“You’re too fat to wear that tight shirt to the gym.”
“You’re not smart enough to take the lead on that project at work.”
“You’re definitely going to screw up the vacation plans.”
“You’re not good enough, cool enough, likable enough.”
If we talked like this to anyone, it would be considered bullying.
And yet we talk to ourselves like this all the time.
We talk to ourselves in a way we would never talk to people we care about. We take these words to heart and believe them as truth.
We turn these words into our core belief system, holding ourselves back from growth, fulfillment, and happiness.
We set high expectations for ourselves, and if we don’t meet them it comes out in unfair, untrue, and flat-out mean judgments.
We say “treat others the way you’d like to be treated” but don’t follow that advice when it comes to how we treat ourselves.
I certainly didn’t.
I was a Grade A self-bully for years.
Every day when I left work, I’d hear this voice in my head telling me, “They’re going to figure out you’re a fraud and don’t know what you’re doing. Anyone can do this job better than you. They’re going to fire you. You’re an embarrassment.”
I never had many friends, but when the few I had would invite me out somewhere, I’d think, “They just pity me. They’re only inviting me because they feel obligated. I’m not as pretty as they are and don’t fit in. I never know the right thing to say. I’m going to screw this up.”
I always imagined how disappointed my parents would be in me if they saw how messy my house was, or what they’d think of me leaving a well-paying job to start my own business, or if they knew that I lost that stock certificate and now had to pay a stupid amount of money to get it replaced. I’d think, “They’ll judge me and think that I’ve failed them, and that I’m not as good as they expected me to be.”
I told myself how unlikeable I was, and that’s why I didn’t have more friends.
I told myself how I’d never be successful because I never had any good ideas.
I told myself how ugly I was. How boring I was. How awkward I was.
I was constantly putting myself down, partly because I was a perfectionist, and partly because I worried way too much about what other people thought of me and never felt I was good enough to meet their standards.
But that was the old me.
I’ve come a long way since then. I slip up on occasion, but I’m much better equipped now to course correct using the steps below.
Changing my relationship with my inner bully took me a few years of studying, training, and practicing.
If you’ve been bullying yourself for years, it will likely take you time to change your habit, as well. But these six key strategies will make a lot easier to be kind to yourself.
Step 1: Say hello.
When we hear that self-bully talk, we tend to instantly believe it without recognizing what’s going on or questioning it. We see it as truth. We fully experience it.
The first step to quieting your inner bully is to say hello. That is, mindfully recognize that this is self-bully talk happening. Maybe even personify it by giving it a name or even a gender.
I like to minimize my inner bully by giving her a silly name: Cupcake.
When I hear inner talk like “Ugh, you suck at this,” I notice this and say, “Oh, hi Cupcake. Welcome to the party.”
This allows me to step back from the voice. Just like I do when I’m watching a scary movie and I don’t want to get too scared. I step back and recognize that these are actors on a screen, they are reading scripts, there are cameras and lights pointing at them.
I go from being fully absorbed in the movie, like I’m in it, to noticing that I’m watching a movie. It’s a subtle but profound shift.
From this place, we can create space, which enables us to make change in the next step.
Step 2: Change how you experience your bully.
We experience thoughts as pictures, sounds, or feelings. Most people experience their inner bully thoughts as sound, like hearing a voice telling them “you suck.”
Here’s a fun trick to change how you experience your inner bully. Change the sound of the “voice.”
When I hear that voice telling me that I suck, I say, “Hi Cupcake, what do you have to say again?”
Then I repeat her words in a funny cartoon voice. Now she sounds like Mickey Mouse and I can’t even take her seriously.
If you’re a visual type and “you suck” comes to you in a picture—perhaps one of you at a time in your life when you felt like you failed—you can try a different tactic (or both even).
Since I named her “Cupcake,” I can also picture her as such.
Now I see a cupcake with a Mickey Mouse voice telling me “you suck.” Which, of course, is adorable and hilarious.
This helps me step further out of that negative mind frame so I can take the next step.
Step 3: Find the positive intent.
Everything we do has a positive intent. Even when we’re being mean to ourselves.
When I was telling myself that I was no good at my job, my bully was really trying to push me to do better so I wouldn’t get fired, and trying to protect me from being caught off-guard if that happened. She was also trying to tell me where I still had and opportunity to grow and learn.
When I find myself procrastinating on a project because my bully is telling me that I’m not going to do a good job anyway, I know she’s just trying to protect me from failure.
She didn’t choose the most helpful method, but she meant well.
I can now say, “Thanks, Cupcake. I can take it from here.”
And then I move onto the next step.
Step 4: Choose a neutral or positive thought instead.
Sometimes it can feel like a big leap to go from a negative to a positive. Going from “I’m a failure” to “I’m a success” might feel false to you considering the circumstances.
In this case, try a neutral thought instead. See how it feels to go from “I’m a failure” to “I’m not a failure at everything.”
In my case, at work I would often think “I can’t do this.” (This was usually when someone asked me to analyze some data, which wasn’t my strong suit.)
To get myself out of self-bully mode, I would slightly alter the statement “I can’t do this” by adding “yet.”
“I can’t do this… yet.”
Sometimes I could even replace it with “I can do this,” just to try it out and see how it felt. More often than not, it actually felt true. I just hadn’t thought of that idea yet.
And over time I did get better at analyzing data.
The point is, you can choose what thoughts to think.
Step 5: Give yourself permission to be imperfect.
(Note, this step is only applicable if you identify as a human.)
Our inner bullies come out of the woodwork when we do something that we consider “imperfect.”
We don’t look perfect. We didn’t execute something perfectly. We didn’t make the perfect choice.
The phrase “I’m only human” is another way of saying, by nature, I will make mistakes. Mistakes are allowed. Not only allowed but expected.
Write yourself a permission slip to be imperfect. Just see how it feels.
“I, Sandy, give myself permission to write a blog post about self-bullying and not write it perfectly.”
That felt pretty good. 🙂
Step 6: Know that you are not alone and can ask for help if you need it.
Over time, negative self-talk becomes a habit, and as we’ve all experienced, habits are hard to form or break.
If you’re having trouble breaking your self-bullying habit, even using these steps, you don’t have to go it alone, and you shouldn’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for help.
Working with a supportive therapist or coach, or even just confiding in a friend, can make a huge difference. An unbiased outsider is able to hear our thoughts, what we’re saying and not saying, and reflect those back to us when we don’t notice them.
They provide us with support and accountability to keep us on track toward our goals and cheer us on along the way. They ask us tough questions, that we wouldn’t think to ask ourselves.
They also help remind us that we’re not alone in feeling how we feel. That it’s not only common, but people can see improvement, which is incredibly reassuring. Odds are, everyone you’ve ever met has struggled with this too, and still does on occasion.
Personally, I reached out for help much later in my own journey because I was embarrassed. My inner bully told me that if I went to someone for help, it meant I was weak. And that they would tell me there’s nothing wrong with me and to suck it up (our inner bullies tend to lie to us).
I don’t have regrets in my life. Every experience has made me who I am today, and I love who I am. I’m sure the tougher path I took made me stronger along the way.
But I also think I would have reached freedom from my inner-bully more quickly had I put my ego aside and opened up to someone sooner.
Know that you are not alone. Everyone feels or has felt the way you do, and like you, they struggle with this at times and see progress at others. So try to be good to yourself—and aim for progress, not perfection.
Much love and light on your journey, my friend.