There is the old joke about the New Yorker writer Dorothy Parker, who often turned to drink to quiet her own inner demons. “Bartender: What are you having? Parker: Not much fun.”
In these times many of us may feel the same way. It is a challenge to escape the chatter of negative thoughts. But heavy lubrication is probably not the answer, even though the sale of alcohol is up nationally.
A Google search using the three words that title this piece yielded 1,670,000 results. And using just the last two words increased the hits nine-fold. There is obviously an interest to explore our own recurring streams of “self-talk” and their more compulsive forms that psychologists label “rumination.” All the more, given these stressful times when unvoiced thoughts and worries may follow us through the day.
In a basic sense, self-talk is simply thinking. An active consciousness is partly what makes us human. As Jonathan Smallwood and Jessica Andrews-Hanna note:
Although mind-wandering may be unpleasant for the individual who experiences it and disruptive to the tasks of the moment, self-generated thought allows consciousness freedom from the here and now and so reflects a key evolutionary adaptation for the mind.
Indeed, consciousness is the gift that allows us to have an active interior life. We implicitly recognize this power when we refer to the active minds in ourselves and others: the vast but partly unknowable store of accumulated experience and personal insights that we all carry around with us but do not necessarily voice.
And yet it is common to hear stories about how disabling a person’s interior thoughts can be. The culture’s justifiable interest in stressed individuals now often comes with the caution that we can dwell too much on challenging circumstances. Solutions include seeking more exercise, turning off the news, or connecting anew with a friend or relative.
But it is useful to remember that our preoccupation with brain chatter is not a new concern. Novelist Tim Parks has argued that we have long had a crippling obsession with the literary device of the interior monologue. It’s been used by many of the twentieth century’s writers. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is a representative case. Others such as Christopher Lasch have made the same point more broadly, seeing an inward turn in the American character. In the same century, he argues, our focus on our own needs made us a more narcissistic and self-obsessed nation.
And there is also our cultural romance with figures who seem to go against the grain and set their compass on their own passions, often at the cost of barely letting others into their lives. Socially challenged innovators—perhaps Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs—are often admired for showing a kind of single-minded preoccupation that plays out in desultory conversations with family and friends, but intense conversations within themselves. Scientific American’s Farris Jabr isn’t so sure, at least with regard to a fixation on interiority in modern popular fiction. He also challenges the idea that there is a culture-wide weakness for stories built around unexpressed thought. “Yes, we talk to ourselves—our minds chatter incessantly—and we are the saner for it.”
We just have to find creative ways to keep the demons at bay, at least for a little while longer.