Ditch Your Inner Bully


You’ve just left a meeting or an evening out with friends. As you’re walking away, you feel a rush of anxiety. Then it shows up: that voice in your head – rehashing what happened, anticipating what will happen, second-guessing your actions, trying to mind-read others’ thoughts, and calling you names – like an addiction or scratch you feel compelled to itch. Sound familiar?

You may be surprised to hear you’re not alone. This is particularly the case with women. That’s the irony: each woman thinks she’s the only one. So, why do we do this? Well, I have two explanations.

First of all, women tend to be very relationship-oriented. In her groundbreaking book, In a Different Voice, Psychologist, Carol Gilligan, introduced two moral viewpoints: the logical, individualistic perspective – which makes decisions based on people’s rights and the rule of law – and the care perspective – which places more emphasis on protecting interpersonal relationships and taking care of other people. Dr. Gilligan referred to the two perspectives as the “masculine voice” and “feminine voice.” She even observed these differences watching how boys play together versus how girls play together. ⌈¹⌉⌊²⌉

The second reason women self-bully, I believe, stems from social/cultural expectations. Over 27+ years of practice, I’m struck by how many women report feeling inadequate and undeserving. It seems almost universal! Colleagues report this, too: women from all walks of life, regardless of their accomplishments. They analyze, rehash, second-guess, mind-read, anticipate, and self-criticize to avoid rejection or failure. Most women are afraid, “If I’m not hard on myself, I’ll really screw up.” “I’m inadequate… I can’t just be myself !” “If I don’t rehash my conversations, mindread, put others’ needs first, I’ll end up alone or a failure.”

In other words, self-bullying is a coping strategy, just not a healthy one. All this ruminating drains energy and distracts. How can you perform at your best or even enjoy a vacation if your mind isn’t “in the present?” Self-bullying also causes anxiety and depression – not surprising if you imagine someone following you around, criticizing and second-guessing your every move!

Of course, most women would never talk to one of their children or good friend this way. They recognize the bully is not only mean, but discouraging and doesn’t reflect their values. Just ask yourself which feedback you would find helpful: 1) “You’re stupid, you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t deserve to be here” or 2) “It’s okay. Everyone makes mistakes. Let’s look at what you did well and what needs improving?” The irony is women know how to be encouraging and supportive. They just need to apply it to themselves. I call this “being your own best friend.”

In other words, you can and you should use the same relationship skills you use on others, on yourself: nurturing; encouraging; validating; and problem-solving.

It’s not your responsibility to mindread or anticipate other people’s needs. If someone is upset, it’s their responsibility to tell you. And no matter how angry, annoyed, frustrated, hurt, etc someone is, it’s their responsibility to manage and express their feelings constructively. In other words, you have a right to be treated the same way you treat others. (I call it “the opposite of the Golden Rule.”)

Remind yourself, “I know I’m self-bullying because I’m afraid of rejection or failure but the solution is never to bully myself.” Be your own cheerleader instead.

¹Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, Cambridge, MA: Havard University Press, 2016

²”Carol Gilligan”. (November 23, 2019). In Wikipedia. Retrieved December 1, 2019 from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carol_Gilligan

Green, Penelope. “Carefully Smash the Patriarchy: Carol Gilligan, author of the feminist classic, ‘In a Different Voice,’ reminds us that we’re all humans.” New York Times, March 18, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/18/style/carol-gilligan.html?auth=link-dismiss-google1tap

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