During the last few years, the voice inside my head has been vehemently berating me and informing me that I am a failure. Despite over a quarter of a century of teaching experience, I felt less confident than my first year of teaching. Though the logical part of my brain argued against this critical inner voice, it was difficult to overcome. I knew I wasn’t alone in feeling inadequate, but that didn’t make it seem any less real.
Ethan Kross, psychologist and director of the Emotion and Self Control Laboratory, calls this mental self-criticism “chatter.” He has written a book by that name on what he and other scientists have learned about how to “harness” the judgmental thoughts that cycle through our heads so we can make them less destructive and more productive. Interspersed among the tales of athletes, scientists, and others, there are psychological studies that have informed researchers about chatter, and Kross offers suggestions for tools we can easily incorporate into our daily lives to leap out of those negative feedback loops.
One such tool is called, “distanced self-talk.” When I tell you how simple it is to do this, you will most likely doubt its effectiveness, but Kross has quite a few examples to back it up. The idea is to mentally advise yourself in the third person, as though you are an outside observer rather than the subject immersed in the situation. You can also temporally distance yourself by imagining that you are looking back on the circumstances from a time in the future.
In the chapter, “The Power and Peril of Other People,” Kross surprised me with the fascinating work of Bernard Rime, who found that “talking to others about our negative experiences doesn’t help us recover in any meaningful way.” In fact, what we often think of as venting can make our chatter worse. (Does this make anyone else think of Teachers’ Lounges?) He goes on to explain how this can be avoided when, “The interlocutor ideally acknowledges the person’s feeling and reflections, but then helps her to put the situation in perspective.”
I won’t give away all of the tools because I think Kross explains them best. (He includes a chapter at the end that recaps all of the tools mentioned in the book and offers suggestions for how to use them in different situations.) I will say that if you are experiencing the deleterious effects of Chatter, that you will find this book enormously helpful. If you are someone who teaches, parents, or in any way supports a person who battles anxiety, depression, or self-hatred, you will find this book enormously helpful. If you somehow managed to survive a traumatic event, a natural disaster, or a worldwide pandemic, you will find this book enormously helpful. And, even more importantly, you will find this book hopeful. I think quite a few of us can use a bit of that right now.