Have you ever noticed there’s an internal voice constantly chattering away inside your head?
Few like to admit to hearing voices but, the truth is, we’re all accompanied through life by an inner monologue.
This internal voice is forever analyzing, interpreting, and commenting on what’s happening. Or what happened. Or what might happen.
“I can’t believe he said that. Is he having a dig at me? Should I defend myself or should I just let it go? I hope no one else heard, that would be embarrassing.”
“I’m going to be late for the meeting. This will look terrible. It’s the second time I’ve been late this week. What will they think? Perhaps I should look for another job anyway. I’m clearly not cut out for this…”
The mind never shuts up, does it?
The ability to reflect and ruminate is a powerful cognitive asset. Alas, it’s one that can also become self-destructive. Have you ever found this inner voice criticising, berating, and even bullying you?
“You’re fat, ugly, and a loser — who in their right mind would find YOU attractive?”
“Of course you won’t get the job, you’re not smart enough.”
“What’s the point in even bothering trying to get published? You know your work is rubbish, anyway.”
With an inner voice like that, who needs enemies?
One scientific study, by Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, concludes that “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.” (1)
The question is, why does the mind function this way and, more importantly, what can we do about it?
How the Mind Evolved to Self Reflect
In the distant past, human beings lived instinctually. We saw ourselves as one with our environment. Driven by survival instincts, we dealt with situations and threats as and when they arose. Our sense of ‘self’, or ego, was rudimentary and undeveloped.
The advent of civilization, thousands of years ago, required the human brain to adapt. The population was growing rapidly. We needed the ability to plan, coordinate, and work in organizational structures. As a result, our brains got bigger.
Thanks to a more developed prefrontal cortex, we were able to use memory and experience to find solutions to problems. We further developed language, hierarchical power structures, and new social and organizational skills.
With the development of the brain came a much more solidified sense of self or ‘ego’. The notion of “I, me, and mine” came to the forefront. One of the results of this is self-talk, our persistent inner monologue.
But what’s all this self-talk about?
The Default Mode Network
This inner talk correlates with the brain’s “default mode network”, or “DMN” for short.
The DMN is the root of your ceaseless “story of me”. It’s the part of you that’s always worrying about what might happen and what others might be thinking. Forever trying to interpret and analyze your experience, it’s fixated on the dreaded ‘what if?’ scenarios.
However, this network does serve a necessary cognitive function. It’s a storehouse of autobiographical information. It helps you with memory, learning, planning, self-regulation, self-control, and decision-making. Your internal monologue is actually the mind’s way of trying to protect you.
By constantly reflecting on situations, events, and possible scenarios, it’s trying to gauge all outcomes. Like a computer running simulations, the mind wants to prepare you for what might happen. It’s the part of your psyche that’s desperate to try to control things and hold your life together.
The problem is, when out of balance, this brain network can cause all kinds of problems. An overactive DMN may be linked to anxiety, depression, ADHD and many other clinical disorders. It would seem the old saying, “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop” has some bearing in reality.
Neuroscientists call it the “default network” for a reason. When the brain isn’t actively engaged in tasks, it defaults to self-talk mode. Studies have shown this “self-referential internal narrative” to be present at least 50% of waking life.
While the ability to think is one of our greatest gifts, the tendency to overthink can be our greatest curse…
Our own minds can literally drive us insane.
The Inner Neurotic
The mind is wired to be on the constant lookout for threats. That’s how the human race has survived, particularly back when we had to fight for our very survival.
Even though most people no longer face daily threats to their survival, the mind is still looking out for trouble. Therefore, in the absence of an actual problem, you can almost guarantee the mind will manufacture one.
You’re likely to be familiar with the ‘inner critic’.
This is the part of the mind that acts like a judging parent, berating you for the least transgression. This can go into overdrive, particularly in times of stress. Instead of working for you, the mind can seem to work against you, inflating every little personal imperfection to ten times its normal size.
In his book “The Four Agreements“, Don Miguel Ruiz presents the Toltec’s view of mind.
Toltecs speak of two components of mind: the inner Judge and the inner Victim.
The Judge, or inner critic, constantly judges and condemns us. On some level, we’re all trying to measure up to an illusory sense of ‘perfection’. When we fail, we reject and judge ourselves. The mind then slips into Victim mode, leaving us with all kinds of guilt, blame, and shame.
This takes the form of our endless and often cruel inner monologue; a war raging within our mind and psyche.
How to Free Your Mind
He came to realize that most of his thinking was useless, repetitive, and consumed far too much of his energy.
He spent years meditating and doing yoga in an attempt to still his inner voice. He worked at a busy and demanding job. Yet he was so dedicated that he got up at 4 am every morning to spend 2 hours meditating before work.
Weber’s work finally paid off. One day he got into his yoga pose only to find he “entered into a state of complete inner stillness.” He’d had glimpses of this state before in meditation. But this time the no-thought state became his abiding, default state of mind.
“Except for a few stray thoughts first thing in the morning,” he says, “the old thought-track has never come back.”
In spite of this radical inner shift, he still found he functioned just as effectively at work and in other situations. “I can still reason and problem solve, I just don’t have this ongoing emotionally-charged self-referential narrative gobbling up bandwidth.”
This is good news for thinkers like you and I. Part of me clings to my obsessive mind. I feel like there are diamonds within the clutter but, without thinking all the time, I will miss out on it all. So, I let myself be bogged down by thoughts and wait patiently for the important ones.
Gary’s experience proves my line of thinking wrong. We can rest easy knowing that the right thoughts will come at the right time. More thoughts do not mean we will have better thoughts. In fact, the evidence shows the opposite – an overactive DMN can lead to unhappiness, anxiety, stress, and mental illness (2).
Weber proves there’s another way. The secret is to shift into modes more conducive to happiness and present-centered living.
Here are six practical ways to manage your self-talk, master the mind, and send the DMN into hibernation:
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