Your mind is a battleground. Or maybe a middle school playground. It can get ugly in there.
The battle is between a vicious negative voice and you, poor you, the victim, getting beaten up over and over again.
“I should just give up, I’m never going to make it.”
“I keep having these thoughts that I’m sure to fail… and then I feel like hiding and never coming out again.”
“Whenever I have a little success I start thinking I am a fraud and soon people will find out. Maybe that’s true!”
No, you don’t have to keep putting up with being bullied by yourself.
For over 35 years I’ve been coaching people in how to shift their relationship to thoughts like these. People have stopped hearing these bullying voices and have started to feel more confident and inwardly peaceful.
Fair warning: What I suggest goes against most of the popular and professional wisdom out there today. It’s not stopping your thoughts, or changing them, or replacing them.
It’s a radical notion that involves bringing in self-compassion, and changing your view of what a “thought” actually is.
And it works. Let’s see how, starting with a few more examples of what we’re talking about.
What Negative Thoughts Sound Like
Negative thoughts can be self-attacking, as in “It says I’m a worthless piece of sh*t.”
Or annihilating, as in: “It says I might as well die.”
Or predicting doom in the future, as in: “It says I’m going to lose all my money and be homeless.”
Or using language like “always” and “never,” as in: “I’m never going to get this right.”
We call these experiences “thoughts” or “my mind” because they arrive verbally in a kind of mental space. But they are actually quite emotional. So let’s think of them instead as “parts.” As in: “Part of me says I am never going to get this right.”
The Real Reason You Attack Yourself
This part of you is saying something harsh to you… but it doesn’t say it for no reason. It has a reason.
(And no, whatever the victim-you might believe, it doesn’t say it because it hates you or is trying to destroy you.)
Secret: This part says what it says because it is scared. It is terrified, it is panicked, it is anxious.
What is it scared about? That something bad is going to happen to you.
That’s right… the very inner voice that seems to be trying to hurt you is actually scared you are going to get hurt.
Here’s what you can say: “Part of me says I am never going to get this right. It is scared I am never going to get this right.”
Does that seem the wrong way around, to tell someone the bad thing is sure to happen, because you don’t want it to happen?
We do it all the time.
Picture a toddler running out into traffic. His mother chases him, gripped with terror for him as the cars whiz by. When she finally gets hold of the kid, she shakes him and yells, “You’re going to get yourself killed!”
You’re driving to an important job interview, and suddenly the traffic slows to a stop because of an accident up ahead. Your thoughts? “I’m going to be late… I’m not going to get this job… I’m never going to get a job…”
The panicked voice says what it doesn’t want to happen, what it doesn’t want to believe is true, as if it is certainly true.
So what do we do with that?
Turn It Around with Relationship
The key is relationship. This part of you can change its tone and calm down if you have a relationship with it. This is the radical idea.
Too often we treat our inner states as if they were unchanging blocks of “stuff” to complain about or try to get rid of… like huge rocky boulders or that terrible sofa your old roommate left behind.
“I need to get rid of my anger.”
“I just need to shut out that kind of thought and make it go away.”
This is like discussing a person who is right in front of you as if they couldn’t hear you. “We just need to get rid of Joe.”
Wouldn’t it be better to include the person in the conversation? It starts with “Hello.”
“Part of me says I am never going to get this right. I’m saying Hello to this part of me.”
Next: wonder if it might be worried. (Actually we know it is worried — but it’s more polite to wonder…) You can use whatever it said in your question.
For example: “Might you be worried that I am never going to get this right?”
If you can’t tell what it is worried about, say “Might you be worried about something?”
And when it lets you know that yes, it is worried, gently ask what it is trying to protect you from. And let it know you hear it. This might sound a bit odd, so let me tell you a story to illustrate it.
“Amy” came for a Focusing session with me. She said: “I just moved to this beautiful region to take a great job. I should feel like the luckiest person in the world. But a nasty voice in my head tells me I don’t deserve it and it’s about to come crashing down. I call that voice my Inner Bully. I’ve had it all my life.
“I’ve tried standing up to the Inner Bully. I’ve tried reasoning with it. I’ve tried telling it to be quiet and go away. I’ve tried dwelling on all the positive things in my life. I’ve tried putting a rubber band around my wrist and snapping it whenever I have a bullying thought. Nothing works. Even if the Inner Bully goes away for a while, it comes back stronger than ever. And I feel crushed.
“I’m so miserable and scared that this bullying voice is going to wreck my new job by making me insecure and full of doubts.”
Tell me again about how good your new life is… speak slowly… and let me know if the Inner Bully appears.
“It’s a really great job… a lot of other people wanted it… and I’m the one who got it… oh, there it is! I just heard this, ‘Who do you think you are to be so special?’”
OK, good. Now say to the part of you that said that, ‘Hello, might you be worried about something?’
“Yes… it’s worried… it’s worried I’m going to get in trouble… people are going to find out I’m not enough…”
So let it know you hear it is worried the truth about you is you are not enough and people are going to find out.
“I did that and it relaxed a little… like it never expected me to just hear it!”
Now gently wonder what it is not wanting to happen to you IF people find out you are not enough. Just ask and wait.
Tears welled up in Amy’s eyes. “Oh, wow. It’s not wanting me to miss the chance to just be me, and live my life. Wow.”
It looks like that feels really different now.
“I wouldn’t call it an inner bully at all now. It cares about me. My whole body feels lighter. And I’m so eager to get going at that new job!”
Three Simple Steps
There is no part of you that is trying to hurt you. Every part of you is trying to save you somehow.
We get confused because we assume our inner bullies have the same motivations as the outer bullies we encounter in the world. Yet, this is simply not true. Outer bullies have all kinds of ugly reasons for being how they are. But inner bullies are trying to be on your side.
Here again are those three simple steps to turn them around.
(1) Separate from the criticizing, bullying voice by saying “something in me says _____________.”
(2) Wonder if it might be worried about the very thing it is saying… and wait for its response.
(3) Wonder what it is not wanting to happen to you… what it is trying to protect you from.
And then notice if this feels different in your body. If it does, celebrate and enjoy!
Want support learning how to integrate this process?
A free online course designed to support you in cultivating a new relationship to the harsh, negative voices inside so you can stop living on the battlefield and start living with more ease. You’ll be amazed by what happens when you no longer have to fight with yourself every day…
Ann Weiser Cornell is a teacher of Inner Relationship Focusing, a method for working compassionately with parts while cultivating wholeness. Her books include: The Radical Acceptance of Everything and Presence: A Guide to Transforming Your Most Challenging Emotions. Her latest project, a free online course called Transforming Your Relationship to Your Inner Critic, is available now. You can get started empowering your life here.