Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
This is an excerpt from the book Are You Ready to Succeed: Unconventional Strategies for Achieving Personal Mastery in Business and Life by Srikumar S. Rao:
It’s Mental Chatter, and It Is Real
Okay, so the world you live in is not “real.” Or rather, it is real but only one of many different possible realities. Certainly the pain you experience, the frustration you feel, the loneliness that comes welling up, the stress that assaults you—these emotions are all real. You have the medical bills to prove it! The truth is that you were intimately involved in bringing this reality about. We all construct our own realities. But why, then, would you create one that is so full of things for which you have no particular affection? How did this happen? The answer is simple. You did it through your mental chatter without even realizing it. You did it unconsciously. You were playing with matches—lighting them and throwing them aside idly. You just never knew there was gasoline around till the flames engulfed you. Unfortunately, ignorance does not keep gas from igniting.
Your Constant Companion
You have a companion. One that never, ever leaves you. It sticks with you, staying even closer than your shadow, which forsakes you when you walk indoors and leave the sun. This companion comes right along with you. You cannot shake it loose.
This constant companion is your mental chatter.
If you observe your mind, there is always a monologue going on. It begins the moment you open your eyes in the morning and carries on every single second till you close your eyes at night. More often than you’d like, this chatter prevents you from drifting off to sleep. And when you do finally doze off, it may well make that rest fitful.
Think about what happens to you when you get up. Are you like Cynthia, whose mental chatter goes like this? “Drat! There’s that alarm again. I don’t want to get up. Do I have to get up? I think I can sleep another ten minutes. I’m going to hit the snooze button. It’s cold. Wish I could sleep forever…
“No toothpaste. I told him to get a new tube before he used up the old one, but he forgot again. How inconsiderate. I don’t think he loves me anymore. If he did, he wouldn’t deliberately aggravate me the way he does. Why does he do it? He didn’t use to be
like this. At one time he was actually charming. He would hold doors open for me and get me roses and come home early for dinner and pour wine.
“Dinner! That reminds me. He invited his parents for dinner on Saturday and didn’t even consult me. How could he? He knows his mother drives me up the wall. I bet she’ll go all around the house checking for dust. It’ll really make her day if she spots a cobweb. How could anyone possibly be so shallow? I used to wonder how a flibbertigibbet like her could have such a nice son, but I was mistaken. There is a lot of her in him. Why couldn’t I see it before? Blast him! He can cook on Saturday. I’m busy. I’ll make sure I have to go to work to finish the Hewlett report. That’ll show him.
“Look at that blond bimbo crossing the street. Looks just like Gwyneth Paltrow. Why can’t I look like Gwyneth Paltrow? Slim and leggy. Every tiny bit of chocolate I eat goes directly to my hips and sticks there. What a hussy. Does she have to show so much leg? I bet her sex life is better than mine. Give it another five years and she’ll have a double chin, too. That’ll teach her.
“Bet all the guys are nice to her and fall over themselves to do things for her. Why is life so cosmically unfair? There’s one just like her in my office. My boss is always reaching for her. What a creep! He has two legs and eight hands. He’d never try that with me. He knows better than that. I’m not that kind of girl.
“Darn, I’m late again. Why won’t the darn subway come? I bet the token clerk saw I was in a rush and phoned the motorman to hold up the train. They do that all the time. Why do they always pick on me? Why don’t they pick on Ms. Paltrow over there? Oh no, they wouldn’t. They’d hurry up the train for her. Why do they always do this when I’m running late?
“I wish she wouldn’t lean over me like that. She really should use deodorant. She wouldn’t need to if she weren’t so overweight. Probably eats fast food every day and lets her kids do the same and they are all obese and sick most of the time and see too many doctors and that’s what makes health care so expensive and that’s why my premiums keep going up. It’s all her fault! She’s actually smiling at me. Seems friendly, too. Maybe she’s really quite nice, but she is unhealthy and she IS driving my premiums up.
“I can’t believe how long it took to get to the office. Got to slow down. Walk in dignified. Would never do to rush in like a schoolgirl. I’ll tell J.T. that I had to get the Sandman file from accounting and that’s what made me late. Hope he won’t ask me for it immediately. It’s in my filing cabinet and that would give the game away. Why do I have to make up stories? I wouldn’t have to if I looked like Jennifer—all blond and leggy. And look at those skirts. What a tramp. He never challenges her when she walks in half an hour late.
“Have to go to the candidate meeting. Whoever thought that one up? Certified cretin! Said if all of us met the candidate at the same time in a conference room it would save time. Baloney! All of them ask questions to show how smart they are. No one pays attention to the candidate’s answers. We never get to know anything about any of the candidates. Not that it matters a bit. He’ll just hire whoever he wants. The guys don’t have a chance, but they don’t know that. He’ll give the job to the one with the biggest boobs.
“Lunchtime! Let’s get the hell out of here. Lorna stood me up again. Why do I ever bother with her? She says I’m her best friend and never even gives me notice when she can’t make it. I wanted to tell her about my mother-in-law coming for dinner. Now I’ll have to stew in silence. Maybe Gretchen is free. Let’s try her. She told me I should keep Lorna further away. Where’s my cell phone? I left it at home. Just the kind of thing that always happens to me. Now…
“Does Cynthia’s chatter sound familiar? How exhausting! You have your own version of her inner monologue. The wonder is not that you feel stressed and overwhelmed. The wonder is that you are functional at all!
Sue Your Surgeon!
Let’s suppose that there is a marvelous new gizmo that has just come on the market and you want to be one of the very first to get it. It’s a computer chip that will provide you with the very finest in audio and video entertainment and it has to be surgically implanted in your skull. You look forward eagerly to a lifetime of enriching entertainment.
The surgeon screws up. The remote control is tongue operated and it does not work. You cannot change channels. The volume control is busted. It is unpredictable. At times the audio is deafening, so loud it feels as if the entire orchestra has abandoned musical instruments for jackhammers. At others there is barely a whisper.
Sometimes the images and music are vivid and pleasing. At others they are equally sharp but ghastly and frightening. But all too often you experience dull, grainy darkness. A depiction of the rain pouring and pouring and pouring.
You can’t turn it off. It explodes into activity when you are trying to sleep and robs you of rest when you need it most. It freely and constantly prevents you from doing what you want. It beguiles you into actions that you almost instantly regret. It gets you into endless trouble.
How long would you put up with this? How long would it take before you were laying out your case to the best malpractice lawyer in town? And how easy would it be to collect and how many zeroes would your award have? This may seem like a ludicrous example, but you have such a chip embedded in your cranium right now. You accept it because you don’t think of it as a chip—you know it as your mind even though it behaves exactly as described above. You think it is “normal.” But now that you know you can change your reality, what do you propose to do about it?
Little Droppings Make a Mountain of Dung: Your VOJ at Work
When you examine your mental chatter, you will find it is an unending stream of noise, but you will also quickly discern that this noise has patterns. One of the most powerful and prevalent is your Voice of Judgment (dubbed VOJ by Michael Ray, emeritus professor of creativity at Stanford Business School). This voice works like a hammer. Sometimes it is a twenty-pound sledgehammer and sometimes it is a jeweler’s mallet. Sometimes it pounds you on an anvil and sometimes it merely gives you a mild headache. But it always does a darn good job of flattening you.
Sometimes your VOJ puts you down directly. “You’re such a dummy,” it says. “However did you get a job? You don’t deserve it. You’ll find some way to screw up. If a jigsaw puzzle had only nine pieces, you’d still get it wrong.”
At other times it puts you down more subtly by comparing you, to your disadvantage, with someone else. “Look at him,” the voice purrs. “He’s so smooth. Never at a loss for a honeyed word or a gracious compliment. Never tongue-tied in a meeting. That’s the kind of person who gets promoted. Not a dumb schmuck like you who messes up reading the writing on a Powerpoint slide.”
Your VOJ is equally ready to judge others. All others. “Look at her slouching. She’s probably had a couple of drinks already. Her nose is red. That proves it. She HAS been drinking.”
Or, it can be gracious—”What a charming couple! They must have a wonderful marriage!” But the odds are that most of its pronouncements are decidedly negative. Your VOJ has an unerring ability to insinuate itself into the stream of your mental chatter in insidious and negative ways.
When you wake up in the morning and start thinking of all that you have to get done, before you have taken a single action, your VOJ reminds you of all your weaknesses and failures. As your to-do list begins growing faster than a popcorn bag in a microwave, your VOJ cuts in, remarking, “You’ll never get all that done. You’re a dope. Why did you have to watch the late show? You’ve got no self-control. That’s why you’ll never go anyplace, never accomplish anything.”
Your boss is toxic and you are contemplating letting him know that you will not take it anymore and your VOJ pipes up, “That’s dumb. Be grateful you have a job. Lots of others would give their right arms to be where you are. You’ll rub him the wrong way and he’ll fire you and then where will you be?” Your VOJ keeps you trapped in that unhealthy situation.
Over time, the negative judgments start to accumulate. Eventually they form a huge barrier that is placed squarely in front of you on the path to your ideal life. This obstruction is like a coral reef, a strong structure capable of ripping the bottom off the stoutest oceangoing vessel ever made. Yet a coral polyp is a tiny, really tiny, animal that leaves behind a bony skeleton when it dies. Each individual polyp is insignificant and, when taken alone, is of absolutely no consequence. But tens of thousands of polyps, millions of polyps, die and their skeletons bond into that awesome reef.
Your mental chatter and VOJ work exactly like that. Each judgment, each individual chain of thought, may be evanescent, disappearing like each tiny polyp when it dies. But each leaves behind its mark. You have been entertaining an unending stream of mental chatter for all of your waking moments for decades. That stream leaves behind a lot of faint residue. In fact, the accumulation is no longer faint. It is quite a sturdy edifice. As sturdy as any coral reef.
That reef is your reality. It has imprisoned you. And that is how you built it. You never even realized what you were building as you were constructing it. Even if you were dimly aware at times of your tendency toward negativity, you probably dismissed your thoughts as either unimportant or as well-deserved criticisms. And you were partially correct. Each individual coral polyp is unimportant. Each individual thought is inconsequential. But when taken together, they form a massive, destructive reef—the reality of your life.
It’s a Highjacking
Have you ever been to a Web site—in all probability one that you should not have visited!—when your browser froze? And then you were attacked by pop-up ads? You click on the cross at the upper-right-hand corner of the screen and nothing happens. Or the screen vanishes but is instantly replaced by another, and another, and another. It is like flailing at a swarm of insects. Sometimes the only way out is to turn off your computer and reboot it. Remember how it felt? These pop-up ads are another pattern our mental chatter takes.
Have you ever considered that you allow yourself to experience this frustration all the time? Only, because you call it “Life,” you have learned to live with it.
What are these dangerous pop-ups? They are all the ideas, beliefs, habits, and attitudes that you have collected. They came from your parents, your relatives, your teachers, your friends. They came from society and from the media. You picked them up and absorbed them without examination. And now they have taken over your life, intruding constantly without your permission. They have hijacked you!
Where do these pop-up ads, this never-ending stream of them, come from? And is there any link between them and your VOJ? These distracting images come from both inside your mind and from the world around you. That’s why their attacks are so powerful and pernicious. You are assaulted on both sides of your perimeter. You have spent decades accumulating a mammoth database of pop-up images and messages and you carry them around with you all the time. This database activates itself automatically many, many times a day and is amplified by the stream of stimuli that come in from the outside. No wonder you feel beat!
Sound unlikely? Let’s look more deeply:
Have you ever felt dissatisfied with your physical appearance? Been conscious of a blemish that seems to expand and blot out the sun? Where did you get the notion that if you don’t look like Heidi Klum or Brad Pitt, you are inferior? Do you then start to feel depressed (or at the very least mildly unhappy)? You were not born like this—you picked up this kind of thinking along the way.
Is there a toxic person in your life? Perhaps a boss, maybe a relative, or even a “friend”? Does this person have an uncanny ability to leave you a quivering emotional wreck for hours or days or weeks? Why do you hand over your emotional well-being to this person? If this person has hierarchical authority over you, you may have to comply with behavioral demands, but you never have to give up your equanimity. So where did you learn that you have to get all upset and demoralized?
Have you ever looked at someone and felt a stab of envy? Did you want, desperately desire, what that person has? Or, more accurately, what you think that person has? Money, power, fame, prestige, cars, houses, boats, or planes? Do you wish that your spouse was as beautiful as theirs or that your kids were as charming, your friends as enchanting? Do you envy their sense of humor, or intelligence, or empathetic gifts? Have you ever made a purchase not because you really wanted it but because you wanted to make a statement to someone else? Where did this desire, and its attendant disquiet, come from?
Are you beset by fears? Do you obsess about losing your spouse, your children, your friends, or your job? Are you terrified of spiders or snakes or one-eyed albino pirates? Do dark spaces or soaring heights make your palms sweat? Or does the thought of going to parties, giving speeches, making presentations, or speaking up for something you believe in that is unpopular scare you silly? Are you numbed by the specter of being stuck in the same dreary career and never achieving the potential you know you have? I regularly hear about all these and many, many more. But where did you pick this up?
These fears are all a result of your conditioning. You picked up this conditioning when you were young, from your parents and teachers and your role models. You saw them all around you in society and they are still broadcast to you from the media that surrounds you. Marketers call it cultural conditioning—your tendency to consume products and think in ways that conform to the broader society you are a part of.
The problem is that this conditioning not only restricts you, it also prevents you from exploring pathways that could lead you to freedom. That is why you feel boxed in and enervated.
Let’s go back to your mental chatter. All of the judgments, the comparisons, the putdowns, come from values and beliefs that you picked up in passing. You may have actively studied a few, but for the most part you never examined or questioned them or their underlying assumptions. You used them to create your mental models, hundreds of them. And then your mental chatter used these models to create the reality that you now live in.
That’s how it happened. And that’s where you live now—in this “reality” that you created. You have, quite literally, been hijacked.
The good news, the really great news, is that once you become aware of what you have unconsciously let happen to you, you can fix it!
We’ll get to the fix shortly, but first you have to find out for yourself just how bad your situation is. Do the exercise below for at least two weeks. Really do it. No playing around and pretending you are doing it.
I guarantee that you will be very surprised. Probably unpleasantly so, but that’s okay. You are both the doctor and the patient and you have to know how bad the disease is before you start on the cure.
Exercise: What’s My Mental Chatter Like?
This exercise helps you become aware of your mental chatter, of the random thoughts that spring to mind throughout your day. You are going to simply observe this chatter without judging it. Especially become aware of your first thoughts in the morning as they are untainted by external events. Look to see if there are either patterns, repeated single thoughts, or simply random, disjointed thoughts that spring up unbidden, vanishing as swiftly as they arise.
During the day, carry around your journal or a file, or notebook, or a sheet of paper. Categorize the types of mind chatter that assault or beguile. Do this for at least two weeks. Are there wild flights of fancy? Elaborate escapist dreams? If so, try to be specific about exactly what types of accomplishments you fantasize about. Sports? Business? Entertainment? Are others involved? How? Create as many categories as you need to, but you will probably find it unwieldy to deal with more than six to eight.
As you do this, try to become aware of any emotional undertone(s). An emotional undertone is a feeling that persists at a gut level, below your conscious stream of chatter. Common ones are sadness, a sense of being overwhelmed, fear, frustration and dissatisfaction, and so on. Your emotional undertone can also be positive, such as quiet confidence or deep peace. Is there one dominant feeling throughout the day, or are there two or three? Are these undertones equally strong—or weak? Do they change from day to day, or are they reasonably constant? Are they generally negative—anger, self-doubt, anxiety, worry, etc.—or are they generally positive—hopeful, loving, or confident? You can define positive or negative in any way you wish. How do these undertones affect your behavior? Are you a better performer at some task when a particular undertone is in charge? Do you tend to flare up when another one holds sway?
Do these undertones tend to disappear when you start noticing them? What does this tell you? Does the intensity of the emotion decrease simply because you become consciously aware of it?
Be sure to note if you run yourself down, and if you are constantly criticizing yourself. Do you treat yourself this way frequently, or occasionally, or not at all? If you do run yourself down, do you also blame others or feel victimized by external events?
Finally, notice when external stimuli hijack your mental state. Does a news broadcast lead you to consider the state of the world? How do you react? Did you react emotionally, with fear or concern or anger? Did you feel depressed or powerless? Try to note when external events create your emotional state. Notice when distractions push and pull at your well-being. Did an advertisement with glamorous people remind you of a relationship breakup and lead you to despondency? Did a phone call from a friend remind you of a weekend expedition you have planned and uplift you immediately?
This may seem like a simple exercise, but it is not as easy as it first appears. I guarantee you that there will be long stretches where you simply forget to note your mind chatter and just let it carry you away. It will help if you have—or get—one of those digital watches that can be set to beep every hour or half hour. Each time you hear the beep, become aware of your mind chatter. The beep will help you to remind yourself to get back into observation mode. You can also train yourself to use random events—phone calls, e-mail bleeps, greetings from friends, etc.—as prompts to return to your observations. Persist. Practice will make you better.
Do this exercise for two weeks. You may actually want to do it for longer, but two weeks will give you enough knowledge to get started on making changes.
What You Will Get From This Practice
Most people find this exercise extremely revelatory. Even those who have had exposure to the philosophical underpinnings of Yoga or Eastern meditation learn a lot.
People are startled by how active their Voice of Judgment is, how often they put themselves down and are severely critical of others. They’re surprised by how many snap judgments they make about trivial things, like, “That ice-cream flavor looks sickly pink”—or more serious matters like, “This is the third time he has stood me up. He doesn’t care. I’ll break off with him.” The VOJ can be anything from 20 percent to 60 percent of your mental chatter, and negative judgments typically outweigh positive ones by anywhere from two to one to ten to one.
Since you build mental models out of your mental chatter, when you become aware of your judgments and emotional distractions, you gain some much needed control over your life. You get to decide for yourself whether you are going to build a reality on the foundation of a negative judgment.
- You may feel that you register only 10 percent of your thoughts. You are wrong. It is unlikely that you are aware of even 0.000001 percent of your thoughts. There are simply too many of them, and they change too rapidly, and you forget that you are supposed to be aware of them most of the time. Throw a stone on a wasps’ nest and then try to count the insects as they come swarming out! Recording mental chatter is exactly like that. That’s the bad news. The good news is that even the most minimal level of awareness creates profound change. If you persist sincerely for a few weeks, you will become aware of the amount of self-flagellation you indulge in. You will be shocked by the quantity and variety of the negative voices of judgment you harbor.
- Do not beat yourself up when you note the negativity of your thinking. Doing so simply creates yet another stream of mental chatter for you to record. Remember that in this exercise, you are simply a recorder. A scribe. Try to note your chatter dispassionately. That’s all you do at this stage.
- Some of your mental chatter may turn out to be with minimal emotional undertones. You may see yourself occupied by something neutral such as making to-do lists, planning your day, or organizing your work. That’s fine. Just note it.
- Especially be aware of your emotional tenor during the day and how these mental states work together with your mental chatter. You may find that negative judgments tend to produce emotional downs, while thoughts of gratitude produce an elevation of spirits.
Do this exercise for at least two weeks, but don’t stop there. Try to get to the point where you constantly become aware of your mental chatter. Every time you are confronted with some life event that generates strong feelings, become conscious of it immediately. The very act of observing it changes your mental chatter. Shoplifting drops dramatically when department stores install surveillance cameras and post signs that they have done so. In the same manner, your mental chatter is less able to take you down destructive paths when you consciously become aware of it.
I invite you to discover this for yourself.
To learn more about Srikumar Rao or to order a copy of his book, please visit his Web site at areyoureadytosucceed.com.