Dangerous Inner Dialogues

by Dan Walsh


People aren’t crazy. They just talk to themselves too much. Everyone does it – even you – and you’re making your life harder than it needs to be.

I rerun situations in my head. Sometimes this helps me pick apart a problem and come to a better understanding. Maybe I see a solution I would have otherwise missed. This is great. It’s my go to method for solving difficult personal problems. But replaying situations on a constant loop can also lead to a dark place. Miseries become compounded, negativity starts to reverb, and reality fades into the distance. I have made some of the worst times in my life even worse by running a shitty inner dialogue on repeat in my head. I’ve also turned minor problems into full-blown conflicts by bouncing them around in the echo chamber of my mind. I don’t think I’m the only one. In fact, I think most of us do this, we just don’t realize it.

Humans are great simulators. We can imagine a scenario and predict an outcome. It’s what allows us to plan, invent, create art, and solve difficult problems. It’s an amazingly powerful tool that we tend to forget about because it’s so natural – so innately human. But that same ability that can conjure wonders like the space shuttle and a cure for polio is also to blame for some of our worst feelings and insecurities.

It’s easy to fall into a simulation loop that doesn’t build wonders, but instead tears us down. I’ve been guilty of this many times. I’ve gotten upset about something and then replayed the situation in my head. I always hope to better understand what happened – what went wrong –  but sometimes it makes the problem worse instead.

If I start the simulation from a bad place then I see every part of the narrative through a negative lens because I’m already upset. This distortion enables me to find new reasons in the story to be angry, or worried, or sad. Maybe I missed a tone of voice or a specific word in the moment, but I catch it after the fact. I catch it in the simulation. In my inner dialogue.

Then I run through the situation again. This time I’m more upset though, because I found that additional reason to be mad. That negativity charges everything even further, and something that was benign in the first simulation becomes cause for offense during my second assessment.

Run the tape again!

Maybe this time I’ll think of something clever to say in the argument that has now become inevitable. Ya know, a way to really get my point across. Turn the screws. What will they say? What will I say in return? Yeah! That will get ‘em good! I simulate the conversation.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

It’s a self fulfilling prophecy. I’m upset so I find reasons to justify that emotion. Then the emotion gets stronger so I have to find stronger reasons for further justification.

Rinse, repeat, explode.

I’ve made myself angry, or worried, or sad… sometimes even hopeless. I’ve blown everything out of proportion by playing a negative dialogue on loop in my head. It’s like a photocopy of a photocopy – one thousand times! It’s so distorted its not even reality anymore. My emotions are real, though, and I still have to deal with them. The foundation is fake, but the emotions are real.

A Lovesick Youth

When I was a kid, I used to fall obsessively in love with someone new every year or so. Puppy love, of course, but that’s the limit of love at that age. I’d run these simulations – these dialogues – in my head and really screw myself up.

“They sat next to me on the bus! Does that mean they like me? I don’t know what else it COULD mean! Ok, let’s say they like me… That makes perfect sense! They also let me borrow their glue in 1st grade. Duh! I’m such an idiot for not realizing this sooner. They must have liked me then too! Wow… I can’t believe they’ve been madly in love with me for two years. I must be a stud. It feels good to be wanted. But wait, they didn’t invite me to their birthday party. What does THAT mean? Well, they ARE in love with me… but maybe they don’t know I like them too and they’re scared! Ok, I’ll ask them to the sock hop. It will be awesome. Wait! Do I even like her? Well, when I think about her, and how she (now) makes me feel… I feel good! So I must like her. Girlfriend here I come!”

And then of course none of that was true. The inner dialogues aren’t always negative, but they always distort.

I Never Even Knew I Was Talking to Myself

I first noticed this habit when I had to teach a class a few weeks ago. In the days leading up to the class I got butterflies in my stomach every time I thought about the lecture. I couldn’t figure out why I was so nervous. I knew the material like the back of my hand. I knew the entire class – I wasn’t speaking in front of strangers. What was the issue?

I realized that my nerves flared whenever I simulated the presentation in my head. Every time I tried to come up with words to say, or pictured myself standing in front of class I would get anxious.

Ahh… the visceral power of simulation.

These moments were so fast I barely noticed them, but each one was enough time for my brain to run through at least 10 failure scenarios. The future was colored by my anxiety, and in that future my deck wasn’t ready, I forgot the words, I was boring, no one cared, I couldn’t articulate my thoughts, I froze and couldn’t get the words out, the projector wouldn’t work, it was too loud, it was too quiet, my voice sounded nervous and everyone could hear it…. The list goes on.

All of these doomsday scenarios occurred just under my conscious perception. They were too fast. I would think about the lecture and then feel anxiety. That seemed like the entire two-step process. But what really happened was a three step process. It wasn’t “think about the lecture, feel anxiety,” it was “think about the lecture, IMPERCEPTIBLE FLASH OF DOOM, and then get hit by anxiety”. The anxiety would linger, but that flash of doom was too fast for me to realize it was what cause the anxiety.

Like I said, these emotions were odd because I had no reason to be nervous. So I spent some time dwelling on the anxiety. I wanted to figure it out. I tried to find the source. When I worked backward from the emotion, I saw these little scenes of failure play out in my head. I saw the projector breaking and the bored class. No motion, just static images – like photos. These photos were accompanied by little soundbites:

“You’re gunna choke!”

“They’re gunna be BORED!”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

These were irrational fears manifesting as words in my head. Once I realized this, I started noticing other conversations I’d have with myself – other dialogues – and I started to see the impact they had on my emotions and outlook.

Two Types of Inner Dialogue

I have identified two types of inner dialogue: passive and active. Passive inner dialogue is the automatic subconscious kind that just happens. I wrestled with a passive inner voice leading up to my lecture. It’s hard to control and even harder to notice.

Active inner dialogue, on the other hand, is the conversation we hold in our head. If we wanted, we could say all these words out loud. We have complete control, but we rarely control it. Usually because we don’t notice it.

The passive inner voice is hard to notice because it’s so fast. The active inner voice is hard to notice because it’s our own voice, from our point of view, using our vocabulary. It’s white noise and it’s hard to hear. It’s almost like trying to remember a dream. And just like a dream, the memory is prone to fade at the slightest distraction. The emotions they create will linger, however.

To combat or resolve these lingering emotions is exceptionally hard because it’s so difficult to hear and remember the damaging dialogue. It’s difficult to know the source of the emotions, and without knowing the source we can’t stop it from happening.

It’s like trying to stop a factory from polluting a river. But it’s not just one factory, it’s 1000 little factories and they’re all invisible.

It’s like trying to karate chop a ghost.

Have you ever woken up from a dream and felt a strong emotion even though you couldn’t remember the dream? Inner dialogues works the same way. They have the ability to completely bypass our conscious thought and leave us holding the emotional baggage.

So-And-So is Crazy

We’ve all been there. Someone we knew – or thought we knew – “went crazy”. It’s usually a roommate, friend, significant other, or a coworker. We were close to them at some point. We thought we knew them. They were normal, but something set them off. Now they say crazy things, do crazy things and make such leaps of logic and emotion that the only word we can use to describe them is crazy. Of course there’s nothing chemically wrong with them. It’s not like they need to be put in a straight jacket, but their version of reality is so different from ours that we can’t relate anymore. How does this happen?

Internal dialogues.

More often than not it seems like the event that set them on a path toward crazy was pretty minor. Maybe it was dirty dishes in the sink or someone forgot to include them on an email thread. Before long they’re moving out, breaking up, and sabotaging promotions.

Like I said, they’re not actually crazy, but the actions they take or the things they say seem so wildly out of proportion from the minor stimulus that they seem really, really… REALLY crazy.

We see the forgotten email and then we see the workplace sabotage. What we can’t see is the internal dialogue that connects the two actions. In between the email and the character assassination was an internal dialogue that played over and over and over again in their head. Each time it played, it amplified the insecurities, suspicions, and feelings of hurt until damaging office politics seemed like the only logical way to move forward.

Everyone Has a Narrative In Their Head

It doesn’t always seem like it when you look around, but everyone is always thinking. Those blank expressions on your fellow commuters look like the absence of thought, but they’re actually deep in thought. They might be thinking about the past, they might be thinking about the future, but they’re always thinking. Just like you.

When was the last time your brain was completely silent?

Probably never.

Have you ever tried to meditate? You probably had a hard time turning your brain off. Everyone has a hard time with this. In fact, this is the hardest part of meditation. Meditation is the learned ability to turn your brain off – or at least let go of your connection to your thoughts. It’s a skill you have to cultivate because thinking is the default mode for the human brain. This applies to my brain,  your brain, and everyone else’s brains. We don’t have to try to think – we have to try to not think.

If someone bumps into you on the sidewalk or does something “dumb” like get their car towed, we often say they “weren’t thinking”. The opposite is true. They were probably thinking too much, just not about your personal space or the consequences of ignoring parking regulations.

They were probably preoccupied with an inner dialogue of some kind.

Inner Dialogues Are a Coping Mechanism

Inner dialogues aren’t all bad. Like I said in the beginning, sometimes they help resolve problems. They are a coping mechanism – a way for us to understand what happened in the past or what might happen in the future. Talking through a problem, even if only with yourself, is often the best way to deal with a bad situation. Things go awry when inner dialogues are fueled by emotion.

There’s a great line from the beginning of True Detective when Matthew McConaughey’s character concocts a story about the murder. He’s only seen a few bits of evidence so Woody Harrelson’s character cautions him:

“You attach an assumption to a piece of evidence, you start to bend the narrative to support it and prejudice yourself.”

The same line can be rephrased slightly and applied to bad inner dialogues:

“You attach an emotion to an event, you start to bend the narrative to support it and prejudice yourself.”

When emotions become the driving force of a narrative, all facts must support that emotion. This emotion gets stronger every time another fact is bent to support it. As it gets stronger more and more facts must be bent. It’s a bad cycle.

Every time we run the bad dialogue through our head, we have the opportunity to use denial, excuses, rationalizations, and justifications to bend what happened or what will happen to match how we feel.

Internal Consistency

Humans have this pesky need for internal consistency. If the outside world doesn’t match our internal point of view we’ll do whatever it takes to relieve the resulting stress and anxiety. The healthy way to deal with this is by directly confronting the external situation. But that’s hard, so we usually edit our internal point of view until we’re right instead. And we never realize we’re doing this.

If I did something mean to you, but I think I’m a good person, then the world doesn’t make sense. I lack internal consistency. In order to make it make sense again I can do one of two things.

The first option is to apologize and admit to you and to myself that I can be a jerk sometimes. But I don’t want to do that because I don’t want to think of myself as a jerk.

The alternative option is to run a bad dialogue over and over again in my head. I’ll try to “figure out what happened” until I think you’re the jerk, not me. You deserved the mean thing I did. I’ll also be mad at you for making me do that mean thing. So while you’re expecting an apology, I’ll probably come back and do something crazy like yell at you for not sending me a birthday message on Facebook five years ago.

It’s pretty messed up.

This cognitive dissonance is text book psychology. Most people know this stuff. It’s nothing new. But that little voice – that one that most of us can’t hear is the vehicle carrying the explosive payload. It’s the culprit, but it’s white noise. We don’t know it’s there so we don’t think we’re doing it – but we are. All the time.

The Words We Say In Our Head Have Power

You can psych yourself up with the right words, or you can psych yourself out with the wrong words.

You could deal with a bad break up by repeatedly telling yourself this is an opportunity to reinvent yourself and break out of a rut. Or you could tell yourself that no one loves you and you’re going to die alone.

Which dialogue is more helpful?

The words we say in our head have the power to shape us.

Gandhi has an awesome quote about this:

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”

Whether they’re positive or negative, if you can notice and take control of the thoughts and words in your head – your inner dialogue – you can control your destiny. Sorry if that sounds hokey, but it’s true.

How To Deal With Damaging Inner Dialogues

Before we can change our inner dialogues, we have to first notice when we’re talking to ourselves. I wish I had a more concrete technique, but the best way is to be emotionally vigilant.

If I feel a strong emotion and I don’t know where it came from, then I was probably running a bad dialogue in my head. If I can catch myself, and that’s a big IF, then I can usually work backwards from the emotion, through the inner dialogue, and get to whatever the initial trigger was. Usually it’s such a minor thing that I can’t believe I got so worked up about it.

If I find myself replaying a situation in my head multiple times, then it’s probably already blown out of proportion in my mind. I try as hard as I can to put that replay on pause until I can confront the situation directly. It’s amazing how much an honest phone call can usually clear up.

I haven’t quite figured all this out yet, but I also have a hunch that passive dialogues, those FLASH OF DOOM situations, usually run when we’re worried about something in the future. Active dialogues, spiraling conversations with ourselves, occur most frequently when we’re upset about something in the past.

Stop talking to yourself so much.

How To Cultivate Helpful Inner Dialogues

I was so surprised to discover my damaging inner dialogues because I’ve used helpful inner dialogues to solve almost all of my emotional and interpersonal conflicts since I was a kid. It’s my go-to method and I’m good at it. But it wasn’t some magic power I was born with. I had to develop it through practice. This is how it works.

Helpful inner dialogues require getting out of the damaging echo chamber of your mind and seeing the situation from the other person’s perspective. You can still have a conversation in your head, but it can’t be one-sided anymore. That way leads to misery. But how do you get out of your own head? How do you stop the cycle?

You have to calm the fuck down.

Seriously. If your emotions are running rampant there’s no way you can help yourself. In fact, you’re probably doing more harm than good. I use running, weightlifting, or meditation to calm down. All three activities release positive chemicals that reduce stress and will help you chill out. You can choose whatever method you want, but you need some space from the issue if you want to think clearly about it. I recommend some form of exercise, but hell, a 30-minute Halo frag-sesh might do the trick too.

Once you’ve separated yourself from the emotion, you can start to look at it clearly. You won’t twist facts to support your feelings and you won’t wind yourself up until you explode. You can feel it when you’ve become detached.

Once I’m detached from myself and my emotions I can fairly play both roles in the conflict and come to a resolution. I become the mediator between the two parties instead of maintaining my role as plaintiff or defendant.

It always helps.