These thoughts may increase our negative self-talk and lower our energy, leading our stories to hinder our growth when they could be propelling it.
“You are not the voice of the mind. You are the one who hears it.”
I still remember the relief I felt when I heard this Michael Singer quote. I was in my early twenties and an avid worrier. My future-casting was so unlikely that I often wondered if something was wrong with me.
I understood that “awareness is the greatest agent for change,” as Eckhart Tolle says. Still, the space between awareness and change felt like a disappointing delta. My awareness of my inner voice was matched by an equal awareness that I didn’t know how to quiet it. Now, I had two problems.
If this voice wasn’t me, why couldn’t I free myself from her?
Today, I explore this question with authors, neuroscientists, and psychologists, on my podcast, 33voices. They illuminated that my inability to quiet my mind wasn’t a lack of effort. I was chasing the wrong goal. “This inner voice that we have is not something that we want to rid ourselves of. It’s something that we want to harness,” says Ethan Kross, professor and director of the Emotion and Self-Control Lab at the University of Michigan. “The challenge is to figure out if you find yourself slipping into the dark side of chatter. How can we minimize that and accentuate the more positive side of the inner voice?”
These insights from our guests help me do so.
WHAT STORY ARE YOU TELLING YOURSELF?
My inner voice is an around-the-clock narrator. I accepted her stories as a stressful nuisance until psychotherapist and Frame cofounder Sage Grazer highlighted their potential to influence outcomes: “The story you tell yourself about a situation is going to shape how you interact in that situation, which causes a feedback loop on how it ends up going and reinforces whether your story was true or false,” she explains. “We’re generally looking to validate our own story. So, if you walk into a situation with the story: ‘This is going to be such a tough job interview. I don’t think they’re going to like me,’ you’re not going to exude the confidence that you might if you walked in with a sense that they’re excited to see you.”
Grazer adds that these thoughts may increase our negative self-talk and lower our energy, leading our stories to hinder our growth when they could be propelling it.
HOW DO WE REWRITE THE NARRATIVE?
Spiraling thoughts feel all-consuming, making them difficult to manage. Yet, for all the suffering they cause, the tools Kross outlines in his book Chatter are reassuringly simple.
I was curious which he relies on to reroute his own. I turn to the distance self-talk practice he described to gain perspective. “I try to coach myself through a problem like I’m talking to someone else,” he explains. “I use my own name to do it [silently]: ‘Alright, Ethan, how are you going to manage this situation?’”
It’s much easier for us to give advice than to take our own. Language can be a tool to help us think about ourselves like we’re thinking about someone else.”
DO WE REALLY HAVE AGENCY OVER OUR THOUGHTS?
Author and neuroscientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor did answer my initial question when a traumatic brain hemorrhage caused her to lose the functioning of her left hemisphere. She lost her ability to walk, talk, and remember the details of her life, all while living in the pure presence we access in our right hemisphere.
The widespread response to her recovery inspired her latest book Whole Brain Living. In illustrating how we can link the thinking and emotional parts of our brain, she illuminates a newfound agency to choose how we feel, think, and live. “I can become my anger in an instant. It’s a group of cells in my brain,” she says. “Where do I want to consciously place my energy? Because it’s all cells and circuitry. . . . The more we run a circuit, the more power it begins to run on its own. . . . We have so much more power over what’s going on inside of our brains than we have ever been taught.”
Nearly a decade in, my interviews haven’t eliminated my worrisome stories. Our guests gave me a more enduring gift: The freedom to choose how they influence me. Now, when they arise, I hear Dr. Taylor saying,“We have the power to choose who and how we want to be in any moment,” and befriend my inner voice instead.
This article first appeared in www.fastcompany.com
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