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Five Best Ways to Stop Crippling Negative Self-Talk | Issue 279

Summary: When your mind runs amok with worry and rumination, regain your control with these five science-backed tips.

Reading time: Five minutes that will save you agonizing hours of unproductive introspection.


By Gayle Scroggs, PhD, PCC

"Introspection is a double-edged sword." ~ Ethan Kross

Our ability to observe our own mental processes has been identified as a defining human characteristic. While introspection can serve as a valuable tool for navigating life, it only works when we do it the right way.


Unfortunately, all too often we allow introspection to morph into harmful cycles of negative thoughts and feelings. As a dissertation coach, I've seen highly intelligent clients get mired in downward spirals of worry about things which have yet to happen. The resulting mental paralysis halts their progress toward finishing their doctorate.

When you worry, ruminate, or catastrophize, you're stuck in mental "chatter," explains Ethan Kross, PhD, renowned U of Michigan Professor of Psychology and Management. Managing your internal conversations to avoid such chatter is the key to success, he finds. 

Are you struggling to find the necessary focus to get your dissertation out the door? You will find effective strategies to quiet your mind in his new book, Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It, where he shares the research to back them up. 

Kross is no stranger to the downsides of negative introspection. After receiving an anonymous death threat, he spent a few sleepless nights wandering around his house with a baseball bat worried about his family's safety. Fortunately, he eventually hit on a way to get back to sleep and a productive routine, embarking on a study of what makes our minds run amok. The result of these studies is a handy toolbox for those beset by needless mental chatter. 


Here are the five best tools curated from his book with dissertation writers in mind. If you need to quiet the mental chatter to get traction, experiment with one or more of them. (And if you want the research details behind these strategies, I highly recommend his book.) 

1 . Harness your self-talk.

You've probably noticed that it is easier to give someone else advice than to advise yourself—and you can capitalize on this idea.


Start talking to yourself as if you are someone else, using "you" and your own name. For example, I might say aloud to myself: "Gayle, dear, all you have to do is follow the recipe. Just take it one step at a time. You've got this!" 


Doing this helps you step back and put things in perspective so you can manage stress and reason better. "Indeed, subtle shifts in the words we use to refer to ourselves can influence how we think, feel, and behave, sometimes in surprising way," observes Kross. 

Or imagine you are advising a friend who has this problem. What suggestions would you offer them? 



2. Choose thoughtfully to whom you vent.

Despite popular wisdom about catharsis, venting your negative thoughts will not help you recover and may actually exacerbate your bad feelings. Talking to someone who is good at commiserating makes you feel better in the moment. But the evidence is clear that it can easily lead to a downward spiral that sets you further back. 

While finding someone who will accept your feelings is a good start, make sure your chosen confidante is someone who will encourage you to broaden your perspective and seek solutions. 

3. Make your bed.

Creating order amidst chaos, e.g., by making your bed or straightening your bookshelf, also helps calm a chattering mind. These concrete actions offer a sense of "compensatory control" aspect of your life, even if it is not your main challenge. This phenomenon may underlie the "life-changing magic of tidying up" that catapulted Marie Kondo to fame: Seeing neatly folded shirts and socks gives you the comforting feeling that other things will fall into place. 

For me, weeding the garden and trying new recipes give me a sense of control. The steps are clear; the outcome is guaranteed. I feel empowered. 

What would work for you? Keep in mind that it does not have to relate to your dissertation. It only needs to make you feel in control. 

Or you might turn to rituals, as do many athletes. Kross notes the quirky but predictable behavioral sequence of tennis star Rafael Nadal in high-stress games. Nadal sips his drinks in a specific order and then arranges the bottles "just so" before returning to the court. He also carefully arranges and rearranges his hair before each serve. 


I've known clients who've benefitted from implementing pre-dissertation writing rituals that involve fixing a cup of coffee or tea, putting on music, lighting a candle, and so on. Simply personalize this so it resonates with you. 



4. Reframe threats as challenges.

"Chatter is often triggered when we interpret a situation as a threat," Kross observes. Reinterpreting it as a challenge helps your inner voice move to a solution focus. 

Chatter can also be induced by physical stress symptoms, e.g., hyperventilating or sweating. Remind yourself that these normal manifestations of your nervous system are adaptive evolutionary adaptations designed to improve your performance under stress. 

More than one of my dissertation clients has experienced debilitating anxiety about potential criticism of their writing. At times, such anxiety is so bad that has kept them from completing anything to submit to their advisor in the first place. "What if they think I'm stupid? That I don't belong in the program?" Reframing dissertation writing as a learning process aided by feedback rather than a final judgment of their intellectual ability often makes it possible to get words on the page again.


5. Go for awesome.

"Research shows that experiencing awe doesn't just make us feel good; it also provides us with a tool for broadening our perspective in ways that help keep our chatter at bay," Kroll writes. 

What inspires awe in you? Is it taking in a glorious sunset or walking amidst a cloud of fireflies on a summer night? Contemplating a work of art or music? Watching a stellar performance by an athlete or actor? Observing a toddler learning to walk or catch a ball?

When we feel we are in the presence of something vast and hard to explain, we grow our perspective. Our daily problems shrink in comparison—and the chatter quiets down. While you can't force yourself to feel awe, you can choose to put yourself in situations where you are more likely to experience it. 

When you can master the conversations you have with yourself, you are well on your way to mastering much of what life will throw at you. Without the unnecessary added drag of chatter, you will finish your dissertation faster—and have the pleasure of offering yourself a hearty "congratulations, doctor!" 

Note: If you need more help to master mental chatter or other dissertation challenges, please request a complimentary consultation with a dissertation coach here.

Top photo credit: Unknown Author, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND



An accomplished coach, workshop leader, keynote speaker, and educator, Gayle earned her doctorate in social psychology from the University of New Hampshire. Her deep expertise in positive psychology allows her to help clients build their personal strengths, positive habits, and confidence to overcome procrastination, self-doubts and other blocks in order to reach vital academic and personal goals. In addition to editing the ABD Survival Guide, she contributed two chapters to the positive psychology anthology, Women's Paths to Happiness. Contact her at for coaching, presentations, and workshops on thriving in graduate school and beyond, and find free resources

BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (, a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.



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