How to Quiet That Negative Voice in Your Head

It's ok to think about your mistakes and plan for future challenges... but negative self-talk isn't helpful, so here's how to shutdown self-criticism and rumination.

By Laurie Santos

We might hear it in the middle of the night.

Or in the middle of a date… or at a crucial moment during an important work project.

It’s the critical voice in our heads telling us we're just not good enough and we're headed for failure.

This internal monologue can cause us to ruminate about past events and worry about the future.

This kind of painful inner chatter is something I’m familiar with. Thoughts, fears, regrets, and self-criticisms going around and around and around my brain.

Don’t get me wrong - introspection and reflection are useful. That inner voice can help us learn from mistakes and plan our next steps. But a lot of my self-talk isn’t all that constructive. More often than not, it winds up firing up all the stress reactions that make me feel awful.

“That is not a good formula for health and longevity,” says Ethan Kross – a professor of Psychology and Management at the University of Michigan. We all need strategies for quieting that nagging voice. In fact, it’s something that writer Patricia Branigan wanted to hear discussed on a recent episode of my podcast The Happiness Lab

“How do I stop all this negative self-talk and finally love myself?” she asked.

So I turned to Ethan – who’s the author of Chatter: The Voice in our Head, Why it Matters, and How to Harness It.

Ethan defines ‘chatter’ as the unhelpful form of self-talk - “when you are stuck in those negative thought loops” – but says it shouldn’t be confused with useful emotional signals, things like the nerves or “butterflies” we feel before giving a presentation or taking a test. Those types of feelings motivate us to put in the work required to succeed.

“When we get mired in ‘chatter’, it's easy for us to lose sight of the fact that this ability to work through our problems with our mind is probably helping for us eight out of 10 times. It's getting us in trouble two out of 10 times, but those two out of 10 times feel so awful that they cloud out all the rest.”

Ethan says that negative 20% of self-talk - that ‘chatter’ - can harm our performance by diverting our finite attention from the job in hand.

“It makes it really hard for us to focus. If you've ever had the experience of sitting down to read a couple of pages in a book, but you get to the end, and then you don't remember anything… that's because your mind was thinking about something else because you were worried or ruminating.”

Loops of negative self-talk can also isolate us from our friends and families. Talking to people – especially sharing our innermost thoughts – is a great way to develop close bonds, but Ethan worries that discussing the same concerns over and over and over again can drive a wedge into our relationships.

(NB. See my previous article about ‘friends with problems’.)

“We end up pushing away people that we love and care about. They withdraw. We then feel more isolated and rejected and lonely as a result, which perpetuates our chatter further… continuing the negative cycle.”

So – returning to Patricia Branigan’s question: “How can we stop all this negative self-talk?”

The first step is to recognize that it’s not just you that’s going through this.

“Welcome to the human condition. Congratulations!” says Ethan. “I think reminding yourself that you are not alone can be so powerful.”

I mean, even Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai beats herself up. When I spoke to her about the inspirational campaigning she does to help girls access education she immediately mentioned her failures.

“Could I have done a bit more?” she wondered aloud.

But Ethan says Malala also famously does something that can help with negative self-talk – a strategy we should copy. When things get tough, Malala often talks about herself in the third person.

When faced with a problem she admits to saying to herself: “Malala, what are you going to do?”

“It’s a tool called distanced self-talk and it's really simple,” says Ethan. “It involves trying to coach yourself through a problem, thinking it through using your own name and or the second person pronoun ‘you’. ‘Ethan, how are you gonna manage a situation? Here's what you should do.’ I'm actually starting to talk to myself like I'm communicating with another human being.”

Putting ourselves in “advisory mode” is a simple linguistic trick – but it’s surprisingly effective at snapping us out of rumination and anxiety, and pushing us to towards finding solutions to whatever issue is troubling us.

Another distancing strategy involves reframing our worries in time. At 2am, my concerns about dumb things I said in some work meeting four weeks ago seem very pressing and powerful - but in reality… they’re not.

When Ethan has the same nighttime cycle of rumination, he time shifts.

“I ask myself: ‘Ethan, how are you gonna feel about this tomorrow?’ No matter what the chatter is at 2am - and sometimes it can feel absolutely suffocating - I always feel better about that experience the next morning, when I'm fully awake and have access to all my cognitive resources.”

And we can shift the time frame to suit the problem. 'How will I feel in the morning?' can be replaced by 'How will I feel about this problem in a week... a month… a decade?'"

Time has a habit of shrinking our problems. Remember the things that kept you awake five or ten years ago? I’ll bet they turned out ok.

And it's more than likely that the things driving your negative self-talk right now will also turn out just fine too.

Next time, Ethan will coach us on what sort of voice we should use to talk ourselves through tough times. HINT: It's not a critical and unkind one.

So until then stay well and stay happy...