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Our inner bully - silencing the critical voice

Troubled woman at work

Our harshest critic is usually the one inside our own head. It tells you things your best friend probably never would.

"You're no good."
"You're so stupid."
"You're such an idiot."
"You're such a loser."

Does this sound familiar? How often does this voice invade your thoughts?

Because humans have a moral self (Freud called this the 'super ego'), we are meant to hear this voice when we are about to break the social contract that says "If I am kind to you, you will be kind to me".

However, as Freud pointed out, that voice can become over-inflated and crush us with a constant barrage of self-criticism. The moral voice that helps us with our altruism and kindness becomes harsh and overbearing. We can feel powerless to stop it.

So, how can we put this usually helpful voice in perspective?

We can try to ignore it. This is a method often used in psychotherapy, as is making it your friend and seeing it as the helpful ally it is meant to be. These two methods rely on one thing; being able to stand up to this critical voice. This involves being assertive with ourselves, something we're not taught to do, either with ourselves or others. We're taught to be polite and self-effacing; something the critical voice takes advantage of.

It can become our inner bully, pushing us around and sapping us of our confidence and joy of living.

Being self-assertive means standing up to the bully in us and saying NO (firmly and kindly as you would to a dog or a toddler).

In assertiveness, the accent is on not reacting, but responding, so we don't want to be angry with our inner bully. Getting angry causes arousal and arousal equals stress. The last thing we want to do is have our stress bucket go up.

Mindfulness is a useful concept here. Mindfulness (in the Zen Buddhist tradition) teaches us not to react to things or thoughts but simply to observe everything in the world and inside of us. We are taught not to react, but to observe the stimulus, whether it's a thought, a feeling or a sensation, dispassionately and with detachment. It is something which is simply happening. We do not react to it, or interact in any way. We just look at it and then let it go.

In this way, we can respond to our inner bully, with detachment. If you like, you can say "That's interesting; my inner bully is saying something". You can even add some humour. "That's interesting; my inner bully wants to beat me up". You could, if you like, give it a name.

But first, we need to stand up to it; to be assertive and either say "NO" (firmly and kindly), or deal with it in the mindful way I've just described. Don't be tempted to get into a rational discussion with it. There is nothing rational about the inner bully. It comes from a place built-in to our psyche.

On a rational level It is useful to identify our good qualities and repeat them to ourselves often, to 'inoculate' ourselves against the inner critic and remind ourselves that we are not the 'loser' our inner bully would have us believe.

Having said NO or dismissed it make no mistake, if you don't concentrate on something else pretty quickly, your inner bully will be at it again, so you need to refocus on something very quickly. The inner bully is a series of trains of thought embedded in your brain that have been there for a long time and have been reinforced over and over again. "What fires together, wires together." You need to unwire those trains of thought and, although it won't happen overnight, it will happen if you are patient and persistent.

You can refocus on anything; music, your work, talking to someone, look at social media. The brain cannot focus strongly on two things at once so if you focus strongly on the alternative, your inner bully will be quiet, at least for a while. Gradually it will fade and perhaps one day it might disappear altogether. At least you will be able to see it for what it is and not believe what it says. It rarely tells the truth.

As always, if pain persists please see your friendly mental health practitioner or if you're in Australia, try one of the numbers below.

Lifeline Australia - 13 11 14
Mensline Australia - 1300 78 99 78
Beyondblue - 1300 224 636
Suicideline Victoria - 1300 651 251
Suicide Call Back Service - 1300 659 467
Kids Helpline - 1800 551 800
Griefline Community and Family Services - 1300 845 745