Do you have a noisy inner chatter that feeds you negative thoughts? Cathy Ferguson explains how we can calm it down and use it for good
When I met my husband, one of the first things he told me about himself was that he was selfish. I laughed indulgently and married him anyway. He wasn’t kidding. Since then, I’ve wished many things for our two daughters – none being, ‘l hope they grow up to be selfish like their dad’. But now I’m not so sure. I notice that their father is never at the mercy of a self-sabotaging inner voice.
By ‘selfish’ I don’t mean the narrow-minded, self-serving kind. I mean ‘smart selfish’ – making sure you’re well enough looked after. Rather than caring nothing for other people’s wellbeing, I mean keeping in mind that ‘if you can’t take of yourself then you can’t take care of anyone else.’
We’re constantly in conversation with ourselves in our own minds. Our inner dialogue challenges us, asks us questions and tests our assumptions. It evaluates, interprets and predicts. It helps us to process our experience, to learn from it and make choices based on that learning. All good stuff.
But it seems to have a dark side too. Sometimes it runs amok, with a negative commentary, ruminating and catastrophising, fuelled by anxiety or resentment. It keeps us awake at night. It blocks our capacity to think clearly and rationally. It stops us doing what we really want to do and being who we really want to be. In short, it gets in the way of a happy, healthy, thriving life.
I believe that ‘smart selfish’ people suffer less emotional distress from an inner voice on the rampage. They also tend to get sick less often, and that’s not a coincidence – it’s science. When the negative inner voice gets out of control, our cells start quaking in their microscopic boots. They know there’s (yet another) flood of cortisol and adrenaline stress hormones coming at them. If you’d like to explore the evidence, take a look at Dr. Gabor Mate’s excellent book, When The Body Says No, in which he lays out clearly how being ‘smart selfish’ translates into not getting sick and dying before your time.
Talking to yourself
The conversations we have with ourselves powerfully influence how we feel, how we live and whether we thrive or shrivel. To paraphrase the Buddha, ‘with our thoughts we create the world.’
So what do you do when your thoughts are creating a world for you that frankly sucks?
First rule – be kind. When your inner voice gets noisy, it’s often not responding to the present but responding to the past. And the past is gone forever. So, your poor old inner voice is on Mission Impossible. If it feels like you’re spinning your wheels trying to resolve this ‘thing’, maybe it’s because the thing already happened. A long time ago. Your inner voice is wrestling with an echo.
The right language
Our inner voice can have the gravitational pull of a black hole. In that case, advice like ‘just ignore it’ or ‘think of something nice’ are akin to crossing your fingers as a form of contraception. What does help is to get some emotional distance from that gravitational pull. In his book Chatter:The Voice in our head and how to harness it, Professor Ethan Kross suggests a simple yet profound way to get this emotional distance. You just switch out the pronouns and talk to yourself as if you were another person. Instead of your inner voice saying ‘I’ or ‘Me’, have it say, ‘You’.
For instance, say your inner voice pipes up with, ‘I’m so disappointed, I tried really hard to help and it was just thrown back in my face! I’m just not appreciated, they just don’t care.’ Try shifting the inner conversation to ‘It’s understandable you’re disappointed, you tried hard to help and it didn’t seem appreciated – that doesn’t feel great. Cathy, calm down. It’s fine.’ The use of your own name, especially linked to a simple, helpful instruction to yourself, is part of the approach too.
This shift in language provides us with a wider perspective. You get to see things more clearly, and that feels less overwhelming. Along with the shift in language there comes a shift in emotional tone, which is more accepting of how things are and less critical of how they aren’t. From that standpoint it’s easier to figure out what the next step is. What I love about the pronoun switch is that it makes your inner voice your ally, not your enemy.
When your inner voice is behaving badly, your body chemistry flips into danger alert. You can feel spiky, tense, brittle. To access a better connection and more productive conversation with yourself, it’s helpful to soften the hard edges of what you’re feeling. Any Buddhist will already know the story of ‘inviting Mara in for tea’: Buddha is being tempted and distracted by the demon Mara, who tells troubling and fearsome stories. Instead of ignoring or arguing with Mara, Buddha just acknowledges his presence: “Hey Mara, I see you. I recognise you, there you are again. Come sit with me and let’s drink some tea.” No doubt that took the wind out of Mara’s sails a bit.
If you see your unhelpful inner voice as a sort of Demon Mara and engage in this gentler way, you’ll feel the benefit. It takes the weight off and there’s a shift from rumination to reflection and from anxiety to acceptance. When you hold it more lightly, it constricts you less tightly
A useful tool
It can feel ironic that when your inner voice is on a rampage it is, in fact, trying to help you. I often have to remind my inner voice of what really matters to me, what I want to stand for and who I want to be (and become) as a human being. If she has so much to say, then let her turn her focus and attention to helping me with that.
My own inner voice saves her stroppiest moods for night-time. Once my head’s on the pillow, off she goes – and my night-time inner voice is not so easily quieted or ignored. The approaches I’ve described seem to float away from me when I’m half asleep. I’ve learnt that in the small hours I should just let her babble on a bit without getting sucked in. If I can’t shut her up then I can dial her down enough to doze off peacefully. It’s like switching the radio frequency just enough that the channel sounds a little fuzzy. My inner voice then becomes background noise rather than something demanding my attention.
It took practise for these approaches to click for me. New habits take time. Keep practising until you feel something shift. For any new approach to make a difference, we have to be willing to see things differently. It’s tempting to hold on tightly to what we’ve always believed. There’s a comfort in leaning on how we’ve always thought: but little growth.
Behave a bit differently in the conversations you have with yourself. The solution to many things lies in simply changing our behaviour a little bit. I love how the word ‘behave’ is made up of ‘be’ and ‘have’. If I can be curious, I can have options. If I can be nurturing, I can have growth. If I can be accepting, I can have peace. And so can you.
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