On Internal Monologue Modification

(Epistemic Status:  Endorsed, lightly tested, light kink cw)

My thoughts are most frequently words.  When I think about thinking, I see a stream of descriptions, explanations, sentence fragments, etc.  I ask my internal monologue how I feel about things.  Words are an extremely natural filter for me to see the world through.  It turns out, I can change that filter to some extent.

One night, I found myself looking at my partner – we were just chatting casually about something or other, but there was a sense in which she was positioning herself lower than me.  A lot of her body language was reading as wanting to move on to something that involved less talking.  Well, I wasn’t really in the mood – a lot of my internal monologue was thinking about the topic and about her as someone to look up to in terms of knowledge about the world.  Once I noticed this, I decided to try something – I switched my internal monologue to something more intimate.  I started cycling different words to describe her than I was before, as well as different words to describe myself.  Very shortly after, something strange happened – I started changing my position in my chair.  I seemed bigger, like I was taking up more physical and social space.  She got quieter, she found herself less able to look away from my eyes.  I felt myself getting more aligned with what she desired and my next actions started flowing much more smoothly.  Suffice it to say we had a very good night afterwards.

Now, this tool has uses outside the somewhat suggestive one above – essentially, any situation where you feel you’re not interacting with it in a way that serves your needs (or the needs of others), any situation that might feel uncomfortable, any situation that seems difficult can be changed depending on how you think about it.

The first step is deciding how you want the situation to be.  This is a fuzzy and difficult – the example was me wanting to respond in an aligned way to my partner and feel good about it.  However, sometimes it’s harder to tell – something going poorly makes it difficult get out of your internal perspective enough to see how a stance could change.  Essentially, it’s noticing that a situation would benefit from change and the thoughts that flow from there.

The second step is noticing your internal monologue – this might be nontrivial depending on how you think.  That’s ok.  For me, I ask myself what I’m thinking about a situation.  As I sit here writing, I’m hearing the words I’m typing in my head, but also rewriting and rephrasing, thinking about how the presentation looks (“Is this too personal?  Am I explaining the thing well?  Can this be adapted to people who don’t think like me?  Am I just reinventing NLP?”), thinking about how I feel about my blog (“I’ve kept this running for a year, huh.  I think my latest posts aren’t as good as some of my earlier posts.  I’m really happy people read the things I write.  I feel good right now”), etc.  That was slower than I would normally do it, so there’s some filtering going on, but that’s what you’re tapping into.

The third step is considering salient things to the situation.  Most frequently, this is a person you are with – it can also be an environment or an object.  Notice what you think about that object – an example of another time I used this technique was when I was extremely hungry and was completely impatient with everything, while in a restaurant.  I noticed both my hunger and the prospect of future food – I had a sense of anticipation for the food, but it had this entitlement attached to it.  The internal mantra was something like “I’m so hungry right now, why is this food taking so long, why is it so loud in here, why is this person talking about such stupid shit doesn’t she realize food should have happened a long time ago, ugh I can’t focus, I kind of hate everything.”  I’m sure this isn’t hard to emulate.

The fourth step is realizing the most natural way to shift the situation into something more desirable – in the case with the restaurant, the anticipation of food was important to keep; however, it could be treated positively.  Rather than “I’m so hungry it’s taking so long”, I could think “I ordered some really tasty food, I’m very curious about what it’s going to taste like.  I think they’re probably taking a lot of care in preparing it.”  Letting that line of thought perpetuate suddenly completely changed the mood at the table.  I was more interested in what my friend was saying, I felt a lot of compassion for the restaurant staff, I was just generally happy to be there.  In the first example with my partner, the shift to thinking about her in a way she wanted to be thought about echoed throughout my body language – my entire demeanor changed, naturally leading to a better situation for both of us.

Overall, changing the internal monologue in some senses is holding an intention to make things better on some metric – from emotions come thoughts, from thoughts come mannerism, from mannerism come behavior and script.  It’s something that is not only helpful to internally try to notice and apply, but to give to other people – sometimes being externally asked what your internal monologue is doing can be the trigger you need to shift into a mode that feels better.  I will caution that the point isn’t always to feel better though – sometimes, you want to change your internal monologue to create negative affect around something.  The point isn’t to be a Stepford wife happybot through system 2 coercion, the point is to make more options in action space available.  When the internal monologue becomes modifiable, so too does your level of abstraction from a situation.

Discussion questions:  Do you have an internal monologue?  Have you ever used the internal monologue to redefine a situation or your role in a situation?  What mental motions do the steps above suggest?  What other ways do you interact with your internal monologue?

7 thoughts on “On Internal Monologue Modification

  1. How do you get over the feeling of “not being allowed” to suddenly change your mental state with no externally apparent reason/no narrative justification?

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    1. This is a really good question – the answer is I’m still figuring that out.

      The way I parse the feeling of “not being allowed” is this sense of being stuck in a feedback loop – I have a thought, usually a bad feeling or something, and I try to stop having that feeling directly, and it just gets worse because now I’m not only bad for having the bad feeling but also because I can’t just make it go away like I’m “supposed” to. Alternatively, sometimes I notice something is annoying, and like, start to vent about it – and then I start getting more annoyed because most annoying things that you notice on a first pass are actually made up of a lot of annoying things. Eventually I’m basically annoyed to a degree that very far outweighs the initial issue because of the emotional weights I place on each additional annoyance not being counted logarithmically.

      Getting a position where you’re allowed to break a loop like that usually requires some change in situation – even just moving in some way; and of course, the challenge is you aren’t allowed to change the loop. It sticks. And this is where I’m stuck – time eventually fixes it; someone else noticing the issue and coaxing you out of it generally is a little faster; sometimes it’s something unexpected like “you didn’t go through the self care checklist and your brain doesn’t have all the usual coping tools available”. I’ve been trying to make “awareness that I’m in a feedback loop” a habit – it only sometimes works. I don’t really have a solid hack for this one besides trying to track what causes the situations you loop on and having people that you can trust to help in the way you individually need. Keeping your physical needs met is also helpful but sometimes not actionable.

      Are there other sorts of situations that provoke this “not being allowed” feeling for you?

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      1. Real quick – how much control you really have over how you think and feel is hard to parse out. But we are self aware, and when become aware of patterns of thought and/or feelings that we don’t like, we can respond different ways. If you accept adverse thoughts and feelings, then their half life can be shorter than fretting about how bad the thoughts/feelings are, which can make you feel worse. So one strategy is to accept the thoughts and feelings, “gently push them away”, and then try to move on and refocus on something else.

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      2. I think this works – another thing that helped me recently was allowing myself space to exist even when I’m not doing things I endorse. I had a breakdown once that essentially resolved when I just…decided that being sad was ok and I didn’t need to force myself to change that. Of course, if I had done that with the intent of making the feelings go away, it wouldn’t have worked. Self awareness and brains are really weird.

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  2. This is similar to gratitude journaling and gratitude thoughts.

    The key is to step away from your thoughts. Be the impartial observer. Check yourself.

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