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How This CBT Technique Can Help You Win Over Your Inner Bully

“You’re such an idiot. Why would you say that? This is exactly why nobody respects you.”

“You’re so needy. Can’t you just deal with it? Do you really need to ruin every friendship by making it all about you and your issues? This is why nobody wants to hang out with you.”

“Are you seriously still hung up on this? Get over it!”

“You’re going to cancel again? Come on! Don’t blame it on your illness, we all know you’re just lazy and selfish. Pull yourself together.”

We would be shocked to hear anybody utter these words to a stranger, let alone a dear friend.

Yet, how many of us allow this kind of inner dialog to torment us day after day without relief? Why do we bully ourselves this way? What can we do to stop it?

To understand why our brains sometimes use us an emotional punching bag, we need to first understand what negative self-talk is and why we do it.

Negative self-talk is a cognitive distortion: a way of reframing reality in a harsh light to cope with stress or pain. These distortions can take many forms: perfectionism, minimizing, all-or-nothing thinking and catastrophizing are just a few examples, and you may find yourself returning to the same habits over and over again in moments of stress.

The great news is that these distortions can be overcome with positive self-talk: the practice of replacing harmful thoughts with healthy ones. In the same way that we make healthy habits for our physical bodies, we need healthy habits for our minds. This starts with simply noticing when our inner critic is triggered and what tactics they turn to. Once we’ve identified the distortion in our thinking, we can counter it with a statement that is true and make a plan to address the underlying concern.

One of my inner bully’s favorite phrases is, “Are you seriously still hung up on this? Get over it!” This is a minimizing tactic my brain uses when it feels anxious about unresolved conflict. When I notice what is happening, I can reframe this feeling into an empowering statement: “Wow, this is still really affecting me. I’m going to reach out for help to process these feelings.” Of course, this minimizing thought is bound to reappear again in the future — it’s a habit I’ve had for years — but from now on, I will be prepared with my counter-thought and can reroute myself toward help and health without falling into a full spiral. This is the magic of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): You can change the way you feel by changing the way you think!

I used to think positive self-talk was just a gimmick that self-help gurus used to sell books. Now I know this skill is absolutely vital for my own mental and physical health. Learning about the connection between my mind and my body has helped me to honor both more deeply. When my body sounds an alarm that it is in too much pain to attend an event, my anxiety springs to action trying to suppress that voice and shame it into line. “What will people think of me? Why is my body flaring up? I hardly did anything today! And I promised I would be there!”

Now that I recognize this as negative self-talk, I can offer my body compassion and counter that inner critic with truth-telling and care. I thank my body for doing the hard work of helping me to move and experience my life every day, and I replace the critical, minimizing story with compassion: “Thank you for the hard work you’ve been doing. If you need to rest today, I trust you. Thank you for telling me what you need. We’ll try again tomorrow.”

Sometimes it’s hard for me to wade through my own thoughts to discern if they are truly negative or actually a necessary critique. My inner bully often masquerades as responsibility or humility and I struggle to tell the difference between negative self-talk and a helpful challenge to a harmful behavior. I notice myself feeling protective of my inner bully. She’s doing the best she can! She’s watching out for me! And she is. She’s using the skills she developed in crisis, and they got her through that difficult time. But I don’t want to simply survive crisis. I want to thrive. And to do that, I must choose to love myself the way I love others.

I know my anxious brain and hurting body are doing the very best they can, but that doesn’t mean I’ll let them beat up on each other. So, when the swirling thoughts cloud my thinking I cut through the chaos with this question: Is this how I would talk to someone I loved?

That question, and truly this whole process often brings me to tears. The gentle tenderness of loving self-care, of honoring my own experiences seems almost too good to be true. But it isn’t. We are worthy of love. All of us. When we start from that place of self-compassion the old critiques lose their power and compassion and grace take center stage. At least for a little while. The old thought patterns will take some work to reroute, but we’ll win our inner bully over yet. After all, she’s just as scared as we are. Love will show her the way.

Photo by Eli DeFaria on Unsplash