Dethroning the Inner Bully

As humans, we have a very powerful inner critic. Sometimes, I describe this as an inner Bully. The inner Bully tends to shows up when we’re feeling sadness, fear, guilt, shame, embarrassment, grief, loneliness, anger, disappointment, or any of the other myriad unpleasant—and often painful—emotions. It often says things like: “Get over it!”, “What’s wrong with you?” ,“Why are you feeling like this?”, “You don’t have any reason to feel this!”, “Stop being so weak!”, “You’re so pathetic—you’ll never change!”, and so on. The Bully statements actually leave us feeling worse than we did with the initial painful experience!  We simply hurt more.

The Bully seems to sit on a throne and reign over our thoughts and emotions. So why do we let it take control?  The Bully’s power comes from effects of the incredible connection between the mind and the body. The mind and the body are always in dialogue with one another.  There is a constant stream of information moving up from the body into the mind, and the mind down into each and every cell of the body. This is great in many ways; however, there is one downside:  The body has a tendency to believe everything the mind thinks.

You can experience this effect right now:

Close your eyes for a moment think about a time when you experienced an itch that you couldn’t reach.

How long was it before you experienced an itch?

You can focus on any past memory—painful or pleasant—and you will experience sensations and emotions in your body that are consistent with that experience. If we are in the mind, listening to the harsh criticism of the Bully, our body will experience emotions and sensations consistent with hearing and believing that those incredibly unkind things are true. The beautiful thing is that we can change the dialogue. We can learn to respond to ourselves with kindness and even experience a bit of healing in the process.

We can de-throne the Bully and take our power back.

Changing the Dialogue

When someone we love is hurting, we show them kindness.  We don’t tend to jump to criticism, name-calling, and shaming. We ask them questions like, “What’s wrong?”, “What do you need?”, or we simply sit with them for a bit and offer a hug or a gentle hand on the shoulder. But when we’re hurting, we are often self-critical toward ourselves rather than kind. We bow before the Bully on the Throne in our mind.

How do we change the dialogue? How do we let the feeling of love and compassion that we show our friends, silence the Bully?  We start with the body. Remember, the body and mind are always in a dialogue—that does run in both directions. The body and the brain are connected.

When we are engaged in a negative feedback loop where the mind is sending painful messages into the body, we cannot change the loop by engaging the mind and arguing with it. It doesn’t argue well with itself.

Instead, we change the direction of the feedback loop. When we are in a painful emotion, we often experience tightness and tension. The breath might become shallow and be centered in the upper chest. We may even hold our breath and clench the jaw. If we really pay attention, we may find that the belly is clenched, and even the hands are tight. This is a normal response to painful input from the mind. This is how the body responds when the sympathetic nervous system is engaged. You might be more familiar with this as the “fight, flight, or freeze” response.

The Bully thrives in the fight or flight environment. When we are in this physical and mental space, we are more vulnerable to the attacks of the inner Bully.

The Power of Touch

We can change the feedback loop and switch off the sympathetic nervous system—shift out of the “fight, flight, freeze” response by first, softening the body. You can try this now:

  • Bring the palms of your hands together in front of you and rub them together generating a bit of heat.
  • When the palms are warm, place your palms over your closed eyes and rest there for a moment. Let your eyes take in the experience of the warmth of your hands and the gift of a few moments with no input—a true rest.
  • After a few moments, press your fingertips into your forehead and let your hands move around the forehead, temples, and perhaps even the jaw, massaging the face. You might even find that you want to massage the scalp, the neck, and even the shoulders.
  • Let your hands and body have a conversation—notice what pressure or touch feels good. You might experiment with massaging your arms, your hands, or your legs, and your feet.
  • Continue for a few minutes until this feels complete.

When you’re done, pause a moment and notice the changes in your body. Notice the changes in your thoughts.

Self-massage, such as this offers us a unique way to reconnect with our body. It’s a gentle touch—quite the opposite energy of the Bully dialogue that was the primary narrative in the mind. When we engage in self-massage daily, we are offering ourselves the opportunity to know our body—to be more attuned to the cues it may be sending us. We may discover areas of tension that we didn’t previously realize were there. We may even notice that we were holding the breath! With self-massage are working with releasing the chronic tension that is held in the muscles when the sympathetic nervous system has been active for extended periods of time. We are offering ourselves much needed love, tenderness, and kindness.

Practicing self-massage over time can increase activation in the parasympathetic nervous system as well, increasing feelings of calm and ease as well as elevating mood and stabilizing energy levels. It brings us into a natural state of rest and ease. This begins to “switch off” the sympathetic nervous system’s fight, flight, freeze response and begins to transition to the parasympathetic nervous system’s “rest and digest” mode. The Bully cannot survive in the rest and digest zone. When we enter this space, we are able to find our center—find our strength and dethrone the Bully by changing the dialogue from harsh self-criticism into messages of compassion, acceptance, and love.

The next time you hear your inner Bully speak to you, try a new approach:

  • Pause
  • Hug yourself
  • Exhale
  • Cover your eyes
  • Give yourself a massage

Experiment with how your connecting with your body can change your relationship with your inner Bully and reclaim the throne in your mind as your own. It’s not uncommon to experience some resistance in the body when trying practices such as this for the first time. The inner Bully really likes to hang on. If you’re having trouble dethroning the Bully on your own, talking to a therapist can help you navigate this more easily.

Patty Hlava, Ph.D., LMFT, AWC, C. MI, RYT

Dr. Hlava is a licensed marriage and family therapist, certified Ayurveda Wellness Counselor, Certified Meditation Instructor, and Registered Yoga Teacher.