How to Deal with the Bully Inside Your Head

hands pointing fingers at personHave you ever called yourself “stupid” just because you made a mistake?

When you look in the mirror, do you curse your reflection for not being attractive enough?

Do you make silent, sarcastic remarks to yourself after you speak?

When you engage in self-criticism, it’s like having your very own personal bully living inside your head.

Whenever you try something new, the bully is there to taunt you. When you think about taking a risk, the bully lets you know you’ll probably fail. And when it comes to relationships, the bully is the first to point out your flaws and weaknesses, all the reasons no one could ever really love you.

The bully loves to control you. It’s the bully’s “thing.”

Your bully is happiest when you’re anxious about screwing up, or else feeling like you already screwed up. That’s what gives bullies their power.

If you want to ditch the bully, you’ll need to take your power back. But before you can do that, make sure you really want to get rid of the bully inside your head.

“What?” you may ask. “How can you even ask me that? Of COURSE I want to ditch this bully!”

Are you sure?

The bully in your head is there for a reason. The bully is there to keep you on your toes. What if you didn’t have a bully pointing out how badly you’re doing in everything? How much worse might you be?

Taking your power back by rejecting the lie (i.e., there’s something wrong with you) is much easier said than done. But what does it feel like to consider the possibility that you’re just fine exactly as you are?

The real bully is your belief that there’s something inherently wrong with you. How ready do you feel to let go of that?

As long as you suspect there’s something wrong with you, you’ll need a bully to keep you on the right track.

Taking your power back by rejecting the lie (i.e., there’s something wrong with you) is much easier said than done. But what does it feel like to consider the possibility that you’re just fine exactly as you are?

Take a few moments to mull it over.

What does it mean if there is really, truly nothing at all wrong with you? It could mean a lot of things, not all of them pleasant. For example:

  • You’ve been treated worse than you deserve to be treated.
  • You’ve turned down opportunities that might have made your life better.
  • Your expectations of yourself may have seemed too high, but have really been too low.
  • Your expectations of others have been low or nonexistent.
  • You wasted years not following your dreams for fear you didn’t deserve them.

Taking back your power from the bully in your head is not without cost. The cost of taking back your power is regret—for all the years you let the bully control you.

Go ahead and feel the regret. You earned it and it won’t kill you.

Then take back your power by saying no to the bully who insists there’s something wrong with you.

There’s no special trick to it. Just do it.

Act as if there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re a good person. You won’t do bad things just because no one’s there to criticize you anymore.

You trusted the bully to take care of you all these years, but it cost you some self-esteem. Trust yourself now. Ditch the bully.

When the bully calls you stupid or unattractive, say, “I disagree.” Then mentally walk away from that criticism.

That’s how you take charge. One thought, one moment, at a time.

Good luck taking on your bully. Let me know how it goes.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Tina Gilbertson, MA, LPC, therapist in Denver, Colorado

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • wendy

    wendy

    June 1st, 2015 at 6:25 PM

    Just this week I have been ruminating on this very issue. My depressive episode – the worst I have had in many months – has led to a lot of insomnia, overeating, fist clenching and jaw tightening moments. And I am repeatedly asking myself why is it I find myself, aged 60, with nothing to show but a few material possessions. Not true of course. But the fugue echos louder than reality. Thanks for reminding me to look beyond.

  • Audra

    Audra

    June 2nd, 2015 at 3:35 AM

    There are many of us who deal with a bully that is in our own head far more than we ever have to worry about some other person pushing us around.
    It is a fact that most of us are way harder on ourselves than anyone else could ever be.
    It is easier to brush off what others say- not so much when you have a broken record going on in your head.

  • Beth

    Beth

    June 2nd, 2015 at 4:21 AM

    Hi Wendy,
    I am 51 and I have the same issues. I guess taking it one day at a time helps. Hope you feel better soon.
    -Beth

  • Trace

    Trace

    June 2nd, 2015 at 10:34 AM

    You do have to take that power back! There is never anything good that comes from allowing all of this negative self talk to invade the mind. But it is a hard move to go from constantly being hard on yourself to instead focusing on that which is good and can be enjoyed by yourself as well as but others.

  • sondra

    sondra

    June 3rd, 2015 at 2:23 PM

    when you think less of yourself then you will allow yourself to sink to how you actually see yourself, so it’s time to raise those standards just a little higher and rise to achieve great things

    it’s time to kick the inner bullies to the curb

  • Trudy

    Trudy

    June 5th, 2015 at 1:58 PM

    So if you are your own worst bully… doesn’t it stand to reason that the better thing is to turn this around on yourself and become your own best friend?

  • Sheryl

    Sheryl

    June 5th, 2015 at 3:19 PM

    How one marrys an abuser to agree with the in the head bully

  • Mike

    Mike

    June 5th, 2015 at 3:51 PM

    I like that you call it the inner “bully” as opposed to the more common language, the inner “critic.” I think that the word “critic” is not strong enough. The inner bully can be downright sadistic, and power-hungry, and prey on weakness. Just like you say.

    However, I would add something to what you write here. From a psychodynamic perspective, the inner bully can be a split-off part of your psyche, a part who deserves attention and care. Perhaps an inner child who represents all your woundedness from inadequate nurturing in childhood. So I wouldn’t suggest turning your back on the inner bully, but learning to love him.

    You are right–that still requires changing your beliefs about yourself and changing your relationship to the inner critic. I just would conceptualize it as changing the relationship, not walking away or disregarding.

  • Joanne

    Joanne

    June 5th, 2015 at 5:12 PM

    I don’t think I am my own worst bully, it sure seems that way but no. That voice or voices belong to early programming from siblings, teachers parents and the like. It is also from great fear of being seen – so it helps to make us much smaller and therefore less noticable so no one will get us. Yes I agree be careful about bullying the bully or kicking them out, stand up to the bully, educate the bully and eventually love the bully – no more bully after awhile x

  • leah

    leah

    June 6th, 2015 at 7:58 AM

    I realized earlier this year that the relationship that I have with myself is the most abusive relationship that I’ve ever had.

    I suffer from bouts of depression and anxiety, and the so-called bully that lives inside my head is always there. On the rare occasions it provides comfort, I tend to keep it close. But, mostly, the bully lives to block me from seeing and taking on new opportunities.

    I’m hoping to learn how to take control and fight back. Or, at least, give it comfort and attention so it can calm down. Taking it one day at a time might be part of the answer.

  • kate

    kate

    June 7th, 2015 at 5:32 AM

    My therapy is: FIRST recognize that an old voice from the past is trying to run my life today.
    If I can identify the influences that put the bully into my head it all becomes clear and easy to handle.
    Childhood programming by family or others can become hardwired, automatic. I now now interupt that autpmatic response. I have a choice what to think, here in the present moment.
    To cope I develop alternative responses. “delete, erase” I tell myself it just a memory from the past, then begin one of the positive ACTIONS i have developed so the healthy response involves the whole body.
    IMPORTANT: these actions must be healthy. not food, booze, anger, drugs, or shopping!

  • Snowburst

    Snowburst

    June 7th, 2015 at 5:21 PM

    I see, feel, and experience a difference between an inner bully and an inner critic. Mainly because I am lucky enough to have at least one of each. A critic I associate with my mother, what I consider to be a truly insanely jealous alcoholic (and then some), and the bullying from my eight-years-older sister. I would also classify her as insanely jealous, but from a different angle. While my outer mother and my inner critic version (still living in my head, the latter passed away) seemed to me to be jealous of every relationship I had that was a happy one, especially that of my father, needless to say, the actual relationship with my mother was at best tenuous.

    Although after decades of psychotherapy, once it was once pointed out to me, I started to realize that the one family member I hadn’t talked much about was my older sister. When I came along, she had her own bedroom that was hers and only hers. Enter, moi. Throughout most of my adulthood I have little by little become aware of how maniacally brutal my mother and two older siblings were to me in various ways. And then of course, there was my emotionally absent father, the one I was closest to; he and I did have a love and an understanding for each other. Which by default in our sadistically dysfunctional family, made me an enemy of my mother, sister, and older brother who blamed my dad’s (diagnosed) mental illness on the downfall of our family. That all said, it is my inner bully whom I associate with my older sister. She made it clear not just who was boss, but whose bedroom it really was that I was allowed to sleep in, and whose decisions it was that were to be made, even involving my own possessions and whereabouts of “my” bed and dresser belonged. The more I have come out of my shell to brave the cold, cruel world, the more I have come to find that the cold, cruel world doesn’t hold an ice cube (I can’t say “candle”!) to the “family” world where I grew up.

  • Tina Gilbertson

    Tina Gilbertson

    June 8th, 2015 at 9:07 AM

    Snowburst, I don’t think enough attention has been paid to the impact of siblings on our personal development. Thank you for illustrating the point so articulately.

    I wish you an end to both self-criticism and self-bullying.

  • James Genovese, LPC, LCADC

    James Genovese, LPC, LCADC

    June 8th, 2015 at 9:17 AM

    There’s one thing that the positive statement, “There’s nothing wrong with me,” has in common with the nasty bully talk (“I’m stupid” “I’m ugly”)…

    …They’re all absolute statements.

    If I tell myself that absolutely nothing is wrong with me, then do I risk reinventing myself into a narcissist?

    When I do cognitive restructuring, I prefer to allow for grey areas as they allow for more realistic self-schemae. Some examples:

    “There are some things I’m better at than others, but overall I am an intelligent person.”

    “I am an attractive person, not only because of my physical characteristics but also because of my inner qualities.”

    …Just some food for thought.

  • Lawson

    Lawson

    June 8th, 2015 at 9:44 AM

    We all seem to think that we are the one person who would stick up for us in a time of crisis but guess what? We are usually the ones tearing us down. Ugh it is frustrating to know that we should be a cheerleader but instead we wast so much crucialtime being a critic!

  • Tom Dorrance LICSW

    Tom Dorrance LICSW

    June 9th, 2015 at 9:37 AM

    I think a portion of these issues is about bringing compassion love and acceptance for all our parts, bully or critic included. Loving a self-denigrating part is different than loving what that part does inside. One can love our parts and also not endorse the hurt. Sometimes a softer, compassionate understanding of the bully’s positive intention can help inside. What could possibly be a positive intention? Well, trying to correct our action before someone else says something to us that might hurt a tender part inside.

  • Cathy Bataille, LCSW

    Cathy Bataille, LCSW

    December 15th, 2016 at 10:15 AM

    Tom, thanks for your contribution to this conversation. I was also going to post about Internal Family Systems, which is great for this kind of parts work. And yes, compassion for ALL of our parts is key. We don’t have to disown parts of ourselves to grow. There are strengths and skills associated with each of them.

  • Snowburst

    Snowburst

    June 21st, 2015 at 9:25 AM

    Tina, I agree; both in the negative and positive aspects… when I was in college, I was involved in the theater dept. and the group there at that time was wonderful. Every person involved was equally important. With much credit given to the professors but without everyone’s “compliance” (I HATE that word) it wouldn’t have happened, either. Too bad Hollywood doesn’t get that message.
    And James, yes, I agree about absolute statements; another one of my pet peeves is positive assertions, “I am….”. I think they tend to run the risk of just turning the balance the other way. which now that I think about it, makes sense, if that middle balance isn’t found in the process.
    Lawson – personally, I think I do relatively well in a crisis but it is afterwards that I ruminate, sometimes over and over again, and bash myself for everything I can think of that I either did wrong or could have done better. (no room for improvement like everyone else is entitled to)
    Tom – I agree 100% with what you’ve said. Sometimes I forget that, especially when I am bashing myself!!

  • jojo

    jojo

    June 21st, 2015 at 2:28 PM

    boy does this really hit me hard. I am my own BULLY how i can relate. I look in mirror all the time and tell myself your gross your sick, i wanna puke, i call myself names all the time, actually hit myself in face giving me black and blue eyes at time or anywhere. My daughter cries mommy don’t do that to yourself when i am putting myself down..but i am gonna do what the article said above say no i am not and walk away. i hope this will eventually help me with me saying instead of all these years hearing it from others telling me your not stupid your pretty.. why do i think that of myself..

  • Snowburst

    Snowburst

    June 26th, 2015 at 10:57 PM

    I can relate to what you’re saying, too, jojo. I sometimes physically do things to myself also. Mostly when I’m extremely frustrated. It doesn’t seem to matter what good or positive thing I hear or tell myself, either. Sometimes that seems to make me feel even more loathsome about myself. But I think it’s still better than giving in. I have learned to be very stubborn in a good way about that!! I do hope that we can both break through the self-harm chains that bind us. We both deserve to be as free as anyone else does to be able to receive love and grace and forgiveness as well as to give it to others!!

  • jojo

    jojo

    June 27th, 2015 at 4:54 PM

    wow . Snowburst it seems we have a lot in common. i hope to break these self-harm chains too. I am in pyschiatrist and counselor to help with this and also being dx with bipolar/ depression and recovery is gonna be a hard road to go i do believe..but i havent hit myself in almost a month i do believe i think i have to start keeping track of it so i know whether i am getting any better what do you think? are you seeking any help.

  • Snowburst

    Snowburst

    June 30th, 2015 at 4:25 PM

    Yes, jojo, I am working with a psych intern and closely with my PCP. It is a great help to have them in the same office (and only 3 blocks away!!) so they can collaborate on my treatment. I have bipolar disorder too. As well as the severe depression combo and PTSD that is always and relentlessly riding on my shoulders. I recently have come to a place where I need more consistent and specialized (the interns rotate in and out after one year) Our state medicaid program so far will not cover specialized treatment for me. Although they do sometimes allow it. I hope it is not because it is for MH and not a physical ailment!
    !!! SURVIVORS ARISE !!!

  • jojo

    jojo

    July 1st, 2015 at 7:14 PM

    glad you are seeing both too..sorry you suffer from same things as me..thankfully finally i have insurance thru my husbands work and was able to get out of the state medicaid program..sorry your state doesnt allow for specialized treatment… I am trying to be a survivor..i really am.. its just hard sometimes, especially like right now at nite i am all alone my daughter went to hang with her girlfriend for the nite and my husband has been working in louisiana so not sure when he will be home… my best (guy) friend is in jail.. and i cant trust anyone any more so I don’t have any friends to hang or do things with . My pyschiatrist ordered some different meds for me on my visit yesterday with him but even with insurance i can t afford to get them till my husbands payday friday so it looks like its gonna be a long nite tonite..cause i cant sleep so many things go thru my mind when i turn out the lights but when i am awake i get tired feeling shut lights off then thoughts just keep rolling and rolling its a never ended process. hope fully on friday the new medications will help me sleep and slow down my thinking..hugs to you

  • Snowburst

    Snowburst

    July 6th, 2015 at 5:46 PM

    Geeze, jojo, you sound just like me too! The loneliness…if it weren’t for my cats, I would not exist. I re-read Tina’s article here and when I got to the “I disagree” part, in my head I swung down and lifted up and punched my sister square in the jaw. Oops. That was before I read the “and then walk away” part. My bad.
    Regret is a feeling that I HATE feeling. I am sure that is a good part of the reason why I don’t like to throw away still-usable items. It’s maddening when I just threw something out, and sure enough, I find a need for it within a short period of time. Or when I think of doing or not doing something, and don’t respond. Some of my most painful regrets have been caused by not heeding that still, quiet voice. (which is one I think is supposed to be there in your head) I really like the paragraph that reads, “Your bully is happiest when… That’s what gives bullies their power.” In that aspect, the bully is really robbing you of your own energy. I imagine (as in, really, I just imagined) that taking whatever gets thrown at you and finding a way to capture it and flip it…will not only get your own power back, but taking away whatever power was being thrown at you in the first place. Any one can start a fight. But it takes a strong person to be able to neutralize it. I’m learning….

  • Emily

    Emily

    October 13th, 2015 at 6:43 AM

    I am dealing with a narcasist ex who is a bully. He is the father of my two boys and he will not leave the home we own together. He is trying all this bullying tactics to get me to leave but I am staying strong and trying to deal with him. He seems to get pleasure from nasty comments and domestic abuse. Any advice welcomed thanks

  • Snowburst

    Snowburst

    October 13th, 2015 at 5:41 PM

    Emily, my advice for you is to get to yourself and your children to the nearest women’s shelter ASAP. I spent two of my last terms of school at the local shelter, and I wish to heck I had known what they are like when I was going through my breakup. They are there to help you, as your advocate. They are on your side to give you the protection you need right now.
    Here are some things to know:
    1. The abuse is going to continue to get worse, not better. Many of us want to wait it out to see if things will blow over and settle back to normal again. But when you’re talking about someone’s personal and continual behavior over time, which is what you are describing, the sooner you leave,, the better.
    2. There are some things you need to do first. a) Get any papers together you might need for getting assistance such as Social Security cards, credit card account (and any other account) numbers, passwords and usernames you use, etc.
    b. Carefully pack about three days worth of clothes for everyone. your children and yourself.
    c. Make a plan: Find out where the nearest shelter is. You may want to contact them and let them know what’s going on before you leave. They will be able to give you more specific information and be able to help you make a more detailed plan. Know you are going to get there. You might want to engage a trusted friend or relative who will help you if plans don’t go as planned. But if you do this, be SURE they are not going to call your your X and give him a head’s up.
    ******** DO NOT MENTION IT TO ANYONE ********
    ( besides someone you may have picked out for help)
    Remember, your children are at stake too, and less able to defend themselves. You are all in need of immediate evacuation from this situation. I hope something in this will help you get started. ***

  • Lucy

    Lucy

    July 26th, 2017 at 6:46 PM

    I can relate with all the comments that I am reading, from childhood until present, I have been told that I am lazy, and I will never achieve any thing in life. But my inner self loves people and when I do get out I love to talk to people and mostly strangers. I seem to be able to start a conversation with strangers better than my own family. I love to make people laugh! But yet when I am alone, ( which is most of the time ) I am self critical and I can’t seem to function in anything that would be a help to me, daily chores are a challenge to me, my family says I’m just lazy and wanting pity, that’s the last thing I want. My motivation is gone, and I have been thinking about how I want my last days to be and if God accepts cremation, as a funeral, I just need to know that because my heart is broken and I don’t feel the need to try anymore. Adult bullying is real and I can’t deal with it anymore, if it were a stranger I believe I could take it more, but it’s my sisters, who allways feel the need to punish me every chance they can, because I stood up to what a family member did to me at the age of 17, and I told what this person did to me. Ever since then they have told me that I shouldn’t have said anything, because of the family name. I’m dirt to them and they even shame me in front of people, like I’m the one that did the wrong. Please tell me how I can lose myself from all the ugly things they do to me, as I try to bury what is done and over with, they allways remind me how low down i am because I should’ve kept it to myself and dealt with it.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    July 26th, 2017 at 8:24 PM

    Thank you for your comment, Lucy. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about what to do in a crisis at https://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

    Warm regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Snowburst

    Snowburst

    July 29th, 2017 at 7:01 PM

    Hi, Lucy. I sure can relate to your situation. When I was going through my divorce, it was a nasty mess. And unfortunately I had no idea how nasty it really was and it took me decades to figure out only as much as I know today. Which is not everything but enough to know what happened. The thing that stands out to me most in what you said is about “the family name”. After my oldest son passed away, I came upon some of the letters he had saved while he was in the Navy. One told him to stand by the family name, “no matter what”. Those three words say it all, yet they say nothing. It seems to me that society in general has the belief that almost everyone’s family is relatively supportive and safe to grow up in. However, that is simply not true. And as long as my family and yours, and all the millions and millions of others who stand by and do nothing, those who look the other way, or, like ours, even try to force the victims within them to stay submerged, the problem will not just continue but it will also continue to grow worse as time goes by. I believe it is not only OK but I believe it is necessary for people like you and I to speak up about those of us who have been abused and mistreated by others. And particularly by others within our own families.

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