How To Quiet the Chatter in Your Head

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S1: It was just one of those nights that I can’t even really remember, but I woke up the next morning thinking, wow, that was the best night of my life.

S2: Welcome to How to. I’m David Epstein. That voice you just heard, that was Amelia. And she was talking about an unforgettable night from 11 years ago when she was just 19 years old. She was on college break, visiting her cousin in a small town in Mexico when they decided to go out for drinks with friends.

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S3: One of the men there was this guy who is just absolutely gorgeous and right away, you know, kind of was like, wow, this absolutely gorgeous man was named Yvonne.

S2: And the chemistry was instant. But after a week, Amelia had to go back to college in New York. So she and Yvonne began a passionate relationship online. Yvonne was eight years older than Amelia and thousands of miles away. But that didn’t matter. When spring break came around, she returned to Mexico as fast as she could. And he sounds like he got swept off your feet a little bit.

S3: Yeah, so he was very well off and he had all of the friends, like throughout the day. Someone was calling him. Basically, he’s the most interesting man in the world. Exactly. And he’s gorgeous, like perfect brown skin, tight black curls. Just he’s very like suave, you know, like your typical like what you would think of as like a Mexican like Stalley. And that was him.

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S2: I’ve yearned to be referred to in terms never happened. I was I didn’t want to say that, but I was having the same feeling. That’s psychologist Ethan Cross, and we’ll get back to him. But first, more about Yvonne.

S3: It was not just him. I think it was like the whole experience of being in another country where you kind of you have these, like, rose colored glasses on. Like, this is amazing.

S4: Amelia even created a study abroad program in Mexico to be closer to Yvonne, but she’d always have to return to the states that went on for three years until Amelia finally graduated.

S1: And so I said, well, I’ll come down there and we’ll just try it out. I totally went down there with the expectation that I would live there permanently.

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S4: They moved in together. They adopted a dog, a miniature Australian shepherd with blue eyes. And since Yvonne knew everybody, they were often up all night celebrating a huge Mexican weddings. But that early excitement gave way to the challenges of forging a stable relationship.

S1: And at the end of nine months, it just kind of the relationship started to fizzle. It just I think what happened was we realized we were just different people. I was just fresh out of college and I was really motivated to work professionally. And there really wasn’t anything for me there. But it didn’t change the fact that I absolutely loved him. And, um.

S5: And so what’s what’s sort of your last memory of Yvonne?

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S1: My last memory is us in this restaurant called Los Portales. He was like, you know, maybe you’ll come back one day. And I was like, you know, I don’t I don’t know, maybe an. And then it was and that was it, that was the last year we ever had.

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S5: And so Amelia left today.

S2: She’s 30 years old, living in Massachusetts. She’s newly and happily married. And yet she can’t stop thinking about Yvonne and her time in Mexico. And that really bothers her.

S1: You know, maybe day, you know, you come back and I describe it as a fat tape where it’s like it’s just this repeating memory that just doesn’t really go away. And I call it the resident ghost because it’s like this thing that doesn’t have any meaning for my life anymore, but it’s still there. How often does that tape play? Well, I’m kind of like embarrassed to say this. It could be on a daily basis. Is that just life? And like, does everybody experience that or, you know, is there come to a point where it’s like, I can let thoughts just go and not come back on today’s episode, how to give up your ghost, so to speak?

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S2: We all have the one that got away, that person or that time in our lives we just can’t stop wondering about. We’ll get advice from an expert who has studied how to quiet the unwanted thoughts in your head, the ones you might be embarrassed to admit still haunt. Keep thinking about us. We’ll be right back. Slate plus members, it’s survey time again, which means it’s your chance to tell us what you think about Slate plus and Slate, it only takes a few minutes and you can find it at Slate Dotcom Survey.

S4: While Amelia was going through her breakup in Mexico, Professor Ethan Cross was experiencing a nightmare of his own. He was pacing around his house holding a baseball bat. He was standing watch over his babies crib and peeking through the blinds.

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S6: You know, I got a letter in the mail that I had. It was it was a thread. I had to go file a police report, and it really just threw a curveball my way.

S7: The letter was unhinged. Death read, reacting to some of Ethan’s research.

S6: What the police told me wasn’t so reassuring. They basically said, you know, sorry, you got this. It happens from time to time. It’s usually nothing but just to be safe. You know, why don’t you drive home a different way from work each day? Which I then looked at the officer sternly and said, I live four blocks away from my office. She knows there aren’t that many right. Zigzags down the block exactly which which I did foolishly. So so there was a really tumultuous my I had just had my first child and, you know, all those sorts of protective instincts were on heightened alert.

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S4: Ethan runs the Emotion and Self-control Laboratory at the University of Michigan. But when he was faced with a personal threat, he struggled to put down the baseball bat and control his unwanted inner voice, what Ethan calls chatter.

S6: At one point I thought to myself, let me sit down and search for bodyguards, for academics, which is is a totally preposterous idea to have. But this is the thing about chatter. Right? And I think we don’t often talk about it, but our minds can can take us into these these these realms that are out of touch with reality at times. And and I was able to recognize that because the moment I had that thought, I, I, I actually said, Ethan, what are you doing? This is ridiculous.

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S7: Nothing came of that threat and even stopped guarding the house at all hours of the night, but he drew on that experience for his new book, Chatter The Voice in Our Head Why It Matters and How to Harness It, which is exactly what A is struggling with.

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S1: It’s everything, it’s like little memories that just come up. Um, or sometimes I’ll just wonder, like, what is that person doing today? Are they at the office? You know, and I can picture exactly what he would be wearing and where he would be working. Like, I guess I’m struggling with what the value is that they have for me. And if they’re actually have negative value, if they’re distracting, like there’s no need for me to continue to think about these things. So I’m you know, I I bought a house two years ago. I am married to my amazing husband, like we’re planning a family.

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S8: And what happens when you remind yourself of do you ever you ever try to remind yourself of of how well life is going for you right now?

S1: Yeah, I do. But it’s sort of like I don’t really want to be spending. I don’t I don’t want my brain to be going to these memories, but it sort of seems like it’s I can’t control it.

S8: And I think, you know, in some ways by saying you never want to think this again, you know, it would be great if we could you know, I’m reminded of that Jim Carrey movie, The Eternal Sunshine.

S5: Yeah.

S8: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind of the Spotless Mind, where we can just go in and access memories.

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S9: Here it’s all falling apart, all raising you, and I’m happy you’re going to be famous if you did this to me.

S8: Well, you hear right by morning, I’ll be gone. We haven’t figured out how to do that just yet. And so I think the first thing is don’t make it so hard on yourself, like the fact that you have these negative memories bubbling up from time to time or even more than from time to time on a daily basis. That’s a very, very common experience. We’re constantly searching to come up with stories to explain our lives. And when we have a story to make sense of our experiences, we start thinking about them a lot less. But if we don’t have a really good story or explanation to account for what we’ve gone through, our mind keeps on trying to get us to that place. And it will, as a result, often bring those experiences to mind. And so, you know, one question I guess I would ask is, is do you feel like you do actually have a story that explains what you went through and and gives it an end as opposed to, you know, an open ended experience that doesn’t have closure?

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S1: That’s really interesting. I feel like it’s exactly what’s happening to me. Um, I don’t think that I have a clear ending to that story. It’s been over 10 years, but that’s probably the reason why these these little moments keep floating to the top of my head, because I never really had that closure of that experience.

S2: Part of what made the breakup so difficult, she says, was that Amelia didn’t just leave Yvonne back in Mexico. She also left her beloved Australian shepherd.

S1: Well, I have a picture of her sitting on my suitcase when I was packing up to leave. And it breaks my heart to even think about that.

S2: Amelia called Yvonne every few days for months, trying to convince him to send their dog to her in the States.

S1: He never did for so many years. I couldn’t think about her without just absolutely crying and without, you know, feeling like that was the biggest regret of my life. And for anyone who’s not like an animal dog lover, you might not relate to that. But to me, it was like, really, my child. And it was that, yeah, that’s the thing that really kept me sane when I was struggling to find myself in another country and when I was so alone. I have memories of her, me pulling out of the driveway, her jumping the fence and chasing my car down the road like she was so attached to me. So it was very emotionally scarring when I realized that it I would never get her back.

S8: Have you ever tried journaling about your experience?

S10: No. One tool. It’s been out there for a while. It’s called expressive writing, which involves writing about your deepest thoughts and feelings about an experience that’s bothering you and that has been shown to, over time, lead people to feel better. And one of the reasons it’s believed to do so is it helps you author a story and create a narrative to explain what you’ve gone through, what you’re feeling. And once we have that story, those stories could be really, really powerful for just giving us some closure around difficulties.

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S1: Could you give me an example of what you mean by writing this story? Is it is it like I’m creating an ending to it?

S11: Basically, the instruction would be to write about your deepest thoughts and feelings about what happened to you. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling, really. Let yourself go and write continuously for 15 to 20 minutes about this event for anywhere from two to three days in the mind works in terms of similar memories are organised together. So you’re it’s like a game of pinball boom, boom, boom, right all over the place when you’re writing. I think that the process of writing or even talking about an experience like when you narrated your experience to us, you gave it a structure, there was a form to it. You started off at the beginning. You got to the middle. And now the wonderful fairy tale ending, which which I hear as an amazing ending. You’re ending up in this wonderful place. And so the question is, can you tell that story to yourself and believe it?

S12: Here’s our first rule. When you can’t stop thinking about something, write it down. Don’t worry about wording or grammar. Just keep your pen moving. By writing down your thoughts, you’ll inevitably give them structure and more importantly, a conclusion for Amelia. Even though she never got satisfactory closure with Yvonne, her heartbreak did ultimately give way to a happy ending. Have you talked with your husband about the proverbial ghost in the room?

S1: I haven’t. And it’s just. Yeah, I know.

S12: It’s yeah. So we’ll chatter more about that right after this break.

S4: We’re back with Emilia and our expert, Ethan Cross. Amelia keeps thinking about a whirlwind romance she had in Mexico a decade ago, even though she’s over it, she’s never once mentioned it to her husband.

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S1: The only reason why I haven’t is because I think by presenting this information, it’s forcing him to kind of think about it and react to it. And I just don’t see any value in that. I don’t want him to feel nervous or bad about anything. And we honestly, we haven’t even talked about past relationships. We’re both happier that way.

S5: Mean there’s still something I’m like a little trying to get my head around, which is it sounds like you have some good memories that are really vivid, like why are you trying to get rid of them?

S1: It’s the fact that it’s I’m thinking about another man when I’m married and happy and. That’s pretty much it, right? And does that make you feel guilty? Yeah, I mean, it does it and it makes me feel guilty.

S13: It’s sort of like the feeling of. He got away, sort of, but it’s more like the life that got away. I think it was less about him necessarily and more about that was the most amazing experience that I’ll never get again, the most beautiful life. And, you know, it just almost seems like it never even happened. So I’m living with these these images and these pictures of wonderful things that I will never have again. And it just kind of makes me sad in a way.

S4: I see it almost makes you feel one guilty, but because you’re thinking about another man while you’re very happy with your husband. Yeah. And like, mournful for a former self. Right.

S13: Exactly. Mournful for a former self.

S8: I would love for you not to feel bad about that. And just to just to realize that that happens to everyone. There are thoughts of pop up in your head that we might not want to think from time to time. And that’s totally OK, right? There’s nothing wrong with it. That’s just the human mind. And so, you know, it’s how you act on those thoughts and what you do. And but if you’re setting your goal to never, ever experience a thought about something that you don’t want to, it’s just it’s setting you up to have a really difficult challenge to to meet.

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S12: Here’s our next rule. Give yourself a break from scrutinizing the chatter in your head. Ethan says, to think of your thoughts like a school bus, passengers get on and off the bus all the time. Some are well-behaved, others aren’t. You don’t have to feel bad about that. You can’t control who’s on the bus, but you can control how you interact with them.

S8: So, Amelia, you mentioned that you haven’t spoken about this with your husband for understandable reasons. Is there anyone that you’ve talked to about it?

S1: My my mother, my sister and I vented to them about it. And they’re very understanding. I wouldn’t say that they’re kind of providing me with some new narrative or or anything. They’re more like listening to me and and agreeing.

S6: Seems to me like these conversations then, based on what you just told me, may have been really good at at helping satisfy what we would call your emotional needs, which are these needs to be validated and be heard, but not necessarily helpful in helping you satisfy your cognitive needs, which is this this need for closure and reframing. There are a lot of people in my life who I’m exceptionally close to, people who I love a lot, and I’m pretty sure they love me back. Why I don’t talk to about my chatter because I know it doesn’t do anything that might make me feel better. In fact, it just keep it keeps it active. It’s like now I’m just thinking about even more. Can I just talked about it.

S1: Right, for forty five minutes. Exactly the same thing for me. It’s like when I talk about it then I’m all riled up and I’m like that didn’t help me. Like I’m just so emotional about it.

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S6: So we call, there’s a technical word for it’s called call rumination. It’s where and again you feel really connected to the person you’re talking to. So that feels good in the moment. But you end the conversation and you’re all riled up. Yeah. You’re not feeling better. So, you know, I remember one time I was really upset about something and a friend said something as simple as can you can you just ride that, ride it out, you know? And basically what he was saying to me was many emotions like fade over time, ride it out is what works in every situation. But it’s knowing the friend you could turn to that can try to give you that little nudge to to shift. How you’re thinking about things can be really helpful.

S7: So here’s our next rule, venting has its place, and it might feel good, but it doesn’t always help. Beware of what Ethan calls Kuruma rumination. As good as it feels to have a loved one. Affirm your feelings that can leave you dwelling on your inner chatter even more so you may not want to approach your most solicitous friend. Instead, find someone you can talk to who will help you consider another perspective or shift that narrative in your head.

S14: One of the things we know is that it’s much easier for people to to give advice to other people than it is to follow that advice ourselves. And so, you know, another thing you might think about is when you find yourself ruminating about this experience or struggling in some way, think about your best friend. Like, what advice would you give them if if they were going through this, what would you tell them to do? And then give yourself that advice and you can actually use language to help you think about yourself like you were a friend. We call this distance self talk, and it involves trying to coach yourself through a problem to find a solution using your own name.

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S5: That’s interesting, Ethan. That reminds me of a series of studies with endurance athletes that tested different types of self talk and found that first person was tended to be less useful and in this case was actually second person. That was often you say like you’re going to make it up this hill instead of I’m going to make up this hill. So it’s not the third person, but I think a similar principle.

S8: Yeah. And in fact, there’s actually no no substantive difference between the second and the third. They’re actually interchangeable. Like Ethan, you should do this. The key is, is, is really using language that we usually use to communicate with another person and that can often be helpful in preventing them from really getting stuck in the in the mess of of the resident goals in your head.

S7: Here’s our next rule, use distanced self talk, don’t just talk to other people, talk to yourself as if you were other people using second or third person self talk actually helps you get a more useful perspective on your internal dialogue.

S2: And if none of this works, Ethan has a whole toolbox of other things to try. You may even do some of it already. Go outside and take a walk, focus on the things you find are inspiring, whether that’s something in nature or maybe a work of art or organize the space around you. Ethan says that giving your exterior a sense of tidiness can actually compensate for the messiness in your mind and feel soothing.

S1: Can I ask you another question? Yeah. What happens if these thoughts just never go away for the rest of my life? I’ve also wondered that and been like that would like is that is that normal?

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S8: Like, well, you know, I would say the cue to seek out professional help at any moment in time is if you find that what you’re experiencing is substantially interfering with your quality of life on a daily basis.

S6: But I would also say that rather than thinking about whether this is your destiny for the rest of your life, let’s refocus on what you’re going through right now, thinking about what she will be thinking about in the future.

S5: It it made me think of the so-called ironic processes like Dostoyevsky, who wrote when you tell someone, try not to think of a white bear, and and suddenly you tell someone that and start thinking about a white bear 10 times as often because they’re trying to not think about a white bear. Go ahead and try it.

S12: Whatever you do, don’t think about a white bear.

S5: And I wonder it sounds a little bit like Amelia’s in that thinking a little bit, that that rumination of, OK, I’m going to try not to think about this thing in the future, but does that when you end up sort of doing that introspection or rumination on thinking about not thinking about something, does that sort of turn into a cycle? And it can certainly be troubling.

S12: OK, time out.

S4: Are you still thinking about a white bear? Stop thinking about the white bear.

S10: You know, there are several ways to try to break out of that. One thing I would suggest is you phrase this as like what? What if I never stop thinking about this? And one common tool to shift that perspective is so what I’m saying, what if I say so what? So what if I keep thinking about this? So what? OK, you know, like life is good. I got my husband. We’re starting a family. It’s like an antidote for, you know, once you get into the what ifs, it can be never ending and it can be paralyzing and scary. And and the beauty of the. So what is it flips the whole internal narrative on its head. It’s it’s essentially neutralizing it, saying.

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S1: Right, big deal. Yeah. Right.

S4: So it sounds like I don’t think you’re saying repress these things, but you’re also not saying give me your life.

S10: Is that right? Or some, you know, trying to repress these thoughts? The data would suggest it is not a likely successful endeavor, because the more we kind of muffle try to muffle them and push them down, the more they tend to resurface. So instead, the idea is to change the way you think about it.

S4: Here’s our final rule. Instead of what if we reach for so what? You can’t necessarily control the thoughts that pop into your head, but you can control your reaction. Like maybe you’re still thinking about a white bear. So what? Finally, Ethan says that couching your thoughts in universal experience can work the same way as saying, so what, it reduces your anxiety. Rest assured, there are plenty of other people out there dealing with similar feelings. And so remind yourself of that when you use distanced yourself, talk.

S8: Jennifer Lawrence, the actress, you know, during a very stressful interview with The New York Times, stopped in the in the middle and said to yourself, OK, Jennifer, get get it all together. This isn’t therapy to, like, recalibrate herself. So does hearing that in any way change the way you think about things?

S13: It does. And honestly, this conversation is just put a new perspective on everything and made me feel so much better about my relationship with my thoughts.

S6: You know, I think you’ve done a gift by sharing your experience with everyone, because I think we all have these kinds of memories resurface from time to time that we don’t want to have. And so we’re giving other people the opportunity to recognize that.

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S13: Just hearing you as a scientist, as a professional, like even though I know like I know I’m not the only one, sometimes I feel like, oh, well, you know, nobody else is thinking about it this long or no one, you know, like you’re telling me that it’s just it’s normal, you know.

S2: Thank you to Amelia for sharing her story with us and thanks to Ethan Kross for all his great advice, be sure to look for his book, Chatter The Voice in Our Head Why It Matters and How to Harness It. Do you have a problem you can’t stop thinking about, you can vent to us at how to at Slate Dotcom or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. And if you like what you heard today, please give us some love wherever you listen. By leaving a radio interview, it helps us find more listeners and normalise the chatter and all of our heads. How TOS executive producer is Derek John, Rachel Allen and Rosemarie Bellson produced the show. Our theme music is by Hannis Brown, remixed by Merritt Jacob. Our technical director Charles Duhigg, our former host would not have been amused by Amelia’s dog. To understand why, check out our episode How to Get Your Dog to Stop Eating Your Daughter’s Underwear with Jenny Slate. I’m David Epstein. Stop thinking about the white already.