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How to Build Confidence and Silence Your Inner Bully

How to Build Confidence and Silence Your Inner Bully

Learn ways to set boundaries, stop negative self-talk and get what you really want out of life.

It can be hard to recognize just how much negative self-talk dominates your thoughts. That little voice that always predicts the worst, belittles you and sells you short might be so familiar you don’t even notice it any more, let alone challenge it.

But no matter how long thoughts and feelings of self-loathing have been with you, they aren’t truly who you are. In fact, they don’t even really come from you—they’re a product of hurtful people and experiences that have taught you to punish, rather than uplift yourself.

Leah Baldwin, LCSW, CSAC, a counselor and social worker at Parham Doctors' Hospital in Richmond, Virginia, discusses how to identify and separate yourself from your inner bully. Here are proven strategies to help silence the toxic voice in your head and build your self-esteem.

Where does the negativity come from?
“Your brain chemistry might predispose you, or make you especially vulnerable to negative self-talk if you’ve been struggling with depression or have experienced trauma,” says Baldwin. “But often, it comes from your environment.” In many cases, it starts as early as childhood, when a person is most vulnerable and likely to believe negative messages from parents, teachers and friends.

If the people in your life constantly suggest you’re inadequate, you’ll eventually start to believe them. “These messages become part of your underlying belief system,” Baldwin explains. “People become married to their self-talk—whether positive or negative—and it often manifests as a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

You may start interpreting your experiences to fit the mold of how you’ve been trained to see yourself. For example, you might criticize yourself for weeks after forgetting a line in a big work presentation. Even if you prepared ahead of time, practiced and impressed your boss, your mind may dwell on that one mistake. Later, as a result, you might stay quiet in meetings or decide you’re not qualified for a promotion.

“It’s almost an unconscious survival mechanism,” says Baldwin. “You think you can’t do it and then, when you fall short, you’re not disappointed. You might think, ‘See, I knew I wasn’t good enough.’”

This approach might feel comfortable in the short-term, but over time, it can rob you of your dreams and hurt your health. “Negative self-talk can cause people to stay stuck in toxic relationships and unfulfilling jobs; it impacts motivation and contributes to overall poor self-image,” says Baldwin. “If left untreated, it can even worsen symptoms of depression or lead a person to attempt suicide.” If you or someone you know are considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255.

Be your own best coach
Self-talk can be a healthy motivator if it prompts you to take care of yourself by helping you create healthy boundaries and reducing toxicity in your life,” Baldwin says. But if it crosses over into that space where you’re looking in the mirror and saying, “I can’t do anything right, I’m a failure,” it’s just detrimental.

When working towards personal goals like weight loss or improving your finances, don’t fall into the trap of thinking negative self-talk will help you perform better. Berating yourself when you mess up isn’t constructive; it’s abusive.

Think about it this way: If you were teaching a child how to read, you wouldn’t tell them they were stupid or worthless each time they made a mistake. You’d praise them when appropriate and offer helpful feedback on how to improve. Why? Because you know saying hurtful things won’t teach them anything; it will just cause anxiety. The same should hold true when coaching yourself.

Pick up on harmful thought patterns
“Set aside time each day to evaluate your life and emotional health,” suggests Baldwin. “Ask yourself, ‘Am I happy with my situation? What do I need to do to change it?’ When you begin exploring these questions, you may realize, ‘Maybe I’m stuck because I keep telling myself I don’t deserve that promotion.’”

Taking time daily for this kind of reflection can help you come up with solutions, instead of just more criticism. It can be especially helpful to write your ideas down in a journal. Doing so can give you some distance from your thoughts; looking back at old entries can show you just how cruel and senseless your self-talk has been.

A journal can also let you track your progress over time and identify triggers. Like any bad habit, you may be especially prone to negative self-talk in certain situations or when around specific people. Take note of when your inner bully is loudest and use that information to change your routine. For example, if you tend to criticize yourself before bed, don’t just lie awake with your mind racing. If you can’t sleep after 15 minutes, switch to a relaxing activity like yoga stretches, coloring or light reading. Retrain your mind to think of bed as a place for self-care, instead of worry.

Remember, people can be triggers, too. “If you’re stuck in a negative self-talk loop, you might unconsciously seek out people who reinforce how you feel about yourself,” says Baldwin. “Because, again, they’re comfortable—you know what to expect and there’s no room for disappointment.” Think about your inner circle and consider removing anyone who makes you feel badly about yourself on a regular basis. 

Shut down the negativity
“For every negative thought you have, come up with two positive thoughts to replace the negative ones,” recommends Baldwin. “In clinical terms, we call this reframing,” she explains. “You might not believe these good things at first, but sometimes you need to ‘fake it ‘till you make it’—and continue saying them. Repetition is key in reducing and eliminating your inner-bully.”

Jotting these ideas down in your journal or typing them into your phone notes app can help strengthen them in your mind. Over time, your belief system will start to change, and positive self-talk can spill over into other areas of your life just like the negativity once did.

Of course, it can be difficult, even terrifying, to start building yourself up again. But you don’t need to do it alone. A counselor can help you identify negative self-talk and reframe it in a positive way. Since your inner narrative may be years in the making, they can also help you make sense of past experiences that might have contributed to your thinking.

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