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Curbing Negative Self Talk: How to Stop a Bully When the Bully is You



A while back, my daughter struggled with a new concept in math. She didn’t get it, she felt frustrated and her friends seemed to zip right through the work. Homework became a battle.


“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 just aren’t good at math. She simply wasn’t smart enough, and her friends were probably making fun of her behind her back. I told her she’d probably be bad at other new things too, so she shouldn’t bother trying.


I wanted her to really get it so I reminded her every day.


Math isn’t your thing, I would say, hugging her goodbye in the morning. You’re too dumb to learn new things, I’d remind her as she sat down to homework. You’ll never be good at anything, I’d point out if she wanted 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. Your friends think you’re useless, I’d whisper in her ear.

Eventually, she gave up trying and accepted that she wasn’t good enough.



Do you feel an increasing sense of outrage?


Of course you do! Children deserve love, care, empathy, and support. Not mean-spirited needling and soul crushing lies.


I know it feels hard but the more you practice, the easier it will get I say to her instead. You are so very capable of learning new things and there are so many things you are already really good at. I hug her and tell her, you are unique and kind and loving and interesting, the world is a better place with you in it.


Repeatedly telling someone negative and critical things is called bullying.


Things have changed a lot since the 80’s and 90’s I grew up in. We openly talk in schools and at home about the lasting and sometimes dangerous effects of bullying. We know that students who experience bullying or cyberbullying are nearly 2 times more likely to attempt suicide (Hinduja & Patchin, 2018) We also know that not all bullying is overt and physical. It turns out that it isn’t just sticks and stones that hurt — words cause harm too.


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 the one being bullied is the one doing the bullying?


You wouldn’t say to a child, you’ll never be good at anything, you’re too dumb to learn new thing, your friends think you’re useless.


So why do we talk to ourselves that way?


I would never in a million years talk to my daughter that way. But I have said such things to myself. Regularly.


We accept it as a given that children deserve to hear words of love, acceptance and support. But somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten that us grown-ups need that same level of care — there’s no expiration date on our deservingness of those basic needs.


Ideally, 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 lives.


Inner bully vs. Inner critic


Some people refer to that nasty little voice inside your head as the inner critic, but I prefer the term inner bully. The title of critic carries a ring of authority to it and one might be too easily tempted to believe the critic knows something you don’t know. The title bully carries a stigma of unfair and unwarranted fear-based cruelty. There’s little question that a bully is wrong.



If you wouldn’t say it to a child you love, then you have no business saying it to yourself.


In order to stand up to the bully that lives inside our head we need to first remember what we know about bullies: bullies act out of pain, fear, or sadness, projecting insecurities onto someone who triggers those uncomfortable feelings.


Next, it helps to recognize 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.


Finally, try this fun little acronym: R.A.T.S. 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: 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.


Ask two powerful questions:

  1. 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?

  2. 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: 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 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 my kids feel loved.


Sit with your discomfort: 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 I lost my patience again.


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 care about feel like our relationship is mutually beneficial. So my bully tells me: everyone is mad.


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 turn that bully in your head into your. new BFF and biggest ally. Eventually, when you turn to yourself, you’ll hear the voice of someone who loves, accepts, and cares for you unconditionally.


Stay curious, stay humble, stay kind


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 harmed in the writing of this article.



Stay curious, stay humble, stay kind



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Hey there, I'm Juliette (She/her) – I'm a Bodyworker and Writer.

I run a thriving massage practice in the East Bay California, where I've helped thousands of people feel amazing in their bodies.
 
When I'm not helping people feel better in their bodies or writing about wellness, practice-building and the messy art of being human, you can find me hanging with my family, curled up with some chocolate and a book, drinking room-temperature tea or hiking the gorgeous Bay Area with my pup.

My daily grind involves battling my brain to carve out a space for healthier living, personal growth, and a pinch more self-love. It's an ongoing challenge!

Join me as I explore wellness of the head, heart and body. 
 
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Stay curious, stay humble, stay kind.

XOXO, 

Juliette

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Juliette Wilk is a licensed and certified Massage Therapist with 20 years of experience. She runs a thriving private practice in East Bay California, where she's helped thousands of people feel better in their bodies. When she's not helping people achieve a state of bliss or writing on wellness and practice-building topics, you can find her hanging with her family and pup, curled up with a book, drinking room-temperature tea or hiking the gorgeous Bay Area. Work with her or read more @ lifebalancemassage.net

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