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  • Jason Krause

The Bully Within

Bullying is an issue which has captured the national spotlight in recent memory. What once was seen as an unpleasant rite of passage for many in their formative years, is now analyzed and studied with a tender, urgent care. The US government, through the Department of Health and Human Services, has even contributed to the proliferation of information on prevention geared towards children, parents, schools and communities. And for good reason.

It is estimated that approximately 25% of students experience bullying in a given year. With the advent of social media, bullying has moved beyond the boundary of schoolyards and now reaches anywhere a phone, tablet, or laptop does, effectively edging out any place of solace from perpetrators. And the cost can be devastating. Not only has an increase in rates of depression and anxiety been noted but suicidal ideation and attempts have doubled as a result; given that suicide is the second leading cause of death among students in middle school and beyond, the clamor for answers is quite understandable. Bullying is far more pernicious than even these studies and prevention programs suggest. It is a human behavior which is not solely reserved for prepubescent students. And the extent of its scope can reach far beyond school or social media.

What if a bully’s reach was so vast as to be inescapable?

What if there was no place of comfort to be had from taunts, jabs, and jeers?

What if the bully were able to follow you relentlessly no matter where you turned?

What if your biggest bully lived inside your own mind?

Our minds are always abuzz with thought. More frequently than we might like to admit, those thoughts about ourselves are less than positive. If we were to hear anyone else be spoken to in the manner we sometimes speak to ourselves internally, there is little doubt we would classify it as bullying. But there is likely more to our cognitive traffic than we might realize.

Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive psychology, noted when working with depressed patients that they tended to experience negative spontaneous thoughts which he coined automatic negative thoughts. The other thoughts we have are part of our conscious stream of thinking and are referred to as self-talk, our inner dialogue.

Beck noted that automatic thoughts tend to be negative and center around the self (“I’m so pathetic”), the world (“everybody ignores me”), and the future (“nothing is ever going to improve”). Automatic negative thoughts are plenty as well as repetitive. Since they generate in our own minds and sound as though they are our own thoughts, it can be easy to misinterpret automatic thinking as reasoned rational arguments or observations about ourselves. A constant barrage of negative cognition's can lead to low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. If we then accept such thoughts as truth, then it becomes much easier to adopt them as value judgments and incorporate them into our conscious stream of thinking, thus becoming negative self-talk. This can easily plummet us downward into a sinking spiral of depression.

The silver lining to this darkening cloud of depressive thought is that it is a very typical experience shared by all; there is nothing abnormal about you for being subject to automatic negative thoughts. In fact, they are the reason behind the truism that we are our own worst critics. No matter how harsh the criticisms are which come from others, the voice inside our own minds is up to the task of topping them. Which leads into another positive which can allow us to poke holes through the clouds to let the sunshine in: we have the ability to control our own thinking. If we choose not to accept the negative automatic thoughts as true, then we can disrupt the tendency to add fuel to the fire by doubling down on negativity through our conscious self-talk.

This can be accomplished by identifying, challenging, and then replacing the automatic negative thoughts in your mind. The tricky part is to become aware that you are being subjected to automatic negative thoughts before you incorporate them into your own conscious self-talk. One trick to accomplishing this is to give a name to your internal critic. This will allow you to distance who you are as a person from the automatic thoughts which pop up in your mind like so many prairie dogs of negativity. Labeling things comes naturally to us as human beings. If you give your critic a name, it becomes separate from you and gives you more power to challenge what it says about you. Make that nickname a silly or preposterous one and you take away its power, like “pantsing” the bully mid insult.

Once you have identified and named your inner bully, you can begin challenging the veracity of its claims. This is where automatic negative thoughts are at their weakest. When we accept them as true, we are often engaging in distorted thinking which we would not apply to negative comments about someone else. Here are three examples of how these distortions trick us into believing them.

1) All-or-nothing thinking:

These include evaluations about ourselves which are extreme, either black or white, with no gray in between. You can recognize such misleading thoughts because they use words like “always,” “never,” and “every.” It is one thing to be wrong in a given situation, nobody is perfect. But engaging in this kind of distortion would sound like “I am always wrong” or “I will never get this right.”

2) Selective abstraction:

This involves holding onto one detail taken out of context and ignoring everything else. This could be a form of perfectionism in which you believe you ruined a recital because of the mistake you made on one piece, or thinking that you are a failure in school because of the one “D” amidst the “A’s” and “B’s” on your report card.

3) Arbitrary inference:

This means drawing preliminary conclusions without sufficient evidence. An example of this would be thinking that your friend no longer likes you because they did not like your comment or return your text right away. It includes an arbitrary deadline and ignores other potential reasons for your friend’s inaction.

These automatic negative thoughts can be replaced once they are identified and challenged. This process silences the internal critic who bullies us into thinking that we are less than we really are. Life is challenging enough as it is without those sabotaging thoughts. Silencing our inner bully leaves us more emotionally whole and reduces our chances of developing low self-esteem, depression and anxiety. We owe it to ourselves, and to our emotional well-being, to be just as vigilant in preventing our inner bully as we are at preventing the schoolyard bully from causing pain and suffering to others.

As originally seen at JFS Orlando.

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