”. We began ruminating on what’s bothering us: present stresses, looming anxieties, painful recollections. With these repetitive, anxious thoughts, we spiral down the rumination rabbit hole, unable to climb out.
It turns out that the inner voice has more muscle than you expect. Have you ever been in a foul mood and gone to a party or other activity that should be fun? Most of the time you end up not enjoying yourself because what’s going on inside has more impact than what’s going on outside. Your mood is defined by what you are thinking, not what you are doing.
I left my position at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after ten years in 1998. Today, I still beat myself up occasionally, wondering whether I made the right decision. With six more years of service, my pension would have been a big one. But I was burned out, tired, and bored. Is this crazy, or what? What’s done is done.
When we spiral, our performance suffers. Focusing becomes difficult leading to poor performance on tests, stage fright, poor athletic performance, underperforming at work—you name it. And then, guess what? That poor performance leads to more negative self-talk, sending you deeper into the rabbit hole.
Next week I’ll look at techniques to keep that inner voice from crippling us.