January 05, 2022
By Dr Kathy Weston
2022 looks rather innocuous on paper doesn’t it? Yet, who knows how the months will unfold! I tend to find that January speeds by in the blink of an eye and, preferring not to peer too far into the distant future, I keep myself going by keeping my mental eye on the prize of spring, with its resplendent cherry blossom.
Rather than making resolutions, I feel the need to make an urgent list of nice things I can look forward to (to the amusement of friends who get asked what their summer plans are on January 1st). I like to articulate a few small goals that I am pretty sure I can achieve.
January is a time to turn up the volume on the kinder voice in one’s head. You know, the supportive, friendly one that tries to drown out that other voice; the critical, undermining one. Positive self-talk means being able to nod one’s head at the internal ‘Gremlin’, determined to take us down a notch or infuse us with self-doubt, and being able to move confidently on. Gremlin thoughts are inaccurate, anxiety-inducing and, often, intolerably mean. By paying attention to our self-talk and activating our interest in it, we can unlock a truly powerful everyday coping mechanism. It is exciting, freeing even, to know that you can be your own bestie.
If you fear uncertainty, think about the things that anchor you (which are often intangible); security, purpose, the experience of being loved, the little things in your life that you enjoy and the people who make you feel heard and valued. Forgive yourself if you haven’t got everything right in 2021, or feel a little bit shaky about 2022. Reassure yourself that you have come far, remind yourself that someone out there thinks you are doing a great job and reminisce about a few, recent experiences that have gone surprisingly well. Try to relax into January, rather than leap into it.
Ethan Kross is one of the world’s leading experimental psychologists and neuroscientists on controlling the conscious mind, and has recently written his first book, "Chatter: The Voice in Our Head and How to Harness It".
His book is refreshingly frank, starting with his own tale of how he allowed his nasty inner Gremlin to chatter far too loudly to him and dictate an irrational response to a threat, and details how he applies his scientific knowledge to his own situation. I particularly enjoyed the reflections on his childhood. Even as a toddler, his father continuously encouraged him to “go inside” if he had a problem, and to value introspection as a key life skill. Introspection means paying attention to one’s own thoughts and feelings, and is an important first step towards problem-solving. It challenges us to slow down, avoid impulsivity and be more measured in our responses.
However, introspection has a dark side too (explored in the book), which new research shows can lead to paranoia, a festering of emotions and aggression. It is the internal “chatter” (cyclical negative thoughts and emotions) that Kross maintains we need to monitor and manage. Chatter can entail constant rumination or pinballing between worries. Honing our conversational skills with our conscious mind is key to the sort of beneficial introspection that will enhance our ability to cope and thrive. Kross helpfully reminds us that the instruments needed to reduce chatter are within ‘plain sight’. His book encourages us to work on this aspect of ourselves and invites us to consider what we are modelling to our children.
So, let’s start with the individual in the mirror. What strategies do we use to reduce the Gremlin chatter, the self-doubt, and the fear that can enter our internal dialogue and threaten our wellbeing and ability to achieve our goals? It is a good talking point around the January dinner table. Do you ever hear a little inner voice? Does it ever irritate you? How do you respond to it?
Kross’s book underlines some juicy coping tools that you may recognise and indeed already use! Have you ever found yourself trying to ‘zoom out’ and gain some perspective on your situation? Tried to look at your life from a ‘bird’s eye view’? Ever tried placing your challenge within a wider context to reduce its impact? Temporal distancing or wondering how you might look back on this issue in ten years’ time can be an effective way of getting through stressful occasions.
Laughter can be a powerful tool for reframing difficult or uncomfortable situations. Recently, I found myself in a hotel lobby in an airport, watching my children do a complicated PCR test that involved spitting into a narrow tube surrounded by adults in FFP3 masks, shouting muffled instructions. It was bewildering. I found myself immediately trying to reduce the strangeness of it all by making them laugh about how tricky it was to aim spit in the right direction, and we all wondered what they might tell their offspring about this experience, way back in 2021.
One of my favourite strategies for drowning out negative self-chatter is to tell “Kathy” to just stop it, calm down or “wise up” (a good Northern Irish expression!). Placing oneself in the third person immediately injects objectivity and distance into internal conversation and allows wisdom, rather than irrationality, to dominate. Sharing this particular strategy with my own children made them laugh (before they realised that they also occasionally do it). Modelling coping and showing our children that we, their confident, superhero caregivers, also experience self-doubt, and aim to tackle it head-on, is a great gift.
In addition to modelling, we may help reduce persistent negative self-talk by ensuring our children have access to means of expressing and working through emotion. Diaries, journals, music, artistic expression and play are all well-established routes to emotional expression and regulation. With younger children, imaginary play, in particular, is a proven method for promoting internal speech.
Lastly, ensuring our children feel ‘anchored’ as much as possible to their own lives, routines and communities, as well as being conscious of who is there for them, can really help, particularly at a time when everything else feels frustratingly in flux.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
Encouraging children to set some achievable goals is a great way to help them build self-confidence and develop a sense of purpose, so parents in Tooled Up schools might like to download our brand new 2022 Goal Setting Planner, just published today. It prompts children, young people and adults to set some targets for the year ahead. It’s also always worth ensuring that young people know who they can turn to, in times of need. Use our activity, Who is There for Me?, to make sure that they have mapped out their support network.
On a different note, have you listened to our most recent podcasts? We’ve now spoken to over 80 leading experts from numerous different areas of psychology, neuroscience and education. All interviews can be found in the Tooled Up library, complete with exclusive notes. In only the two weeks before Christmas, we added an interview with Professor Christia Spears Brown on reducing bias, spoke to Jen Gale about sustainable living, found out about the MeeToo mental help app with founder Suzi Godson and chatted to our latest Researcher of the Month, Professor Charlotte Markey, about boys’ body image.