3: Battling My Inner Bully

3: Battling My Inner Bully

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Positive

Battling My Inner Bully

It’s hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.

~Sally Kempton

When I was in grade school, a boy named Scott called me Fat Lips every chance he got. He’d sit behind me on the school bus, heckling me, kicking my seat, or flicking my head with a pencil, all the time laughing in a way that made me shrink into a corner of the seat.

But much worse than Scott, and all the other childhood bullies I encountered, was the internal bully that followed me through life hissing insults in my ear. He said things like, “You should have done better,” or “That was a stupid thing to say,” or “Good people don’t do that.”

I used to believe his abuse. Because of that, I grew up lacking self-confidence, even though outwardly I was a high achiever. I excelled in school, earned a full scholarship to college, graduated magna cum laude, and became a world-traveling teacher. But I couldn’t fully enjoy those accomplishments, because always, underneath, was the feeling that I wasn’t good enough.

When I became a mom, my feelings of anxiety about my many failings led me to therapy. But it didn’t help much. One day, after describing one of my bully’s particularly cruel accusations, my therapist gave me a sorrowful look. “Oh, Sara,” she said in a pained voice. “Why are you so hard on yourself?”

I could have said, “I don’t know. I was hoping you could tell me that.” But instead, I felt ashamed and heard another whisper from my bully: “You’re so messed up, you’ve even got your counselor stumped!”

Around the same time, I learned that I had an autoimmune disease called Sjögren’s syndrome. The diagnosis explained years of aches and pains, a troubled pregnancy, and the loss of my sense of smell. In my quest for a more holistic treatment of my symptoms, which now included dry eyes and a dry mouth, I visited a functional chiropractor. Besides recommending certain dietary changes and supplements, he suggested that I see a therapist. Surprised, I asked him why.

“Because I find that how people think greatly affects their physical health,” he said.

So I went looking for a counselor again. This time I found a cozy, wise, spiritual woman named Vicki. Together we began exploring some of my mixed-up thinking. I remember our first session clearly, when I told her about the Sjögren’s syndrome.

“It’s an autoimmune disease,” I said. “My white blood cells attack my own moisture-producing glands.”

And then it struck me. “That’s funny,” I said.

“What?” she asked.

“I just realized, that’s what I do,” I said. “I attack my own self.”

I doubt many doctors would agree that my thoughts had anything to do with my disease. But in my gut, I believe there’s a connection. Wouldn’t it make sense if, after attacking myself mentally and emotionally for so long, my physical body followed suit?

In any case, that insight made me decide to change. On my fortieth birthday, I wrote this in my journal: “This year, I want to be kind to myself.”

It’s been hard work. First, I learned to notice my bully’s presence in my thoughts. It surprised me how often he spoke, and on how many subjects! Then, I learned to counter his cruel and faulty messages with truth. Like, “I didn’t do that perfectly, but it was good enough,” or “Everyone says things they wish they hadn’t,” or even “Good people are human and make mistakes. And that’s okay.” Even now, there are times when I sense my bully really wants to beat me up. That’s when I have a choice — to think the old way, which leads to pain, or to be kind to myself, which leads to peace and health.

Are my efforts making a difference? I’m certain they are — at least, mentally and emotionally. As far as the effect my new thoughts have on my physical health, I’ll have to wait and see. A body takes time to heal. But I can say this: when my bully tries to capitalize on the mind-body connection that I now believe in, whispering, “Look what you did to yourself!” I will stand straight and counter him with confidence:

“Yes, but look what I’m learning to do differently.”

~Sara Matson

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