How To Quiet The Negative 'Chatter' In Your Head

Psychologist Ethan Kross teaches us how to transform negative self-talk into positive self-talk.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | February 7, 2022

A new book written by University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross teaches us how to calm negative thoughts that can sometimes prevent us from approaching life with a glass-half-full mentality.

I recently spoke with Dr. Kross to better understand the inspiration for this book as well as some of its key takeaways. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to write a book about self-talk, or mental "chatter"?

Several years ago, I was teaching a class at the University of Michigan on the science of how to manage our emotional lives (including our chatter). During the last class of the semester, a student asked me why no one had taught them about the tools we discussed for managing emotions earlier on in their lives. I didn't have a good answer to that question. It motivated me to write Chatter to share what we know about the science that explains how we can manage getting stuck in negative thought loops (i.e. chatter) productively to make us perform better at work and improve our relationships and our health.

What are the practical takeaways from your book for someone struggling with negative self-talk?

First, if you struggle with negative self-talk at times, there's nothing wrong with you — chatter is a normal feature of the human condition.

Second, there are many science-based tools that exist to manage chatter — tools that you can implement on your own (e.g. changing the way we talk to ourselves, reframing chatter-provoking experiences as a challenge rather than a threat, adopting an alter ego, performing a ritual), tools that harness our relationships with other people who are often ideally positioned to help us with our chatter, and tools that you can find in your physical environment that allow us to manage the conversations we have with ourselves from the "outside in" (e.g. enhancing our exposure to green spaces, seeking out awe-inspiring experiences, creating order around us).

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who are prone to self-sabotage in the ways that you outline in your book?

Yes! Familiarize yourself with the tools that scientists have discovered and then start implementing them in your own life. If a tool works, keep using it. If it doesn't, try another one (or two or three).

What are the upsides, if any, to mental "chatter"?

I don't think chatter has an upside — it's the dark side of the inner voice. That said, your inner voice is a remarkable tool of the mind. It helps us keep information active in our heads, simulate and plan for the future, control ourselves, and create internal narratives that help us make sense of our experiences in the world that shape our understanding of who we are.

After writing your book, are you more likely to view mental chatter as an important counterpart to healthy psychological functioning? Or do you view it more as a detriment to flourishing and well-being?

I view it as a detriment to well-being that can, importantly, be managed. I say this because we know that chatter (i.e. getting stuck in an unproductive negative thought loop) makes it hard for us to think and perform, creates friction in our social relationships, and damages our physical health.

How might your book inform clinical efforts to improve psychological well-being?

One of the themes of Chatter is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution — no single strategy that works for all people in all chatter-provoking situations. Instead, there are a variety of tools that exist, and different combinations of tools likely work for different people in different situations. Many clinicians adopt this perspective. My hope is that Chatter both provides people with an understanding of why we have an inner voice and why it sometimes morphs into chatter and share with them a variety of science-based tools that they can use to manage that uncomfortable mental state when it occurs.