Bacon Celebrity Mary Raymond stops in today with her thoughts on Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It.
I have some reservations about the book’s title. It feels kind-of – I don’t know – slick. But I have no reservations about Mary at all. And I’m interested in quieting the negative voices in my head.
I asked Mary to review this book, and she graciously has…
Recently, as two friends and I hashed out logistics for a socially distanced visit, I noticed the surfeit of apologies flying through the text chain:
Sorry, I can’t dress for the occasion. I seem to have lost the ability to wear anything other than pants with an elastic waistband.
Sorry, can we push this back 30 minutes? I seem to have lost the ability to tell time.
Getting into the spirit, I lobbed in my own mea culpa:
I am going to go ahead and proactively apologize that I have forgotten how to be around people and fear it’s starting to show. 🤭
Fact is, there is an argument to be made that I should have been apologizing this way all along. These days, most of my conversations are with a miniature silverback gorilla with a penchant for taking up more than her fair share of the desk chair in our work from home space.
I’ve read lips all my life to compensate for hearing loss, and masks leave me feeling utterly incapacitated – even as I know how important they are for keeping us safe. I’ve watched friends and loved ones struggle with the same listlessness and loss of confidence as the loneliness and isolation of the pandemic drag on. We have gotten out of the habit of normal human interaction, and sometimes our own negative self-talk creeps in to fill the silence.
Ethan Kross is an award-winning professor at the University of Michigan’s top-ranked psychology department, and his new book Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It seems particularly timely.
The book invites us to join Kross and his colleagues as they research the silent conversations we all have with ourselves. This inner dialogue powerfully influences how we navigate the world, often without our awareness. Kross defines chatter as the “cyclical negative thoughts and emotions that turn our singular capacity for introspection into a curse rather than a blessing.”
Anyone who has ever looped on regret about the past or anxiety about the future can attest to the power of this inner litany. While the benefits of looking before we leap are axiomatic, Kross argues that too much introspection can lock us in negative patterns. When our chatter narrates periods of emotional distress, our work performance, decision-making ability, and the health of our relationships all suffer. In making his case for the need to free ourselves from the tyranny of our own thoughts, Kross differentiates between the adaptive negative thoughts that allow us to respond quickly to escape real danger and the chronic stress of inner alarm bells which never stop ringing. Kross explores the inextricable mind-body connection and how the damages of chronic stress manifest in both mental and physical pathologies.
I began meditating about five years ago in a quest to quiet my own mind. What I soon learned was that meditation was not about silencing my thoughts. Rather, it was about noticing them from a dispassionate remove and then returning my focus to my own breathing – over and over again. At first, I stuck with the habit because at the height of my own stressful season my meditation practice seemed to be a daily gift of soothing calm, washing over mind and body. Over time I felt the immeasurable benefits of the space created by observing my own thoughts without judging them. That infinitesimal space opened up whole worlds and gave me the opportunity to respond rather than react.
Kross draws on similar counsel as he shares the tools he has found most helpful for changing the conversations in our heads. The tools are utilized in three contexts: with ourselves, with others, and with our environments. Among the tools we can use with ourselves are distanced self-talk and normalizing our own experience. These tools involve manipulating the chatter by replacing our own name with “I” and widening our lens to recognize that others go through similar difficulties.
If your inner voice really wishes I would cool it with the psychobabble right now, let me try to explain. There is a subtle difference between looping on Why did I blow up at the ATT support center technician? and Why did Mary blow up? Replacing “I” with our own names creates a tiny amount of separation that lets us examine our own behavior. Normalizing our experience helps us recognize that others have faced similar challenges and survived. This realization can both strengthen our belief that we can endure and make us feel less alone.
Two of the tools that involve other people shine a light on some of the dependable comforts we have lost during the pandemic. Seeking out physical contact and performing rituals with others are two tools Kross offers us as we draw on the strength of our social connections. There is a reason that we are motivated to grab our friend’s hand when we know she is hurting and why so many of us mention hugs as the thing we most miss during our long days of social distancing. Touch contains all the worlds that words cannot hold and provides a balm when words fail us altogether. Kross notes that even inanimate objects – a cozy blanket or beloved teddy bear – can provide this benefit.
In the same way, our rituals – celebratory toasts, congregational singing, funerals, etc. – anchor us during normal times and show up in reimagined ways during the pandemic. The Psalmist wrote about the comfort of returning to the sanctuary and how it calmed the angry chatter in his head and reminded him of centering universal truths. Anyone who has felt the transcendence of singing a favorite hymn among fellow parishioners or the soothing, ancient rhythms of recited creeds has experienced the healing power of shared rituals.
For those of us who have ridden out the pandemic with
miniature silverback gorillas beloved pets, we know the comfort that comes from their furry touch and the reliable ritual of their daily schedules. Likely you have laughed when your dog let you know that while you might have been finished caressing him, he is not finished being caressed. You might have worried when your cat seemingly entered a fugue state during the last month of living in the old house and the first month of living in the new house because she could find no semblance of her old routine amid the chaos. (Maybe that’s just my little gorilla.)
The environmental tools Kross offers for managing chatter will sound familiar to all of us who have found relief in time among nature or in organizing closets during the pandemic. Accessing green spaces – even if just through pictures – provides mental health, anti-aging, and immune-boosting benefits. Reducing the clutter and excess in our living and working spaces can restore a sense of mental order, overcoming some of the negative effects of chatter.
For all that the coronavirus pandemic has taken from us, it has offered up some gifts as well. Perhaps one of the best is permission to show up on our friend’s porch – a little late, in stretchy pants – and share what is truly on our hearts and know that we are not alone.
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