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Do You Bully Yourself When Things Go Wrong?

Here’s how to break the habit.

Bullying photo by the Federal Senate of Brazil, uploaded by Tyler de Noche. Transferred from Wikimedia Commons.
Source: Bullying photo by the Federal Senate of Brazil, uploaded by Tyler de Noche. Transferred from Wikimedia Commons.

When I was in grade school, the mean kids would call people names. My friends and I would respond, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But they do.

In addition to taunts from schoolyard bullies, many of us heard criticism from parents and teachers, adult authorities we looked up to—“you’re clumsy,” ”bad,” “stupid,” “not good enough, attractive enough, smart enough.” Often their remarks still echo through our heads.

Now, when we make a mistake or face a roadblock in reaching our goals, we often bully ourselves. Like those adults and schoolyard bullies, we call ourselves names, telling ourselves that we’re “not good enough , attractive enough, smart enough,” that we’re “clumsy,” “bad,” or “stupid.”

But this only makes things worse. At such times, according to psychologist Kristin Neff (2011), what we need is not harsh criticism but self-compassion. We need to treat ourselves as we would a dear friend.

We can practice self-compassion with these three steps:

  1. Mindfulness. The next time you’re feeling down, instead of attacking yourself, tune into your feelings. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” and name your feelings to yourself: “I feel sad... scared... hurt... angry... confused.”
  2. Common humanity. As the Buddha taught, suffering is common to all humanity. Tell yourself, “It’s OK. No one’s perfect. Everyone makes mistakes.”
  3. Kindness to yourself. Actively soothe yourself with kind words. You can even give yourself a hug, as Neff suggests in her book, by crossing your arms over your chest and squeezing your upper arms, saying, “Poor dear, you’re really hurting right now” (2011).

Self-compassion brings us hope, while bullying only keeps us stuck in a limiting mindset.

As psychologist Carol Dweck (2007) has found, our mindset determines the way we see ourselves and our possibilities. If we’re stuck in a “fixed mindset,” we believe we have only a set level of ability, that we can’t change. If we feel we’re “clumsy,” “stupid,” or not good at something, we don’t even try.

But with a “growth mindset,” Dweck maintains, we realize that our brain is like a muscle that grows stronger with exercise. We may not know how to do something now, but when we open our minds, practice, and persevere, we can learn new skills, overcome obstacles, and discover new ways to achieve our goals.

So the next time you face a challenge, stop calling yourself names. Give yourself self-compassion:

  • Take a mindful moment to ask yourself how you’re feeling.
  • Tell yourself that it’s only human to make mistakes.
  • Be kind to yourself, with words and actions.

Then step back, take another look, and ask yourself, “What can I learn from this?” Open yourself up to the power of the growth mindset.


Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset. New York, NY: Ballentine.

Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York, NY: William Morrow. For more information about self-compassion, see

Photo by the Federal Senate of Brazil, uploaded by Tyler de Noche. Wikimedia Commons.