We spend over a third of our lives speaking to ourselves internally. And unsurprisingly, that internal voice isn’t always nice.
Self-talk can take a positive or negative spiral depending on your control of the brain. Negative self-talk gets you spinning around your worry, hindering productive energy. Positive self-talk creates confidence and motivation, especially during a challenge.
Dr. Ethan Kross has been researching how to manage emotions for more than two decades. As one of the world’s leading experts on conscious mind control and an award-winning professor at the University of Michigan, is on the show to talk about what he’s learned and compiled for the book, Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It. His pioneering research has been featured in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New England Journal of Medicine, and Science. Ethan is not interest in how to “quiet the chatter,” but rather, how we can use it to our advantage.
Ethan explains that chatter isn’t inherently debilitating and that you can turn it into empowering thoughts – by making a conscious effort. In his words, “retelling your story is definitely one way of harnessing the chatter.”
This episode is full of tactics, tools and resources, including:
- Distanced self-talk: Ethan talks about being the friend you want to receive advice from. Use your name when talking to yourself, and coach yourself through the situation.
- Mental time travel: Jump to the future and assess how your problem would look like at that particular point in time. How are you going to feel about this a week from now? A month from now? a year from now?
- Compensatory control: Organize your spaces. While chatter feels like losing control of your mind, organizing your external environment could feel like exercising control of your life, thus helping you fade away chatter.
- Seek a sense of awe: Sometimes, experiencing a sense of vastness, wonder, or admiration helps you shut down narrow, negative thoughts and give you a broader perspective to events.
- Zooming out of the frame: Expand your view beyond the narrow edge, think broader to understand your problems or situations from a larger perspective. That will help you see beyond the chatter.
- One of my favorite aspects of this show is learning about cutting-edge science and testing it out for myself. We now have specific, evidence-based tools that can boost mental fitness and ability to manage emotions.
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Chase Jarvis: Hey, everybody, what's up? It's Chase. Welcome to another episode of The Chase Jarvis LIVE Show here on CreativeLive. You know the show, where I sit down with amazing humans, and this week's amazing human is Dr. Ethan Kross. Dr. Kross is an award-winning scientist, and he focuses on one of the things that I believe is the most important. Certainly, the most important words in the world are the ones we say to ourselves, and that is where Dr. Ethan Kross's work comes in.
He is the author of the bestselling book called Chatter. Now, every one of us has that internal voice, and sometimes it's there for good, but most times it doesn't help us. We sit down with Dr. Kross today, to talk about how to manage this voice in our head. What is this inner voice? We go through a number of really important, very tactical ways to manage it, and at the end of the day, the relationship that you have with yourself, determines your mindset, and your mindset is very much connected to how you move through your world.
If you want to master your emotions, be connected to yourself, or connected to the world, the world around you, others, people you care about, this show is an amazing vehicle. Dr. Ethan Kross is one of the world's leading experts on how to control the conscious mind. He's an award-winning author, a professor at the University of Michigan and an all around super relatable guy, which is what I love. I'm going to get out of the way and let you enjoy this episode of The Chase Jarvis LIVE Show, yours truly, with Dr. Ethan Kross on Chatter.
Ethan Kross, thank you so much for being here. Welcome to the show.
Dr. Ethan Kross: Thanks for having me. I've been really looking forward to this conversation.
Chase Jarvis: Well, your latest masterpiece is about Chatter. Safe to say, I know a lot about the voices inside my head. I identified as a creator since I was a very young person, maybe first or second grade, and to say that I've had voices in my head would be an understatement. We've got a lot of ground to cover today, but I wanted to first say, again, congrats on my favorite piece of thing that I've read from you, that I know about you in the world, which is your book, Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why it Matters and How to Harness it.
But obviously you've got a lot of work in this sphere, outside the book. I'm curious if you could, for those who maybe new to your work, talk a little bit about your background and orient people to your work.
Dr. Ethan Kross: Sure. I'm a professor at the University of Michigan in the psych department and the business school here. I've been here for about 13 years. I've been doing research on the voice in our head and how it can undermine us for about 20 years. I direct a lab called the Emotion and Self Control Lab, where we have a lot of fun. We have a lot of fun trying to answer, what I think is a timeless question, a question that goes back really to the dawn of our species, which is, how can we control our emotions? When that inner voice starts clamoring away and leading us astray, causing us to feel anxiety or anger or sadness, what can we do to regain control over that inner voice?
We do lots of different kinds of research. We do studies with children in schools to see how we can improve their ability to manage their emotions. We do brain imaging studies. We track people over time and beep them, or text them, I'm giving away my age there with beeps. You text people on their smartphones to see how they're feeling during the day.
That's what I do in a nut shell. Maybe it wouldn't be a bad thing to tell you how I got interested in writing Chatter, because that's an interesting experience that I think speaks to something you said before, which is you've been familiar with these voices in your head for a really long time, and you've grappled with them. I was teaching a class here at the University of Michigan to seniors on... You could think of this class as science's greatest hits, when it comes to controlling the human mind. What do we know? What have we learned about how to control your emotions?
The way this class worked was every week I assigned readings, students would write up their best thoughts and we'd come and I'd ask them questions about their thoughts. I'd teach them the material, pretty standard. The assignment for the final day of the semester was to flip the switch and have students come to class with questions for me.
The first student to raise hand during that final class was a girl named Ariel who had this look on her face of disdain, which I was kind of taken aback. I thought we had pretty good relations and in the class. She said to me, "Why are we learning about this now?" I had no idea what she meant. I said, "Well, what do you mean?" She goes, "Well, we've been learning about all of these different ways, these different tools we can use to manage this voice that can improve our ability to think and decide, to be more creative, to have better relationships and so forth. Why didn't anyone teach us about this stuff earlier, when it could have made a difference?
My first response was, fear not, you'll have opportunities to manage your emotions in your 20s, 30s and beyond. But beyond that superficial response, I didn't have a really good answer. Instead, I did a classic professor move. I paused and I said, "That's a great question. What other people in the class think about that?" And just deflected.
But it really stuck with me. Chatter was an attempt to address that question, to take what we know about the science and put it together in a way that people can benefit from it, so they don't have to wait to take a class in college.
Chase Jarvis: Brilliant. I love the storytelling as well. I'm riveted by that, and I can imagine her asking that question and you responding in the moment. Perhaps there was some inner voice going on what you were conceiving of your response.
But to that end the voice in our head, we often talk about it culturally as terrible. This is the thing that limits us, it is our judgment, it's our ego speaking out. I just recorded an episode with Dr. Mark Epstein, who combines psychotherapy as a Harvard psychotherapist with Eastern meditation mindfulness practice. We were talking about ego, but there are some aspects of our inner voice that are very important. Culturally, how can you orient us in time and space to be aware that the voice in our head has some good aspects and some bad aspects?
Dr. Ethan Kross: Fantastic question, and a really important one, I think, to be clear on. Because as you say, we use this term all the time in popular culture. Usually, it's to talk about something harmful. In fact, I think of your inner voice as a remarkable tool. I've described it as a kind of Swiss army knife of the human mind that lets you do remarkable things. Let me start by saying how scientists think about the inner voice. When we use that term, what're are talking about is your ability to silently use language to reflect in your life. That's it, silently use language.
If I give you a phrase that's popular here in Ann Arbor, go blue, and I asked you to repeat that phrase silently three times. Do it right now. Were you able to do it?
Chase Jarvis: Yep.
Dr. Ethan Kross: Okay. You've just activated your inner voice. A couple of years ago, there was a brew haha on the internet with some people claiming that they don't have an inner voice. This is not true. Everyone who has a well-functioning mind, who has the ability... I say well-functioning, not casting judge. I mean a brain that is capable of generating language, you've got an inner voice.
Now, what does that let us do? Several crucial things. At the most basic end of the spectrum, your inner voice lets you keep a nugget of verbal information active in your head. You go to the grocery store, you walk down the aisle and you think to yourself, what was I supposed to get? Cheese, bread, milk, you repeat that list in your head, that's you using your inner voice. It's part of our memory system.
We rely on it for that purpose all every day, throughout the day. It's super basic. We also use our inner voice to simulate and plan. I would actually be curious if you do this, but before I give presentations, when I'm prepping, is I'll go for a walk and I'll go through what I'm going to say in my head, often verbatim. I'll go through the talking points, start to the finish, and then I get to the end. This might be a little masochistic, I'll then, at the end, I'll imagine what the most hostile, obnoxious audience member will ask me. Then I respond in a very primitive, Brooklyn, where I grew up, fisticuffs way. Of course, never do that in person.
But there what I'm doing is I'm using my inner voice to simulate and plan and people report using it for that reason before dates, before interviews. Do you ever do this?
Chase Jarvis: Oh yeah, sure. It's the backstage, before I go to give a speech or something I'm rehearsing and I wouldn't know how to do that without language, I guess. It seems very useful.
Dr. Ethan Kross: It's super useful. Those are two functions. I'll tell you about two other really basic, but important ones, self-control. This morning, I was exercising and the instructors were asking me to do really, really painful things.
Chase Jarvis: Unpleasant.
Dr. Ethan Kross: Extremely unpleasant. I oscillated between talking to myself in the form, okay, 10 more reps, 10, 9, 8, and then lobbying choice words towards the instructor who was telling me to do these aversive things, you son of a... That's my interval voice there, it's helping me coach myself along. Then finally, and perhaps most magically, not in a supernatural sense, but really in awe inspiring sense, your inner voice helps you storify your life.
When we experience problems, we tend to reflexively turn inward to make sense of them. The way we do that is by creating stories, we rationalize things, we try to get to the bottom. We learn from our mistakes. You use your inner voice to create those stories and those stories, they give shape to your sense of who you are, they really craft your identity. We use your inner voice to do that as well. Memory simulating, self control, storytelling, your inner voice does all of that for you. So, it really serves an essential function.
Chase Jarvis: Excellent. Let's put a pin in that for a second and I'm going to try and hold two ideas up in the air simultaneously and then we'll grapple with them. The flip side of the good parts, which I wanted to start with, it's a useful thing biologically for us, evolutionarily, we can, as you mentioned, coach ourselves, use language, memory, all of those things.
There's clearly a set of negatively oriented concepts around the voice in our head. We use the example culturally like, oh, the voice is in my head, made me do it. Or toxic language that undermines or beats up and says, "You're such a jerk, you've been such a jerk back there, or you really screwed that up. You messed up when you were speaking on stage or you knocked the ball out of bounds with two seconds left of the game and turned the ball over whatever, what I would consider negative or toxic thoughts. That is, I think, an orientation that most of us would be, and one of the reasons I wanted to have you on the show, to help us control.
If you're a creator and you've got this voice of judgment constantly running in the background, it often gets in the way of you doing your worst work. But based on what you said, this ability to tell ourselves stories, is that aspect of our voice? Is that the antidote to negative thinking is the ability to recraft a story. If it's not that, what is it? Because that's what I want more of.
Dr. Ethan Kross: Well, retelling your story is definitely one way of harnessing the chatter. Chatter is the term I use to refer to the dark side of the inner voice. I think of it as actually one of the big problems we face as a culture. I say this not to exaggerate, but based on the data, we know it undermines thinking and performance, creates friction in relationships, and even impacts your physical health. It's a really bad thing.
Now, the problem with this is that when many people... Because people are so dialed into their chatter, we know that in general, bad is stronger than good. We have a bias towards thinking about the negative stuff as compared to the positive. We're constantly thinking of this dark side of our inner voice. Many people think that... They ask, "How can I silence it, just shut it up? What can I do, Kross? Tell me."
My answer to them is you don't want to shut it up, you want to harness it. What I mean by that is you want to turn the volume down on the chatter to free the positive side of the inner voice up, to do all of the amazing things that it can do.
Is creating stories involved in that? Yeah, and I could tell you a little bit about how to do that well, but it's by no means the only tool we possess for harnessing our chatter. One point, I feel really strongly about is that there's no single magic pill that you can take to manage your chatter. Instead, what we've learned over the years through science is that there are multiple, multiple tools that are out there.
I talk about close to 30 different tools that people can use to manage their chatter. Different combinations of tools work for different people in different situations. I think that makes a great deal of sense. When you think about how remarkably complicated all of us are. Think about the complexities involved in the people you know? We've got our own baggage, our own way of making sense of the world. Why would one tool work for everyone? That's not the way it works.
Chase Jarvis: Makes a ton of sense.
Dr. Ethan Kross: Let's get into some of the tools. Shall we do that?
Chase Jarvis: Yeah, please. I was obviously attracted to the story telling one and it is one that I have some personal experience with. But I would love for you to, maybe if you could, this might be asking a lot, because you know you've named so many in the book and you just talked about 30. But just generally speaking, let's stack rank them according to power, impact and maybe availability. Because, let's just be real, most people want to put this... They're listening to the show right now and they want to put this to work in their own lives. Starting with number 30, that has less power than number one, which is the most powerful would be counterproductive. Let's start at the top.
Dr. Ethan Kross: All right, let's do it. Just to give listeners a framework for thinking about these tools and where to find them, I find it useful to break them down to three buckets; tools you can use on your own, tools that require other people and tools that involve the physical world. I really want to make sure we get to the physical world, given your background with the physical world.
Things you could do on your own. Lots of tools here. One of my favorites is something called distanced self-talk. What it involves doing is remarkably simple. The next time you're struggling with a problem, try to coach yourself through the situation, like you would give advice to someone else. Now, that's easier said than done. How can we do that more skillfully? Use your name as you try to work through the problem.
This is my first line of defense for chatter, when I detected brewing within me, I think, all right, Ethan, what are you going to do here? When you use your name to think about yourself, what that does is it shifts your perspective. It gets us to relate to ourselves like we're relating to another person, like we're advising other people.
What we know from lots and lots of research is that it is much, much easier for us to give advice to other people than it is for us to take that advice ourselves. It's remarkable, in a lot of the studies we do, we get people to share with us their chatter. Sometimes they don't want to share it with us. They're actually embarrassed to reveal what they're thinking about themselves, what they're telling themselves. They are saying things to themselves that they would never say to their worst enemy, let alone their best friend.
I think there's a really powerful insight there. What would you say to your best friend? How can we say that to ourselves? Use your name to help you do that. Now, in popular culture, we often think about people who refer to themselves using their own name as narcissistic, sometimes a little bit out of touch with reality. I want to give you a couple of caveats on how to use the strategy.
One thing I would not recommend doing is walking down a busy city street, as you talk to yourself out loud, using your own name. You don't want to do that. If you feel compelled to use this strategy out loud, make sure you have a pair of AirPods in, or do it in the confines of your own home.
But throughout history, we've actually seen people using this tool and there's a great deal of scientific research that validates it. That's one easy thing you could do. Another low hanging fruit strategy with big upshot is to do something called mental time travel. The Chatter, oh my God, I'm never going to get this project done. I, what, this is awful. How am I going to deal with this?
When you find yourself getting stuck like that, and Chatter gets us stuck because it zooms us in on the awfulness of the situation. The only thing we could think about is this problem in front of us. Jumping into the mental time travel machine can be really helpful. How am I going to feel about this thing I'm struggling with a week from now or a month from now or a year from now? One of the things we know from emotions, not only from the research side, but from our own personal experience, most of our emotions fade with time, they come and go. Those emotions may be more prolonged for some kinds of experiences than others, but you could just jump into that mental time travel machine and go a little bit further in time.
When people do this, what they realize is that what they're going through right now, as awful as it is, it will eventually fade. That does something really powerful for us. It gives us hope that tones down the volume on our chatter.
You can mental time travel into the future. You can also go in into the past, and I do this a lot when it comes to COVID. Times are not great, but I think, well, how does what we're going through right now compare to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1917 or '18? We didn't have Zoom back then, we didn't have takeout. We didn't have vaccines developed in a few months.
That helps put things in perspective. When the Spanish flu doesn't do it, I just go further back, bubonic plague, medieval times. Think about how crippled society was then. What I'm doing here is I'm broadening my perspective and I'm doing it with pretty easy to use tools.
Chase Jarvis: That's part of what strikes me is, I don't think there's anyone who's listening and watching right now that would say their negative self-talk hasn't harmed them in some way. It's fascinating to me, and in reading Chatter that these tools are available for us. They're right here. Even just this ability to treat yourself kindly as you would a best friend or a colleague by using your own name. That is very simple.
My question then is simple is not always easy. Is there some sort of reminder mechanism that you have coached other people, whether they're students or in your writing, there are some techniques in Chatter, but I would love for you to share with them your awareness that these tools are here for you. That the practice of putting them into use it's like anything. That's a muscle, just like working out or your workout this morning. But if it's right there and we don't use it, how do we put these into practice? Awareness clearly seems like the first step. What would you say to someone who's not aware that they're in this cycle until they've beat themselves up for 10 minutes?
Dr. Ethan Kross: Well, I think you hit the nail on the head. Awareness is key. Just having a vocabulary for understanding what Chatter is, I think is crucially important. I've got two young kids and both of them are at the age where they can begin to experience a little chatter at times. It's so fascinating as a scientist who studies this stuff, to begin to see it start in your children.
Before talking to my daughter about what Chatter is, she doesn't even know, is this normal to be having these upsetting thoughts? Are they something you can control or not? I think just educating people about what is happening in your mind is crucially important. Then making them aware of the tools that are out there. Now, there's a lot of hard science, complicated work; Neuro imaging, dorsal, singular cortex, I could throw out big phrases, that went into the identification of these different tools.
But as you say, the take home points here are really easy. I think there is power in that, because it makes them really accessible. We know people are more likely to use things that are accessible. How do you get people to actually follow through and use these techniques in their life? You want them to know what those tools are, and then you want to also have people be motivated to use them.
I think with Chatter, because it's often so painful, there is motivation to end the chatter. I think the problem is we often just don't know what the tools are. We just stumble on the tools. Sometimes the tools we stumble on work for us and maybe we keep using it, but other times, we stumble on tools that aren't very good for us, which is actually a great segue to another tool. That was not planned, by the way. Anyone who's listening, that just happened.
Let's talk about a tool that many people reflexively use that science tells us actually isn't helpful for managing chatter. Other people in our lives can be an incredible resource for our chatter or a huge vulnerability. Now, many people think, because cause of the messages that culture provides us, that the way to manage your chatter is to find someone to just vent your emotions to. Just find someone, call them up, social media and just unload whatever's going through your head. There's been a lot of research on the consequences of venting, and what we know is that venting about your chatter to someone else, this can be really good for strengthening the friendship bonds between two individuals.
It does feel good to know that there's someone there who's willing to take the time to empathically, listen to me and connect. But if all you do in a conversation or text or Twitter exchange is vent. Effectively, what that does is it keeps all of your negative thoughts and feelings activated, so people leave those conversations just as upset or even more upset than when they began.
When you're venting, you wouldn't believe this, Chase, just yesterday, this colleagues said this. Can you believe that? I felt like an... You're just keeping it all active. What's the solution? The solution is to not stop talking to other people. The solution is to find people who are skilled at providing chatter advice.
This is not too complicated, but finding these people is not always easy. People who are skilled at providing chatter advice do two things. The first thing they do is they do take the time to listen, to empathically connect. It is important to share what you're going through to a certain degree. I need to learn about what you're dealing with before anything else can happen. But at a certain point in the conversation, after a person's learned a little bit about what you're going through, they start trying to cue you to look at that bigger picture. They start trying to give you advice based on their own experiences, or they try to pull it out from you. Chase, but you've dealt with really obnoxious professors on your show before, how have you dealt with the other ones? Or let me tell you, here's what I do when I get someone who is challenging to work with.
Essentially, you want to establish the emotional connection, but then try to get them to go broad. That is the formula for being a good chatter advisor to someone else. Now, there is an art to doing this well. What I mean by that is, I wish I could tell you that the exact moment in time when you should switch from just listening to trying to give that person advice. There's no data that supports that, as far as I'm aware. You need to feel out that exchange.
Sometimes when my wife comes me with some issues she's experiencing chatter about, she'll tell me about it. I'm there, I'm warm and I'm engaged, I like to think. At some point, I'll say, "It's terrible. I have an idea. Can I let you know?" Sometimes her response is, "No. Just keep listening. I just want to keep talking." I go, "Okay. Keep going." I take some more tea and we keep the exchange. At other points in time though, she's like, "Yes, please tell me, what do you think? That's why I came... " You want to feel that out, and that's the art to providing good chatter support.
Chase Jarvis: That would be in the second bucket, is that fair to say, the first one of these self tools, would you categorize that in the second bucket as something external to you?
Dr. Ethan Kross: Yeah, exactly. What's interesting, an interesting connection... I told you about two distancing tools. A lot of the things that we could do on our own involve taking a step back, becoming a fly on the wall to our own experience. Distance, self-talk helps you do that via language, mental time travel helps you do that through imagination. There are lots of other distancing tools out there. Writing expressively, journaling would be another.
But when you talk to other people in the way I just described, in that situation, the other person is the agent that's helping you distance, and they are in a prime position to help you do that, because the problem's not happening to them, so they can be objective about this situation.
Chase Jarvis: What about this third bucket?
Dr. Ethan Kross: This third bucket is one that I had the most fun exploring when I was researching Chatter. What we're talking about here are tools that exist in the physical environment, the world around us. It's really interesting because before I started getting into this work, I was blind to many of these tools. Sometimes I stumbled on them, but I didn't really know how to purposely harness them.
I'll tell you about a few. One tool that I actually would use a lot, but I didn't know was doing anything involved organizing my spaces. I like to think of myself as having a relatively organized mind. I can think linearly and logically, but when it comes to my spaces, my home, I'm a disaster. There's usually like a trail of clothing from my closet to the bathroom. My office has papers all over the place.
Chase Jarvis: The bookshelf behind you looks pretty good, I don't know.
Dr. Ethan Kross: Well that's because we were talking. If you want some credibility, you want me to pivot the shot over? I could show you the side. I'm not lying. But whenever I experience chatter, I do something for me, which is out of character, which is I make piles. I put things away. I fold my laundry. When I'm done with my laundry, I go to the kids' room and I put their stuff away. Then I go to the kitchen and do the dishes.
I like to joke, but I think there's a grain of truth here that I legitimately think that my wife secretly wants me to maintain a low level of chronic chatter, because she is happy with the condition of the home as a result.
Now, that was something that I never did purposely. But what I've learned through reviewing the literature is that, this is what we call a form of compensatory control, and it's a useful tool for managing chatter. When you are experiencing chatter, you often feel like your thoughts and feelings are out of control. You're not in the driver's seat anymore, your chatter is running the train. We can compensate for that experience by exerting control around us.
By organizing spaces, that gives you a sense of control, and that can be very useful for when we're managing that kind of aversive voice in our head. That's one very simple thing you can do. This is also, by the way, one of the reasons why so many people practice rituals. If you ever watch sports, across different kinds of sports, during stressful moments, athletes resort to doing seemingly wacky things before they've got to sink the free throw or take the goal kick.
Rafael Nadal's one of the best exemplars of this. He picks a wedge out of his shorts and then tussles his hair before every single serve. The same principle's at work there. A ritual's under your control. If you perform it, when you're experiencing chatter, it helps.
That's one environmental tool. Another, and I'd love to get your take on this is experiencing awe. Awe is an emotion we experience when we're in the presence of something vast and indescribable, like an amazing view, or a tree, I'm looking at my window, that's been here hundreds of years. That's pretty crazy. You could find it in the manmade world as well, in the form of skyscrapers.
I still am awe inspired when I get to an airplane. I understand the physics of how it works, but I think to myself, it wasn't so long ago that we struggled to start fires. I still do. I can't do it. But how did we get from starting fires, struggling to start a fire, to figuring out how to blast ourselves off in a tube and land safely somewhere else?
That, to me, just fills me with awe. What happens when we experience that emotion is it leads to something that we call shrinking of the self. You feel smaller when you contemplate something vast and indescribable. When you feel smaller, so does your chatter. Seek out awe. I go for walks in the park around my house. I look at my kids and try to experience that. That's another tool, but have you had that experience on your quests and different kinds of jobs that you've had with photography and so forth?
Chase Jarvis: Yeah, I would say that, that might be my... Again, some of us learned from reading your work, some from an attempted life at practicing managing that once I realized, as a young athlete, that the phrase, the most important words in the world are the ones we say to ourselves, and I could really affect my own mindset. When you saw the connection between mindset and performance, I started getting very interested in how to control the self-talk.
I have two primary ones. I'm going to first use the simple one to just tack it up on our bulletin board, and then I'll go to this third bucket that you're talking about. One is a phrase that I learned from a sports psychologist that helped train us on the Olympic development soccer team, which was, if you make a mistake during a game, just a very simple phrase that you can... Just like a muscle, almost like respond to yourself in the moment with this phrase, it's a caring phrase that you say, that's not like me, next time, I'll... Then fill in the blank with the behavior you wanted.
It was kind, it was aware, it acknowledged a mistake, but it also managed it. There's the Ted Lasso phrase, have a memory like a goldfish. It is basically dispensed with any negative self-talk, it addressed it, okay, I hear you. It's not invalid. You certainly made a bad pass there. That's not like me. Next time, I'll complete the pass and fill in the blank with the rest of the story.
That was incredibly useful, and I put that in your first bucket. But going to the third bucket, which I think is more interesting, because it helps develop a very comprehensive and awesome life. If you do start to have an approach, a feeling of gratitude. I usually get that feeling of gratitude, not just by saying, well, I'm grateful for, but I'm like, how fricking lucky am I right to be one in 400 trillion that I'm even doing all this stuff right now? That I'm an able bodied human doing the thing that I'm doing right now, walking in the forest/
You start to... I think the profound experiences that nature provides probably cultivate this experience that you're talking about. To be in awe that you're sitting on a plane on your laptop moving at 600 miles an hour from New York to LA, that's one example, but I find that they're everywhere.
Being outside provides me the best act access. But I would say that desire to see the world as magical, and rather than dismissing coincidences, like, oh, I was just talking about this, and here I am talking to Ethan, and he said the same thing. Rather than saying, interesting coincidence and moving on, I'm saying, wow, isn't the universe an amazing place? There's definitely something here.
I have been spending, I would say, more of my time in that third bucket. I don't remember the name that you used for it, but it makes the world so much more interesting. It's a way to be kind in the world, and to be gentle. I find it very, very powerful as a way to control my inner thoughts. The fact that I even have an opportunity to respond here, I get to choose my response. Wow, I don't have to be victim to the rat race or this other input, or how the old me would respond, the fact that I'm in control of my emotions right now, how grateful am I for this? How connected is the universe?
Dr. Ethan Kross: I want to point out two things that you said. One is just an observation, actually, which is both of those tools do something very powerful, which I think is a common theme for how many of these tools work. They broaden our perspective. They break us out of that tunnel vision of really that negative thought loop, which is what chatter is, and they get us to see that bigger picture.
In that bigger picture, solutions often lie, to feeling better. It's just remarkable. To me, I am awe inspired at how many different tools are out there to help us do that. But the other thing that really strikes me from your description of how you manage your chatter is, you have a sense, I'm intuiting here, about what allows you to feel better when the chatter is brewing.
You start to feel grateful. You think about this bigger picture. That, to me, tells me that you're being very deliberate about how you choose to engage with the world. You're not just being reactive, you're actually seeking out, you know where to look, so to speak, to find tools to deal with chatter landmines. That, I think, is a learnable skill.
People often ask me, "Hey, do you ever experience chatter?" You do science, you study this stuff, you wrote a book on it." Of course, I experience chatter at times. I'm a goddamn human being. Yes, welcome to the human condition. But what I am pretty darn good at is once I detect it starting to brew, I know exactly where to look. I know the different tools that work for me. That's something, I think many people would benefit a lot from, and that was a big reason for writing this book.
Chase Jarvis: Well, I think that foundationally or fundamentally, that is awareness. We have one thing in this world and that is our attention, and our ability to direct it intelligently and intentionally is, if not our highest calling, it's certainly right up there, because it does control or manage in, I think, the best way possible, the human experience.
Part of being aware of a problem is whether it's in your company or in your life or your marriage or your relationship, being aware that a problem exists is oftentimes the first step in being able to manage it or turn a frown upside down or however. Yet, this is part of what makes, here I am talking about, these are the two tools I use and you've been study this life long, and at the end of the day, you're like, goddamn, I'm a human being.
It's remarkable to me that as practiced as we could be, or as studied as you could be, that it's inevitable. That makes me want to ask the question, do you have a recipe for what we ought to do when we recognize that we are in this loop, despite that we are yogis or despite that we're professors who have literally written the book on the topic, how can we remain vulnerable. Acknowledge that, shit, no matter how practiced we are, how enlightened we are, this is still going to pay us a visit. What's your advice to those folks who are, right now, maybe beating themselves up because, oh gosh, we've got this book, why don't we just learn it and automatically be done with it and be on to the next thing?
Dr. Ethan Kross: Well, I think, one thing to keep in mind is that negative emotions aren't a bad thing, per se. A lot of our culture right now, there's this toxic positivity movement sweeping through the lands. A lot of people yearn to experience a life free of all negative emotion. This is not a life that anyone actually would want to have, because negative emotions are functional in small doses. There is value in being able to experience pain.
Kids who are born into the world without the ability to experience pain. This happens every year due to a blip of genetics, they actually die young because they don't know to pull their hand away from a stove when their skin starts to burn. Imagine if you never felt the sting of social rejection? You might not learn how to interact well with another set of individuals as a result.
Emotions and small doses, don't beat yourself up if you get negative at times. What you do want to prevent is those negative emotions from being prolonged, which is what chatter does. How do you do it? Come up with a specific plan. We call these, if then plans, a fancy name for this are implementation intentions. I like if then better. If I experience chatter, then I'm going to do this. Ahead of time, come up with what that plan is.
I have different types of interventions for my chatter. My first line of defense, if I feel it coming on, is I use distance self-talk and mental time travel. I don't know, four out of 10 times, that's all I need to do, and it just, all right, Ethan, here you go again. You're not going to go down this path. It wasn't that bad, what you said. Lots of other people do it, and you'll feel better about this tomorrow. That's usually enough.
If that's not sufficient, then I take it to DEFCON level two, and I consult my chatter board. I have thought really carefully about who my chatter advisors are, and I have a trusted board that I consult with. I've got four people, when it comes to personal stuff, six or seven for professional stuff. They are a remarkable asset, and I avail myself of it if the other tools aren't sufficient.
If that doesn't work, I'll also go for a walk in nature and I'll organize my space. Usually, that's sufficient for me. Although I still can experience chatter at times, I have gotten really good at making it pretty short. I think there is enormous potential to help folks who are listening, who do experience chatter, at times, by knowing about these tools.
Chase Jarvis: I think one of the experience that I've had in managing my own chatter on this show and across my life, I try, and if you're the average of the five people you spend the most time with, I try and surround myself with incredible humans. I think what... Often, I'm misunderstanding is that this is not about not feeling emotions. This is not about not having any self-talk or not about not getting angry or not about not... I think the goal, and I'm curious to hear your thought, my goal with this, and maybe you can pass judgment or give me advice or help paint the picture here, because we can't... It's like pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. We can't avoid anger as a human emotion, that it will enter our lives is inevitable. Same with fear and joy and all these things.
The goal is not to... I shouldn't use joy, the goal is not to avoid these negative emotions or this negative self-talk, the goal is to be aware of it and then to minimize the negative impacts that it has and to do so, to feel the feeling, and sometimes grief, for example, can take a very long time to heal from, to feel the emotion, to feel the feeling and then manage it using these tools.
I think it's a common misperception. My experience is that I judge myself for getting mad at all. It's just traffic, the person just cuts you off. If they weren't supposed to be in front of you, how did they get there? Let's move on, and try and minimize that experience of it or the impact that it has on the rest of my day. Just maybe respond to that, because the goal isn't avoiding this stuff, right?
Dr. Ethan Kross: No. You couldn't have said it better. The way you've just described all this is directly consistent with how I view this timeless question of how we can properly manage our emotional lives. Negative emotions are useful. You don't want to get rid of them, even if you wanted to, you wouldn't be able to, because they are hardwired into how we operate as organisms.
What you want to do is figure out how to minimize them, how to prevent them from escalating, and that's what these tool... Let a student... There's actually a very powerful anecdote. I tell this story in the book that I think about often, because this point you're making is a very common in observation that people want to just get rid of all the bad stuff. I tell this story about a woman named Jill Bolte Taylor in Chatter, who was a Harvard neuro anatomist, working at the very top of her game.
She experienced chatter like so many of us and her desire was to get rid of this voice. To silence it, just shut it up, and she got her wish one morning when she was exercising in the form of a stroke that she experienced. The stroke was localized in the left hemisphere of her brain, and it temporarily prevented her from being able to use language.
She lost the ability to speak to other people as well as herself. I would challenge you and anyone listening to just think about what that might be like for a moment, to not be able to use words silently, to reflect on your life. I don't even know how to contemplate that experience.
Chase Jarvis: How do you process it?
Dr. Ethan Kross: How do you process it?
Chase Jarvis: Without language, yeah.
Dr. Ethan Kross: I just don't even know. What's remarkable about her story is, initially she described the experience as euphoric. She's just had a stroke, can't speak to anyone else or herself. Euphoric because the chatter is gone. But as time went on, it no longer became euphoric, and instead became highly disruptive because she couldn't plan. She couldn't control herself, couldn't remember things. Her experience is a powerful reminder that the goal here is not to get rid of anything. It is to minimize the negative impact that it has.
Chase Jarvis: Let's go back to your student. I think, you open with this, your giving this lecture, and the first question is, why aren't we taught this? Maybe we can think of this as directed to the parents who are listening. I don't have children. I'm the real uncle, in some cases, funcle to a lot of kids in my world. These tools that I have worked so hard to cultivate, I feel like I'm just scratching the surface now, but had I started younger, I think I would be excited to know what that experience of childhood and young adulthood would've been like, had I had some of these tools at my disposal.
For your student, I think you said it was a graduate or you're teaching seniors. But if you think about this in the classroom or people talking to their kids, what are the things... How do we empower the next generation with these tools, given we know how profoundly they have affected... I know how profoundly these tools have affected my life. Clearly the book is resonating, bestseller all the place, but why aren't our kids learning it? What can we do to empower them with these tools?
Dr. Ethan Kross: Well, I think we can share them with our kids, our colleagues, our loved ones. I think that is one of the... There are two challenges that I hope readers leave the book with, which is to try using these tools on their own and to share them with others. We're at actually doing research on this right now. We've been working on a curriculum, designing a curriculum that teaches kids how... Just teaches kids about the science of self-control, how to manage their mind.
Actually, next month, we're going to be rolling out this curriculum in the form of a big ex experiment. We're going to be doing this study with about 10,000 high school kids in Clayton County, Georgia, where we look at A, can students learn this information over the course of a semester? If so, what are the implications that having this knowledge has for their ability to do well at school, their relationships, their health?
I find it remarkable when I think about what I learned in middle school, high school and how frequently or not I use some of that information. I've told this story before, but for me, it's powerful. I remember so vividly learning about how the digestive system works in biology, in junior high and high school. What stuck out to me from that lesson was peristalsis. How you move food from entering your mouth all the way to the others. Yeah, you know it too, right? Let me ask you, Chase, how many occasions have you had to use information about peristalsis in your adult life?
Chase Jarvis: It's handy factoid that when a smart professor brings it up in the podcast, I can simulate that I know what it means. It's the pumping action that the muscles in your GI tract use to move food. That's about it right there.
Dr. Ethan Kross: Yeah. Very well said. I have one more usage. Well, actually two. I've used it with both of my daughters when they both independently ask me, "How do you get food down when you're upside down?" I was able to tell them. But that's it. I busted my butt to study that stuff. We actually have a sophisticated understanding of the human mind, how the brain gives rise to that mind, of our emotions, how they operate in course to our body and how importantly they can be managed.
That is information that is not only, I think, important for everyone to understand in the same way that we think it's important to understand how the respiratory or digestive system works. But it's also information that I think can pay dividends, moving forward. Because on a daily basis, so many of us are challenged to manage our emotions to varying degrees.
This question of what we can do to prevent students from first, learning about this when they get to a class, when they're a senior in college. I think, Chatter is one attempt, but I think infusing these ideas into the conversations we have with people around us and our kids, teaching kids about it is vitally important. I think there's a huge potential upshot we can reap from doing so.
Chase Jarvis: I'm on a mission to do just that, with the show and your book has been very impactful for me and obviously hundreds of thousands of others who've read it. I want to say thank you. Without blowing smoke, I want to, maybe reframe a direction here and have you... Just the simplicity of this, it may be overly simplistic, but I want to try just a little exercise here.
I want to say something and I want you to reflect on it, if I can. That is the idea that we are not our thoughts. Of course, we, as humans have the ability, I don't know if it's metacognition or this meta relationship that we can have. When you tell that to someone who is new to that information, we believe that we are our thoughts.
If I'm thinking bad thoughts, therefore I am a bad person. But mindfulness or meditation is an example of being able to watch your thoughts and you watch it arise. Then just as watching it arise, you can watch it leave.
As soon as I realized that when I started practicing meditation, that was an unlock. Is chatter similar to this? Can we observe it? Should that be the relationship that we have with chatter? We are not our chatter. Our chatter is something that can be observed. We can either have utility around it or decide that it doesn't serve us and move on? Is it as simple as that?
Dr. Ethan Kross: Well, I think what you've described, first of all, is a powerful reframe. It is a kind of distancing reframe, like we talked earlier about this ability to Zoom out. When you realize that you are not your thoughts, that's letting you step back to see your thoughts as separate from you. I would describe that as one kind of tool, that's helpful for managing chatter. It's a powerful tool and there are many, many others as well.
Meditation is super useful for giving people the experience of seeing their thoughts as being separate from themselves. I think for that reason, it's really helpful. But there are lots of other things you can do as well, like the linguistic distancing self-talk or some of the other things we talked about here.
Here's one other little exercise that I think is really useful. A lot of the people that I speak with often tell me, you can't control your emotions. You can't control your chatter. It's just part of who you are. There's one very famous study that actually found about 40% of the participants of the study did not think their emotions were malleable, they were fixed. It's not something I can get and intervene with.
I think one of the reasons for that is, the whole thinking, feeling process, it's complicated, but here's an easy way to break it down. You and I experience thoughts spontaneously all the time, I would argue. Some of the thoughts that pop into my head, I don't know where the hell these thoughts came from. If I were to be responsible for the thoughts that popped into my head spontaneously, I'd probably be in big trouble.
Chase Jarvis: I was just going to say, I'd be in jail.
Dr. Ethan Kross: You'd be in jail, me too, solitary confinement. We wouldn't see each other. We don't actually have control over the thoughts that pop into our head and the feelings we spontaneously experience. What we do have enormous control over though, is how we engage age with those thoughts and feelings, how we manage them. Those are two sides to the equation.
I think, for me, being able to draw a distinction between those two facets of our inner world has been really helpful. I don't get down on myself if I experience something dark or fear inducing, if it just pops into my head, but once it's there, I manage the shit out of it, to my betterment, to use that very poetic term.
Chase Jarvis: Again, having had hundreds and hundreds of guests on the show over a dozen years. I'm often doing this as a part of the show, as a part of the show, started out being very selfish because I wanted to learn from all these people, but now if I'm asked, what are some threads of the show? One of the most common threads, if not... Actually I want to scratch that, the most common thread is mindset and the ability to manage one's own inner experience. Whether that's meditation, awareness, self-talk, or the ability to manage our self-talk.
It just strikes me as, you talked about these tools, and how you can help your children with these tools. Why isn't this mainstream? Here, you and I are talking about it, you got a best selling book. Everybody I try and align with has some capacity for this, or is aware of it or interested in it or connected to it or a master of it. But what is key... As someone who's using research dollars and essentially your life's work to push this in the mainstream, why is it so hard to rock? Why is it difficult for this to be mainstream, number one? Number two, what would you encourage those of us who have experienced this to do, to help advance it in pop culture?
Dr. Ethan Kross: Well, I think, one of the reasons why it's not mainstream yet is... Sorry, I'll repeat that. We almost got through the whole session without that. I think one of the reasons why it's not mainstream is emotions are invisible and have been for a really long time. There's been a huge bias against talking about these invisible states. It's easier to wrap our head around things that are concrete like heart disease, you can image that. We can now image the brain, that's, I think, helped a great deal, but that's a really recent development, if you think about it. FMRI, this ability to image different patterns of neural activity, correlating with emotional states, that's only like 20 years or so old. It's relatively recent that we've begun to actually concretize our experience of our emotion and our ability to manage it.
I do think we see norms changing. If you look at professional sports, for example, over the last few years, there has been a huge swell of support for respecting mental health issues and also promoting mental fitness, which is another part of the problem here. There's a huge bias against dealing with mental health. We view that as a vulnerability. I think the more we can talk about this as mindsets, mental fitness, as tools of the mind that can be used to better people's situations, that, I think, is going to be really important for allowing people to engage with this material freely, without feeling like they have to do so undercover with their sunglasses on and a big hat.
Someone told me recently about a study that advertised two programs in the workplace. One was called the mental health program, the other was called mental fitness. The difference in signup rates were huge, like 70%, 80% for mental fitness, 10%, 15% for mental health. To some extent, there is a branding issue here that I think we need to be aware of. But I think these are golden times for people like yourself, like me, who know that this work is important and has a potential to fundamentally improve lives.
I think it's an exciting time to be in this space. The question, how can other people help? Talk about this stuff to other people, learn about what these tools are and share them with other people. When your kids or your colleagues are struggling, you don't know that there are things they can do to manage their mind. You don't have to necessarily pop a pill, that can be useful at times, but there are lots of easy things to try. Just becoming informed, I think, will do a huge benefit for all of us.
Chase Jarvis: Well, to that end, thank you very much for, as they say, writing the book. But you literally, writing the book, it's been a profound experience for me to digest that material. Obviously, the circles that you've run in that champion that work, Adam Grant and Malcolm Gladwell, other guests of the show and friends of the show. It's not an accident that many of the brightest minds, top performers in our culture employ these things.
It's my hope... The tip that you just shared about changing how we talk about it, the mental fitness versus mental health, just as... Whether or not we're playing with labels, even if it's a Trojan horse concept to get it to people to be more open to it, that is a gift that I will put to work immediately. But I genuinely want to say thank you for being on the show, for writing Chatter, and for doing the work. I'm very excited, and I'm going to follow your work up on this study down in Georgia. I can't wait to see the early results. Consider yourself a friend of the show. If who can ever help you share your work with the world, it's very profound, and I want to say a big personal thank you.
Dr. Ethan Kross: Well, thank you. Speechless for that incredible set of comments, and it was just a delight to be here. Thanks for having me.
Chase Jarvis: Is there anywhere else besides the book that you'd want to steer our community here? They're very passionate about this. Obviously, they're going to go out and buy the book, Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why it Matters and How to Harness it. But where else would you steer them, if anywhere?
Dr. Ethan Kross: If they want to go to my website, www.ethankross... With a K.com. They can not only learn about the book, but there are links to my research lab and lots of articles and other resources that deal with this space, and plenty more that we didn't have time to chat about. Plenty of food for thought there.
Chase Jarvis: Awesome. Thank you so much for being on the show. Ethan Kross, we appreciate you. For those out there in the world, check out the book, site, and until next time we bid you all ado.
This transcript was exported on Jan 05, 2022 - view latest version here.
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