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, second-guessing your actions, mind-reading what others were thinking, anticipating the fall-out and calling you names. Sound familiar?

You may be surprised to learn you’re not alone. This is particularly the case with women. That’s the irony: each woman thinks she’s the problem. Why is this? Well, I have two explanations.

First of all, women tend to be relationship oriented. In her groundbreaking book, In a Different Voice, research 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⌉

Your inner bully is a coping strategy you use to protect your relationships. It’s just not a healthy coping strategy. For one thing, the inner bully uses up a lot of mental energy. All that ruminating – analyzing the past and dreading the future – is exhausting. The inner bully also interferes with your concentration and your ability to be “present.” If you’re trying to impress your boss, the least helpful strategy would be to take your mind off your work. If the entire time you’re on vacation, you’re thinking about work, you won’t feel like you had a vacation. It probably comes as no surprise that the inner bully also causes anxiety and depression. Imagine if you, literally, had someone following you around everywhere, criticizing you and second-guessing you’re every move. That can’t feel good. But that’s exactly what your inner bully is doing to you!

The second reason why women self-bully stems, I believe, from social/cultural expectations and limitations. Over my 25 years of practice, I’ve been struck by how many of my female patients report feeling inadequate and undeserving. It appears almost universal! My colleagues report this, too… women from all “walks of life,” regardless of their accomplishments. This can’t be an accident. Women frequently tell themselves, “If I don’t bully myself, I’ll end up alone and a failure. I’m inherently inadequate… I can’t just be myself ! If I don’t rehash my conversations… If I don’t mind-read… If I don’t anticipate people’s needs and put them before my own… If I’m not hard on myself, I’ll really screw up.”

Would you ever talk to your child or a good friend this way? Which advice would you find helpful: “You’re stupid, you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t deserve to be here” or “It’s okay. Everyone makes mistakes. Let’s look at what you did well and what needs improving?” Every single time I ask a female patient these questions, I get the same response: “I would never talk to someone else this way.” They know it’s not only unhelpful, it doesn’t even reflect their values. You know how to encourage and help others. You just need to apply it to yourself. I call this “being your own best friend.”

You don’t need to bully yourself to avoid rejection or failure. That doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes or rub some people the wrong way but, rather than trying to be all things to all people, start holding others accountable. In this age of social media, where people constantly compare themselves and judge each other, it’s easy to forget we’re all flawed. We can all be more tolerant. Ask yourself, “How would I behave in this situation? What would I say?” And there’s your answer. Those are your instincts. Trust them. Stop looking for validation from others. You have the power to give that to yourself. Stop anticipating problems. If other’s are upset, hold them accountable for speaking up. And no matter how angry, annoyed, frustrated, hurt, etc someone is, they are responsible – not you – for how they control and express their feelings. This is what you’d want your daughter, niece, mother, girlfriend to do.

The inner bully is like an addiction. As soon as you feel that anxiety, you’ll be tempted to analyze the situation and second-guess yourself. Remind yourself, “I know I’m doing this because I’m afraid of rejection or failure, but the solution is not to bully myself.” Think about what you would tell your son or daughter, friend or coworker. Use your relationship skills – your ability to nurture, encourage, validate and problem-solve – on yourself. Rely on your inner 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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