Sometimes the bully lies within

Have you ever found yourself feeling sad or anxious over seemingly minor things? Perhaps a conversation didn’t go as you had hoped, you find yourself fretting about an un-returned phone call or message?  Sometimes, it’s the way we think about these everyday experiences which gets us in a knot.  The way we interpret things, the meaning we give them, can give daily experiences the power to set us adrift emotionally. The way we speak to ourselves can turn seemingly harmless events into difficult emotional experiences.

We all have an inner dialogue running through our minds at some point during our day.  Often, we have become so accustomed to this voice that we no longer consciously hear it, which in some cases can leave it to play havoc with our emotions. It’s a bit like a softly playing radio in the background, that after some time you forget is still on but absentmindedly find yourself tapping your foot along to.  This inner voice develops from lifelong experiences, particularly those from childhood.  It tends to take on the tone of the feedback it receives from others.  So, for example, if you happened to be raised in a critical environment, it is more likely that your inner voice may be harsh and judgemental.  Of course, this inner voice is also a product of our own personalities, thus those with more perfectionistic tendencies may experience a harsh inner voice too.

When we start to take notice of the way we speak to ourselves and even about ourselves when talking to others, this inner voice becomes more apparent.  Often, it can be useful to ask yourself whether you would speak to a good friend the same way you speak to yourself?  Most of us would be horrified if anyone else spoke to us this way!  Thoughts such as “Of course you didn’t get the promotion, you never do anything well” or “I can’t believe I forgot my purse at home, I’m useless”, can leave us feeling down and disheartened without even consciously knowing why.  Thinking in a harsh, critical and unkind way can also skew the way we see the world and others around us.  This can leave us feeling alienated, alone, anxious, sad and scared, often without even knowing why.

Turning it around

The good news is that we can change the way we talk to ourselves and this can have a positive impact on the way we feel and behave.  The first place to start is taking a moment to notice when we feel sad, anxious, angry, fearful, hopeless…  Rather than being plagued by the experience in the background or trying to avoid it, it is far more effective to acknowledge the feeling we are experiencing.  We can approach the emotion as the “canary in the mine”, a message from our mind and body that something is troubling us.  Next, try your best to name the emotion, what is it you’re feeling? Once you have a name for it, check in with yourself as to what may have been happening when this emotion appeared or what you may have been thinking about.  Then imagine gently turning up the volume on a radio, listening to what you can hear.  What it is you were thinking to yourself about this event or thought?  At first it may be broader statements, such as “I can’t do that” or “I hate this”.   Keep refining these and see if you can expand on them to the actual statements your inner voice may have been delivering.  Examples may include, “You never do well, you’re useless”, and “No wonder she’s angry with you, no one likes you”, or “I’m unlikeable”. When someone is saying these words to you, it is difficult to feel anything other than hopeless and sad.  It is no different when we say them to ourselves.

You may want to check in with yourself whether you would speak to anyone else in this manner.  Imagine saying those words to a dear friend.  If that doesn’t sit well with you, then it’s a good indication that you could be more compassionate with yourself too.  A useful next step is to ask yourself whether you can come up with a different, non-judgemental and kinder way of expressing your experience.  Examples of re-framed statements may include: “I’m disappointed that I didn’t perform as well as I had hoped I would, I need to take a moment to work out how I can improve”, “It feels bad when things don’t work out for me, but there is a lot I have done well in my life, “I’m feeling sad that we are arguing and frustrated that we didn’t get it worked out” or “I don’t like it when someone is cross with me and tend to automatically think it’s my fault”.

A slight shift in the way we talk to and think about ourselves can help to create some space around the experience and emotion we are feeling.  This can give us a moment in which we can then choose how to respond rather than automatically sending us into a downward spiral leading to impulsive reactions.  Unchecked reactions might include withdrawing from a conversation, refusing an invitation out, or avoiding applying for a new job.  When we take the time to understand our experience we then have the power to respond usefully.  For example, instead of accepting that we are unlikable, we might think of some of the positive interactions we have had with others which can give us the confidence to accept that invitation.    Just think about how good it feels when someone gives us a compliment or acknowledges our hard work and treats us with understanding, compassion and dignity.  We have the power to do this for ourselves daily, it just takes practice!

Key points:

  • Notice (what you are feeling)
  • Name (the emotion)
  • Turn up the volume (what are you saying to yourself about this thing?)
  • Re-frame (How could you say this to a good friend)
  • Respond (not react)
  • Practice, practice, practice!

References and further reading:

Blog by Gillian McGregor – Psychologist at Seven Hills Family Doctors