Gandhi said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” And Carl Jung said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.”
My guest today is Dr. Ethan Kross, a psychologist, author, and professor at the University of Michigan. He is one of the world’s leading experts on controlling the conscious mind, and in his new book Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters and How to Harness It, he explores how the silent conversations that individuals have with themselves impact their life from their health to their performance to decisions in their relationships.
And in this episode, we discuss and dive in deep on how to control and engage with thoughts when they enter your mind, how to not let your negative thoughts define you and hold you back, some daily practices to help you improve your mental health, the benefits of mentally time traveling, and how to shift the inner monologue you experience into productivity and confidence.
Dr. Ethan Kross is one of the world’s leading experts on controlling the conscious mind. An award-winning professor and bestselling author in the University of Michigan’s top-ranked Psychology Department and its Ross School of Business, he studies how the conversations people have with themselves impact their health, performance, decisions, and relationships.
Dr. Ethan was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated magna cum laude. After earning his Ph.D. in Psychology from Columbia University, Ethan completed a post-doctoral fellowship in social-affective neuroscience to learn about the neural systems that support self-control. He moved to the University of Michigan in 2008, where he founded the Emotion & Self Control Laboratory.
Dr. Ethan’s research has been published in Science, The New England Journal of Medicine, and The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, among other peer-reviewed journals. He has participated in policy discussions at the White House and has been interviewed on Good Morning America, Anderson Cooper Full Circle, and NPR’s Morning Edition. His pioneering research has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, and Time.
Dr. Ethan is the author of the national bestseller Chatter, which was chosen as one of the best new books of the year by the Washington Post.
Let’s jump right in!
I always said that our thoughts dictate the outcomes of our lives. They are the beginning stages of what we manifest, attract, and create if we think more positively and more vision-based higher-level thinking thoughts. Of course, if we think a lot of negative, consuming thoughts, we can attract that type of environment as well. These topics used to be on the fringe and seen as ‘out there’ — but now we have Dr. Ethan Kross with decades of research behind him sharing his findings in his book and lectures.
The big question he often gets is whether it’s possible to control the conscious mind.
“We don’t have control over the thoughts that pop [up], but what we do have control over is how we engage with those thoughts once they surface. We can choose to immerse ourselves in the thoughts. I can also choose to distance myself from my thoughts or challenge my thoughts. There’s a range of things we can do when thoughts pop up — that’s where the control comes in.” – Dr. Ethan Kross
Our thoughts are basically the same as our life — we can’t control external events that happen, just how we react to them. It’s a great way to make a distinction between what we can and can’t control and what to focus on.
It’s a pity we aren’t taught in a systematic way how to manage our thoughts. I guess that’s why Dr. Kross’s book is even more useful!
Dr. Kross is one of the leading experts in controlling the conscious mind, it’s always easy to assume that just because someone studies a subject and is an expert that they have mastered it in their own lives, so you might think he’s mastered his own mind. In fact, studies show that for most of us, people are better at advising others on what to do than taking their own advice.
“There’s a name for this phenomenon — it’s called Solomon’s Paradox, named after the Bible’s King Solomon who was famous for being wise. If you read his story, he was not wise when it came to his own life — he had concubines, and they all got in fights, and his whole kingdom unraveled. This is a truism, that I can tell [many] other people how to manage their chatter, but that doesn’t mean I never struggle with it myself. I like to think I’m pretty good at it, but I still experience blips of chatter.” – Dr. Ethan Kross
Perhaps this is one of the greatest lessons we can learn — no matter how experienced someone is in a topic, the work never ends. We’re all human, and we need to let go of chasing this illusory goal we set ourselves of reaching the endpoint. The aim is not that we never have chatter again, it’s that we train ourselves as best we can to recognize it and deal with it effectively.
“The moment I catch myself experiencing chatter, I try to put an end to it by using the tools that are in the book and other tools out there.” – Dr. Ethan Kross
I’m excited to dive deeper into these tools and understand their application, especially as our mind’s chatter is a daily non-stop occurrence.
Dr. Kross makes it perfectly clear that he believes there is no silver bullet to this, that even aside from the tools he shares in his book there is no set strategy that works for everyone.
“We often hear, ‘do this and it’s going to rid you of anxiety.’ I’ve been doing research for 20 years [and] I have yet to find it. What I have found are [many] tools that can be used in combinations to help people. One thing [we can] do is something called mental time travel, or in technical terms, we call it temporal distancing.” – Dr. Ethan Kross
Dr. Kross was asked to talk recently where they kept complicating the situation. It first started with the producers wanting him to record it. After sending it to them, they said the lighting was poor and needed to be re-recorded. Eventually, they changed it at the last minute back to what he prefers — a live presentation.
“I felt a little bit of chatter beginning to brew, then I just reminded myself, ‘Ethan, you’ve given literally hundreds of presentations. They’ve never tanked in a terrible way.’ That realization and looking at that broader perspective, the bigger picture, is really useful. The second thing I would do is, I don’t know if you were listening carefully, but when I just simulated what I did before, I used my own name to coach myself through the third person. We call it distance self-talk, and that’s another tool that I think is … really useful.” – Dr. Ethan Kross
When do we use names? When we think about and address other people. Names in our brains are the currency of thinking about others. By thinking about ourselves with this method, it automatically switches our perspective and allows us to engage our own problems as though we’re advising someone else.
“Another category is what we might think of as people tools — ways of interacting with others that can help us. When people experience chatter, they’re often intensely motivated to talk about it with other people to share their emotions to get help and support.” – Dr. Ethan Kross
While it might sound like a great idea to talk to friends and family, Dr. Kross warns about the complications that exist by using this option and the danger of potentially making it even worse.
“If you start asking me questions about what happened, I start sharing what I felt and we keep going back and forth. That makes me feel really good about our friendship, I feel really close and connected with you. Research shows that when you vent that strengthens friendships, but if all we do is harp on what happened, that’s called co-rumination. I leave that conversation and I’m just as upset as when I started — I’m just throwing logs on a burning fire. The best kinds of conversations to manage chatter do two things: You connect emotionally with someone else, but the person you’re talking to [needs to] help you broaden your perspective.” – Dr. Ethan Kross
There’s a really important take-home lesson here. Knowing what these two pieces are to get good chatter support from others allows us to be more deliberate about who we seek out for support. And if it’s you that someone’s coming to? Remember to listen, deeply empathize to connect, and then start reframing.
We try to shift and send out positive information to overcome the bad and negative — but understanding why controlling the way we use our thoughts is beneficial; it helps us take the necessary actions to implement the tools in Dr. Kross’s book. What would it look like if a person had 80-90% positive thoughts or powerful thoughts on a daily basis?
“We could reverse engineer things to answer that question. Let’s go to the opposite spectrum and you’re filled with chatter. I think this is one of the big problems we face as a species. Why? Because here are the three domains that chatter targets and sinks us in our ability to think and perform: When your mind’s on that hamster wheel, all of your attention is on your problems. It makes it really hard to perform under stress and leads habits to unravel because we get stuck in paralysis by analysis. Another domain of life that we care about [is] relationships. Chatter creates friction in our social relationships, and it does in a few different ways. One, if I want to talk to you about my problems, one thing that often happens with chatters, I talk and I keep talking and keep talking, and there’s a limit to how much even the most well-intentioned loved ones and colleagues can take on without them experiencing their own chatter.” – Dr. Ethan Kross
If our mind is somewhere else, then we’re not listening or paying attention. Suppose you ask a family member at the dinner table about their day, but your chatter takes over, and 10 minutes later you ask the same question, and that causes more friction in your relationship.
“The last domain is our physical health. People often say that stress kills, I think that’s a little bit misleading because the ability to experience a stress reaction, a fight or flight reaction, is a feat of evolution. If there’s a threat it’s really good to know there is this response that quickly prepares me for how to react. What makes stress toxic is when the stress reaction goes up and that remains elevated over time. That’s what chatter does because we experienced the stressful event, but then we re-experience it over and over by thinking about it and reliving it on autoplay.” – Dr. Ethan Kross
This is certainly a great reason to develop our ability to use the tools available to control our chatter — better performance, better relationships, and better health.
Guys, there was so much information in this episode that I couldn’t fit all of it into this post. You can listen to the full episode for more of Dr. Kross’s wisdom, and don’t forget to share it with your friends.
If you enjoyed this conversation, please make sure to spread the message of greatness and inspire someone else in your life. It would be really great if you could also tag Dr. Kross, @ethankross, and me, @lewis howes, on Instagram with a screenshot of this episode and your greatest takeaways from it.
I want to acknowledge Ethan for showing up powerfully for the last couple of decades, doing the research, doing this work, helping students who need it the most at the University of Michigan, and helping the world through this book. I feel like these strategies and tools are the things we need the most.
I love to finish off each episode by asking my guest what their definition of greatness is:
“Leaving another person a little bit better off than before they met you, and leaving the world just a little bit better than it was before I came on it.” – Dr. Ethan Kross
I want to leave with this quote from the psychologist Abraham Maslow who said, “In any given moment, we have two options: to step forward into growth, or to step back into safety.”
Are you living a safe life? Are you living a comfortable life? Is it too comfortable, or are you doing things on a daily basis to help you get beyond your insecurities, your fears, and your doubts to things that hold you back from greater joy in your life? Every great thing comes when you overcome insecurity. So lean into your insecurities and go all-in on those fears because I’m telling you — there is magic and beauty on the other side.
I want to remind you if no one’s told you lately that you are loved, you are worthy, and you matter. It’s time to go out there and do something great.