According to Chatter, a bestselling book by psychologist Ethan Kross, the average person speaks to themself at a rate of 4,000 words per minute. That might sound slightly insane — surely, we’re not all muttering under our breath from dawn until dusk? But we are muttering in our minds.
The wandering voices in our heads produce an endless onslaught of impressions, judgments and ideas. Over time, this can get pretty overwhelming. These voices are eager time-travelers, zooming to a half-remembered past or an imagined future without warning, and this has a habit of creating “cyclical negative thoughts and emotions.” That’s Kross’s definition for chatter.
On one hand, this time-traveling ability is actually really useful. How else would you learn from your mistakes (don’t go to that part of the jungle again) if you couldn’t arbitrate the past? And how would you plan for the future (make mittens ahead of a long winter) if you couldn’t conceptualize events on the horizon?
Unfortunately, though, this evolutionary advantage is somewhat at odds with the modern age. It compels us to overanalyze or overshare, to cling to the ugly and cringe for the worst. It can add real stress to relationships: no one wants to hear you doom-scroll your brain all the time. Besides, when you share with others, you’re looking to have your emotional needs met instead of your cognitive ones (i.e. draft an empirical solution to whatever is plaguing you).
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How Do We Deal With Chatter?
This isn’t to say your emotional needs are invalid or unworthy of thought and support, just that they need to be balanced with grounded, outside perspectives of the sort will help you steer away from self-pity and towards progress. Kross recommends drafting yourself a team of “chatter advisors,” a diverse run-down of people capable of handling a diverse run-down of problems. Think about the top-tier “issue buckets” in your life, the stuff you really stew on: relationships, career, money, friends, the news cycle, the future. Now think about the strengths of people in your inner circle. Who do you trust for advice? Who’s good for a bit of tough love? Who knows you really well?
We all have certain friends who are good for a genuine listen. If something’s gone down in your life — or if you can’t stop thinking about something that’s coming up — they’ll ask questions, express sympathy and try to understand what’s going on. It might feel better for you in the moment. But if the interaction stops there, it’s only co-rumination. You’re now both stewing on the “thing.” You might leave the coffee shop or hang up the phone feeling more unmoored than ever.
Chatter advisories can only be built through trial and error, through the maw of the years. (Much like making friends.) It’s up to you to determine who can help you navigate a situation better than someone else. In addition to forming an Avengers-esque crew of thoughtful friends, family and colleagues, Kross recommends the following for eradicating (or at least tempering) your chattiest chatter:
- Create psychological distance from the problem using “distanced self-talk.” Talk to yourself in the second person. Tell yourself you’re excited to do something, not nervous to get through it.
- Go for walks, especially in green spaces, which have a capacity to “recenter” us.
- Impose order on your life (e.g. clean your room, draft to-do lists). The more you control your external environment, the better shot you’ll have at making sense of the internal mess in your head.