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How to Silence Your Inner Bully

5 ways self-compassion can help you with your suffering.

If someone you cared for was being put down and criticized, you would probably do everything you could to stop it. You may even try to defend them and make them feel better. This is a natural response when those we love and care about are treated poorly.

In work with clients and students, however, I find they are often not as gracious with themselves. I work with clients to help them become aware of their inner dialogue, and many are surprised to uncover that their self-talk borders on “bullying” and verbal abuse. While some levels of self-criticism may be helpful for greater self-awareness and psychological growth, excessive amounts of self-criticism can be toxic and cause even more suffering. Research supports this as well: high levels of self-criticism are correlated with mental health symptoms like depression and anxiety.

The Inner Bully

As the Greek philosopher Epictetus (55-135) stated, “Men are disturbed not by the things that happen, but by their opinions of the things that happen.” Our opinions of what occurs in our lives and what it means to us usually creates this inner dialogue. Our opinions and judgments can translate into perceived “failings.” Some of these beliefs can stem from childhood and often continue into adulthood. Consider the following common client dialogues:

  • "You are so stupid! How could you make that mistake?"
  • "You should have done better."
  • "I'm a loser for not getting that job!"
  • "You're not doing enough."
  • "You are not good enough"
  • "You are so fat"
  • "You are a failure/crazy because you... (got divorced, lost your job, etc.)"
  • "I’m a terrible mother—it's all my fault he turned out this way."
Silencing Your Inner Bully
Source: Pixabay/Pexels

Clients can be so hard on themselves and so excessively self-critical that their “inner bully” has to be confronted. Why? Such relentless self-critical attitudes are associated with more suffering, increased anxiety, stress, and depression.

There is something that can help: self compassion. This goes beyond the cultural idea of "self-love"—in fact, the construct of self-compassion has been widely researched, particularly in the last decade. Researchers have found that self-compassion is inversely related to psychopathology and narcissism (Neff & Germer, 2017), for instance, and self-compassion can positively affect psychological health and well-being.

What is Self-Compassion?

According to Kristin Neff, Ph.D., self-compassion is the ability to convey understanding and kindness to yourself, particularly in times when you face personal “failings” in life. While compassion is recognizing another and wanting to ease another person’s suffering, the art of self-compassion is directing those same feelings toward yourself. Instead of judging and criticizing yourself for perceived inadequacies, deficits, and flaws, you would treat yourself the way you would a dear friend. In essence, it is empathy turned inward. The concept is that simple—but it can be a bit challenging to practice.

This is particularly important to mental health because self-critical attitudes and thoughts are associated with emotional ups and downs, as well as anxious and depressed states. Conversely, self-compassion is associated with decreased negative emotions like anxiety, shame, and depression (Diedrich et al, 2014). Researchers continue to find new ways self-compassion benefits mental health.

In Part II of this article, we'll cover the research in self-compassion and its numerous benefits to mental health symptoms. Most importantly, we'll explore 5 practical ways to stop your inner bully using self-compassion.


Diedrich, A., Grant, M., Hofmann, S. G., Hiller, W., & Berking, M. (2014). Self-compassion as an emotion regulation strategy in major depressive disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 58, 43-51.

Neff, K. D. (2012). The science of self-compassion. In C. Germer & R. Siegel (Eds.), Compassion and Wisdom in Psychotherapy (pp. 79-92). New York: Guilford Press.

Neff, K. D. & Germer, C. (2017). Self-Compassion and psychological wellbeing. In J. Doty (Ed.) Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science, Chap. 27. Oxford University Press.

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