Is there a voice in your head? What does it say? Does it encourage you or does it tell you that you’re no good?
Did you ever stay up late during high school with last-minute cramming for an exam or writing an essay due the next day? If so, you have experience with procrastination followed by binges of studying and writing.
I coordinate a writing programme for academics and research students based on a different approach: moderation. It’s inspired by research by Robert Boice and Tara Gray about how researchers can be more productive. The foundation of the programme is brief daily writing sessions. This is quite a contrast with the far more common approach of procrastination and bingeing.
Why do writers procrastinate? One of the factors is the voice in your head that says you’re not ready, you’re not good enough, you’ll never finish, and anyway you might as well wait until you’re in a better mood. Basically, the voice is telling you to give up, which leads to procrastination.
Gradually I learned that most writers have to deal with this sort of negative self-talk. Boice and Gray each tell about it. In some of our writing group meetings, we’d talk about the voice. Once the question was asked — “Do you have a voice that discourages you?” — people would open up telling about their own experiences. It was reassuring to find out that others have the same obstacle.
To deal with the voice, I have recommended either ignoring it or challenging it, for example telling it that it’s wrong or just to go away. Somewhere along the line I obtained a tiny rubber duck that would squeak when squeezed. Putting it on your shoulder represented the voice in your head. Then there was accompanying note paper that said “Shut the duck up!”
If there’s a voice in your head and it’s causing problems for writers, what should be done about it? Ever since learning about this problem, I’ve been on the lookout for insights and practical solutions. Then recently I obtained the wonderful book Chatter by Ethan Kross. Suddenly, there are answers.
Kross is a researcher, and his special interest is self-talk. He writes that “we all have a voice in our head in some shape or form” (page xxi). Chatter has many pages of references to scientific studies, but the main text is a model of engaging story-telling. Kross tells about his own embarrassing experience when his inner voice took over his behaviour, turning him into a nervous wreck as he irrationally prepared for a threat — and this was despite all he knew about how the inner voice operates.
Kross’s message is that the inner voice, in other words the conversations in our head, can be valuable but can also cause distress and worse.
First consider the advantages in having silent conversations in our heads. Kross provides evidence that the inner voice aids working memory, enables self-control and helps evaluate progress towards goals. Sounds good.
Then there are all the negatives. A basic problem with the inner voice is that it sabotages your focus on tasks. You want to write but the voice is telling you that you’re no good. Even if you can overcome the negativity and start writing, the voice occupies some of your mental capacity so you’re not fully engaged.
One of the ways to try to address the problem is to tell others about your distress. This seems to help but can push others away. In Chatter, Kross reports on studies showing that ruminating on our difficulties is linked to both aggression and unhealthy stress. This is sounding very bad indeed. So what can you do about it?
One helpful method is to create psychological distance. Have you ever imagined yourself up in the sky looking down on the world, and there you are sitting on a chair, walking along outside, or staring at your screen? Imagining yourself from the outside reduces destructive chatter. You may feel that your problems are not as overwhelming as they seem up close.
You can also gain distance by imagining yourself from the perspective of five or ten years from now, looking back at what’s going on right now. In this imagined hindsight, what is upsetting or distracting now seems like a triviality in the scheme of things. The point of temporal distancing is to escape being fully immersed in your current reality.
Another way gain distance is to think of yourself in the second or third person. Rather than thinking or saying, “I need to relax”, I should tell myself “Brian needs to relax” or “You need to relax.” This reduces the self-critic. So get out of “I” and talk to yourself with “you.”
This sounds too simple. Does it work? Kross describes experiments in which individuals preparing for a stressful task — speaking to an audience on an assigned topic with little preparation — are less stressed when they speak to themselves beforehand using “you.” Furthermore, independent observers say their speeches are better. How could something like this be so effective? Easy. By using “you,” you reduce the chatter in your head that takes up mental space and undermines confidence.
I was talking with Alice, who is going through a stressful time. She tells me about her difficulties and I sympathise, and ask for more details. This goes on for some time. Alice feels better for having shared her feelings.
Whoops. Kross says this is not the best way to help. Indeed, when you and your friend commiserate, this “co-rumination” concentrates attention on the details that are linked to distress, so in the longer term this continues the stress by encouraging ever more thinking about the issues.
It’s more useful for me to offer practical help to Alice. Rather than rehashing the events, I can suggest ways forward or other things to think about. Even better, I can offer what Kross calls “invisible support.”
Alice is preparing for a crucial performance. If I give her unsolicited advice on what to do, the advice might be useful but the giving of advice might reduce her self-belief. More useful is to do some shopping or cleaning. Those who can most readily offer invisible support are people who live in the same household or have regular contact.
There’s another option. I could send Alice some pictures of nature, perhaps of forests or streams. Kross reports fascinating research showing that being in nature has many health benefits, including calming inner conversations. Furthermore, it’s not even necessary to be among trees. Just seeing pictures of them is beneficial.
Another thing that helps is rituals, either personal or social. Most of us in the writing programme have found that it works better to schedule daily writing in the same location and at the same time of day. After a while, it becomes both a habit and a sort of personal ritual, perhaps with the accompaniment of a specific drink, certain music or following a predictable set of steps in preparation.
A social ritual for writing? That’s not so obvious. If you are part of a group of writers, you can schedule a particular time and process.
Another thing you can do is clean up your office so that it looks neat and, more importantly, ordered. Kross offers evidence that order in the external world — such as a neat desk — can foster internal order, including less chatter.
Chatter is engaging to read because of the stories that Kross tells about himself and others, and his attractive style of writing. At the end of the book, he helpfully includes a list of the main methods for reducing chatter, many of which I’ve mentioned above.
The voice in your head is not going to change quickly. If you struggle with self-talk that undermines rather than helps you do what you want to do, reading Chatter should be valuable, and so is a systematic effort to implement Kross’s suggestions.
How does chatter manifest?
One thing intrigues me. Kross says everyone has a voice in their head, but how does it speak? I’ve asked several friends about this. Their answers vary. Some people hear a voice. If so, whose voice is it? Their own? A parent’s? Some people have conversations in their mind. They don’t hear anything but they know what’s being said. Who are the conversationalists? Two sides of themselves? I don’t hear a voice and don’t have mental conversations, so what’s wrong with me?
If I’m reading Kross’s book and concentrating on what he’s written, I’m thinking, but presumably this isn’t chatter. Only, perhaps, if extraneous thoughts intrude, such as thinking about someone I need to contact or about some grievance from decades ago, would that be unproductive thinking. But what if I suddenly have an inspiration about how to address a research puzzle I’ve been working on? That would be welcome.
Experienced on the inside, there are many commonalities in people’s minds but also some important differences. I know some aspects of my own mind, up close, but continue to find it difficult to fully appreciate the diversity of other people’s inner worlds.
Thanks to Tonya Agostini, Aloysia Brooks, Kelly Gates, Tara Gray, Olga Kuchinskaya, Dalilah Shemia-Goeke, Melinda Waterman and Qinqing Xu for useful feedback, and all those who have shared with me their experiences with their inner voices.