The bully in my brain

by Brian on September 12, 2022

in A Parent in Israel,Cancer,Covid-19,Health,Mindfulness,Science

Bullies love to tell lies.

“You’ll never amount to anything.”

“You can be easily replaced at work.”

“That pain in your stomach will never go away. You’re going to die. Probably soon.”

“Bibi’s coming back. Trump too. Get ready for the end of civilization as we know it.”

The bullies I just mentioned are not real-life ones. Rather, they’re the bullying voice in our brains, always present and ready to spring into action whenever they sense weakness.

When I’m feeling out of sorts, anxious or depressed, my brain bully detects an opportunity to beat up on me. My bully especially likes it if I’m in any kind of physical or emotional pain or if I haven’t slept well – then it really goes to town on me.

My bully knows me really well. After all, I experienced enough real-life bullying when I was a teenager to generate significant trauma.

There were the bullies who knocked the books out of my hands if I got too close to my high school’s “senior rail.” And how could I forget the brute who once kicked me so hard in my neck I could barely move for days.

Real-world bullies grow up. They become vile politicians, crazy drivers, rude customer service personnel. What they have in common: They all lie.

“Of course, you can cancel any time you want.”

“I wasn’t tailgating. You were driving too slowly.”

“I declassified those documents before I sequestered them in my bedroom.”

Self-bullying, though, is the worst. While its origins make sense – it was an evolutionary adaptation that served us well when predators could be lurking behind every rock – bullying continues to live on in our fight-or-flight-focused lizard brains, which is why it’s so hard to banish the bullying cry.

Bullying is not the same as teasing. Teasing is mostly benign; you can laugh at the situation. Bullying makes you feel ashamed.

Bullying oneself goes hand in hand with catastrophizing. It eliminates your ability to see other possibilities other than the worst-case scenario.

Standing up to the disempowering voice in your head means understanding that the words a bully uses are not necessarily true.

It’s a message I internalized when I started meditating. Your thoughts are not you. Indeed, when you sit quietly, it can be overwhelming how many ideas and feelings flit into the mind unbidden.

Did I will that thought into existence? No. Then why give it agency?

My worst case of bully brain came when our family contracted Covid earlier this year. My daughter, Merav, and then two-month-old grandson, Ilai, already had symptoms. I knew it was only a matter of hours before I’d most likely get sick too. In order to get some sleep, I upped my usual dose of medical cannabis that night.

Then the phone rang.

Ilai had been rushed by ambulance to the hospital with a 104-degree fever. This was serious, to be sure, but my response was out of control. I would never see Ilai again. He wouldn’t survive the night. I became catatonic, literally losing the ability to speak. (Spoiler alert: We’re all fine now.)

What can one do to quiet an overactive bully in the brain? Here are several techniques to consider.

1. Shut down perfectionism. If you base your self-worth on your performance or success, it can set unrealistically high standards. The result is demoralizion, failure, underachievement and procrastination. Exactly what a brain bully desires. Can “good enough” be good enough?

2. Don’t over-personalize. If you instantly believe that a friend’s worried look means you have done something to upset that person (rather than it being something entirely unrelated to you), you’ve given your bully ample room to take up residence. Remind yourself: It’s not all about you.

3. Talk back to your bully. You don’t have to simply accept what the bully dictates. Get in dialogue with it. Argue. “Yes, it is expensive, but I can afford it. What you’re saying is a lie.”

4. Take a CBT reality check. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you challenge bully-fueled distorted thinking with charts. I adapted one CBT document to work specifically against self-bullying. In the first column, I write the bullying thought down. “My tumor is going to grow, and I’ll need to start cancer treatment again soon.” Then I compose a reality check. “Yes, there was some growth, but it wasn’t significant. My doctor isn’t worried.” And finally, I log a line of gratitude. “My cancer remains stable; I’m so grateful not to need more chemo for now.” Therapy may not cast out a bully entirely, but it provides tools to slow it down, to experience what it feels like when the bully backs down.

5. Avoid self-blame. Blame promises seemingly simple solutions to complex problems. “It was you, not me!” Self-blame ups the ante. It can make you feel as if you have the power to change things, since the fault must lie within your own control. That, too, is a lie that bullies tell.

6. Don’t let the bully make you forget the good. When anxiety comes calling, it can be difficult to remember the positive qualities you possess. Don’t let a bully overshadow all the wonderful things in your life.

7. Don’t compare, inspire. What you envy in others also exists in you. Rather than serve as a source of stress, first, acknowledge what it is you admire in someone else. Then reach out and tell that person they inspire you. Your bully surely wasn’t expecting that!

For more on bullying – and CBT in particular – especially if you’re a parent, Dawn Huebner’s book “What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety” is a particularly good guide.

I first wrote about brain bullies for The Jerusalem Post.

Picture from Dee @ Copper and Wild on Unsplash

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