A while back, my nine-year-old daughter struggled with a new concept in math and was frustrated because it was hard, she didn’t always get it, and her friends seemed to work through the problems quickly. They helped explain the work, but she still struggled with homework.
“I can’t do it,” she said and I knew she needed a real heart-to-heart.
I sat her down, looked her in the eyes and explained that some people aren’t good at math, she wasn't smart enough, and her friends were probably making fun of her behind her back. I pointed out that being bad at math was a sign she would be bad at other hard things she tried, so she shouldn’t bother.
She needed to understand the truth of what I was telling her, so over the next weeks, I reminded her every day.
“Math isn’t your thing.”
“You’re too dumb to learn new things.”
“Your friends think you’re useless.”
“You’ll never be good at things.”
I would remind her as I hugged her goodbye in the morning, when she sat down to do homework and when she mentioned wanting to try a new activity. Sometimes I’d remind her at unexpected times, like when she was drifting off to sleep or having fun playing with her friends.
It took some work but eventually, she believed me. She finally gave up trying and accepted that she wasn’t good enough.
Do you feel an increasing sense of outrage?
Of course, you do! But don’t worry, I never actually said any of that. My daughter, like all children, deserves my love, care, empathy, and support.
When learning something new feels hard, I remind her that she can do hard things. When it seems easy for everyone else, I remind her that we all have things that come easy and things that come hard. I point out all the things she’s already good at and remind her of the power of the word yet. She doesn’t understand the material … yet.
I take her beautiful little face in my hands, look her in the eyes, and tell her that struggling to do something you want doesn't mean you can’t do it. It’s ok to need help. And it’s ok to ask for that help.
Repeatedly telling someone negative and critical things is bullying.
There’s been a lot of emphasis in the post 90’s era on the dangers of bullying. We talk about it with our kids, they teach it in schools. We know that the effects of bullying can last a lifetime and can sometimes have downright dangerous outcomes. We know that the mean things bullies say become internalized and should not be taken lightly.
We know that bullying causes harm. We know that it’s more than just words.
We teach our kids not to be bullies and we teach them how to stand up to bullies for themselves and others.
What happens when you’re bullying yourself?
Anyone would balk at the thought of talking to a child that way. So why do we talk to ourselves that way?
I would never say such things to my daughter. But I have said such things to myself. Regularly.
“I’m just going to blow it, what’s the point?”
“Everyone will know what an idiot I am.”
“It’s too hard, I can’t do it.”
“Other people don’t struggle with this, it’s just me”
“I should be able to do more.”
It’s a given that children deserve to feel loved, accepted, and supported. Us grown-ups need that same level of care - there’s no expiration date on our deservingness of those very basic needs.
As we grow into adults, we turn less to the people around us to measure our worth and more to our own selves. But when we listen to ourselves and hear only the voice of a bully, it devastates our self-esteem, motivation, and ability to be present in our own lives.
And while we may not be able to control a bully outside of ourselves, with time, patience, and acceptance, we can control the bully that lives inside us.
Inner bully vs. Inner critic
You probably already know the concept of an inner critic, but I prefer the term inner bully. To me, the word critic carries a ring of authority to it. Whereas the word bully reflects unfair and unwarranted fear-based cruelty. It could be a little too easy to convince yourself that the critic knows something you don’t know. But there’s little question whether a bully is right or fair. Bullies are wrong.
If you wouldn’t say it to a child you love, then you have no business saying it to yourself.
So, how do we stand up to a bully that lives inside our heads?
Firstly, we need to remember what we know about bullies. A bully acts out of pain, fear, or sadness within themselves, projecting their insecurities onto someone who triggers those uncomfortable feelings.
What is your inner bully afraid of and unable to look at?
Secondly, it helps to understand that true emotional freedom comes with unconditional self-acceptance. That means accepting all the parts of you, including that bully. Recognize the misguided attempt at self-preservation that’s at play when your bully whispers: If you put yourself out there you’ll look like an idiot and everyone will laugh at you. Instead of being angry or frustrated with your bully, practice telling it: Thank you for your input. I appreciate your attempt to keep me safe, but I think you might be wrong here.
Thirdly, use my acronym: RATS. When your inner bully creeps up on you and starts reminding you how you do, will, or could mess up say, “RATS!” Then do the following:
Recognize you’re bullying yourself
Ask questions: Is it true or am I just afraid it’s true? Would I say it to a child?
Tell yourself something better
Sit with your discomfort
Recognize you’re bullying yourself
Catching yourself being a bully to yourself in real time and recognizing it as bullying is the first skill to develop. You might not be able to move past this one immediately, that’s ok! You can’t change something until you’re willing to see and acknowledge it for what it is. I’m being a bully to myself, I don’t know how to stop it yet, but I see what’s happening here.
In moments of negative self-talk, I find two questions to be powerful pattern disruptors:
Is it true, or am I just afraid it’s true? Listen to what you’re telling yourself and ask if what you’re saying is true or is it passing off fear as fact. Will everyone actually laugh at me, or am I just afraid of the possibility of being laughed at? Am I actually falling behind at work, or am I afraid of letting my team down?
Would I say it to a child? Asking yourself what you would think if you heard someone talking to a child this way helps put the real impact of your words into perspective. If it’s too mean, hurtful, or discouraging to say to a child, what makes you think it’s ok to say it to yourself?
Tell yourself something better
Ask yourself what you can say that’s better? The goal is better, not perfect, so I like to avoid absolutes. I don’t know what will happen, what someone else thinks, or what I can and can’t accomplish. I simply allow room for more positive possibilities. I like the words: and, or, but.
She might not want to hang out with me, OR she might have had a horrible day and doesn’t have the energy to respond to texts right now.
I might suck at writing, OR I might be good at it and really enjoy it.
I might make a total ass out of myself at karaoke AND I might have so much fun that it doesn’t matter.
That was not my best parenting moment, BUT I have had great parenting moments this week AND I know I’m a good mom.
Sit with your discomfort
You’ve recognized you’re being bullied. You’ve asked questions to distinguish reality from fear. You’ve told yourself something better. Now it’s time to sit with it.
What are the things you’re most triggered by saying about your deepest values? I find that when I do this exercise, I see a pattern: The things I beat myself up about are the things that matter the most to me.
I worry I’m not doing a good enough job when I take on a project because it matters a lot to me to be the kind of person other people can count on. So my bully tells me: I’m not doing enough, well enough, or fast enough.
I worry I’m messing up as a parent because I feel that creating a secure, happy, and emotionally safe space for my kids is my most important responsibility. So my bully tells me: I’m blowing it as a mom because my kids get way too much screen time because of my laziness.
I worry that potential new friends will be turned off by my talkative nature, dark sense of humor, and tendency to get real honest quickly. Relationships I feel comfortable being myself in are deeply important to me. So my bully tells me: Don’t bother pursuing this new friendship because I’m a weirdo and make people uncomfortable.
It matters to me that the people I love feel they’ve been treated well by me and feel like our relationship is equitable. So my bully tells me: everyone is mad at me because I’m not pulling my weight.
Trustworthiness, empathy, authenticity, honesty, kindness. These are my core values. The things that feel vital to my being and that I feel the most need to protect.
And they’re the ones my bully makes a beeline for.
Don’t turn self acceptance into one more thing you’re doing wrong.
It takes time to change patterns of thinking. It’s important not to judge the speed and path of your progress, using it as yet another weapon of shame against yourself. It may be weeks or months before you can move past the first step of recognizing the negative thought pattern. It takes longer to reliably replace your negative thoughts with better ones and even longer to actually believe them.
Think of it as less transformation and more evolution. Incremental changes can be hard to notice happening in real-time. But with time, patience, and persistence, you can evict that bully in your head. Eventually, when you turn to yourself, you'll hear the voice of someone who loves, accepts, and cares for you - how we all deserve to be treated.
Disclaimer: no child’s self esteem was demolished in the writing of this article.
Stay curious, stay humble, stay kind