How to silence your inner bully, according to experts

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We can all be our own worst enemy, when really we should be our own biggest fan. Jameela looks at where our inner critic comes from and how we can silence self-doubt.

Then the life coach Fiona Buckland hears the voice of her inner bully, she closes her eyes and pictures her ex mother-in-law, a brilliantly assertive, confident, self-assured woman. 

She was a woman with a head of jet black hair and the sparkliest of sparkly eyes; petite but authoritative. And that smile? As warm as they come.

When things would get too rowdy for her at the dinner table, she would raise a finger and say in a calm, steady voice: “Enough.” The room would go quiet; the chatter silenced. “There was no arguing back,” Buckland says, “you just listened.”

This is one of the techniques Buckland recommends adopting when your own critic appears: employ a character that’s bigger and better than it. “Sometimes it’s Helen Mirren instead,” she says. “I’ll ask myself, what would Helen do? But, crucially, it has to be a woman who doesn’t take any shit.” 

The voice Buckland is silencing is one you’ll be familiar with. Forty per cent of working millennial women experience self-doubt, according to a study by the Institute of Leadership and Management.

It’s there for guest editor Jameela Jamil. “I have a voice inside my head that perked up when I was about eight years old,” she says. “It’s the voice of a naysayer. A fear-monger. A talented bully. A creep who has had your entire life to study you, to hear all of your most secretive confessions and learn the intricacies of your weak spots. It’s a constant gentle buzz of‘ can’t’, ‘shouldn’t’ and ‘you’re not good enough’.

“Most of us have this voice, but we’ve become so accustomed to it, that we can’t even identify it anymore,” Jameela continues. “It’s a staple in our daily thought process. Many of us actually justify it as the ‘reasonable’ part of our brain. But it’s not. It’s just an arsehole.” 

And if you’re a woman, you have a higher risk of listening to it. A 2011 study by professor Ernesto Reuben at Columbia Business School found that men consistently rated their performance on a set of maths problems 30% higher than it was. He called this phenomenon “honest overconfidence”.

In comparison, a study last year at Arizona State University found that female students routinely underestimated their own intelligence compared to male peers. 

The research shows that we constantly undersell ourselves and our abilities. “It’s only fairly recently that women have had access too opportunities that have just been a matter of course for a lot of men,” Buckland says.

Women routinely underestimate their intelligence compared to their male peers
Women routinely underestimate their intelligence compared to their male peers

“Take, for instance, a female client of mine who works in banking. Incredibly capable. But when she was going to be the first woman on the board, her inner voice went crazy. It was telling her she wasn’t good enough, that she didn’t have the right qualifications, that it was just affirmative action, when in reality she was phenomenally well qualified and experienced. The problem was she was walking into a world that was predominantly male – had been set up by men to work for men– and was left feeling quite insecure. 

“But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the inner bully doesn’t exist for men. “The voice pipes up when we’re in a situation where we’re uncomfortable,” Buckland explains.

“And the difference is there’s a lot less of those situations out there for men.” How you were raised has a lot do to with the way it manifests, too.

“Growing up, my mum criticised me the most,” says Carrie Jones*, 23.“And now it’s her voice that’s stuck in my head .What I’ve found helps is hearing my friends disagree with my critique of myself.” 

 According to psychologist and author of The Imposter Cure, Dr Jessamy Hibberd, the reason for this is because our beliefs about ourselves are formed in the same way as our beliefs about the rest of the world – and we get those ideas from our caregivers.

“If your parents gave you lots of encouragement, then that’s the kind of voice you build in your head,” she says. “If they were critical, even in subtle ways, like only praising you when you got good marks, then that’s what you’ll internalise. And the trouble is, you don’t have the same ability to check those opinions out with other people as you would as an adult.” 

For Buckland, the reason is just as rooted in nature as nurture. “If you’ve ever seen a calf being born, then you’ll know they can stand up within two minutes,” she says. “For us, it’s takes about a year and then another 15 before we can properly take care of ourselves. So we absolutely need to be loved. It’s a survival strategy. We’re constantly checking we’re accepted and loved and approved of by our caregivers because the danger is, if we’re not, we’ll be rejected from the group and die. So, when you see a child shouting at their teddy, for example, (‘naughty teddy, you mustn’t do that!’) it’s because they’ve internalised this fear of disapproval,” she says.

While it might seem like we’re fated, even biologically designed, to beat ourselves up, there are ways to keep the inner bully in check.

Dr Hibberd recommends creating distance between yourself and the voice. “The first step is actually noticing the voice. For many people, this is just a running commentary in their head and they’re not even aware of the things they’re saying to themselves. Externalise it. Turn it into a ridiculous, laughable figure. When you do this, you can begin to focus on living life rather than trying to live perfectly and never make a mistake.”

Recognising the voice is the first step towards self-acceptance, says Buckland

Writing a letter to your inner critic is Jameela’s weapon of choice, and is something Bucklandre commends, too. “When you write down your thoughts, you slow down. Our thoughts arrive all bunched up with a sense of urgency. By writing, you have the space to smooth them out so you can assess and respond thoughtfully, rather than react,” she says.

“It can also be helpful to flip the situation and write a letter of thanks to your inner bully, to say: thank you for trying to keep me safe, thank you for trying to protect me, I recognise that this is something that helped me when I was a child, but I’m a grown-up now. I don’t need you. You’re not the scared little child you once were.”

Read Jameela’s letter to her inner bully here.

Photography: Getty Images, Rex Features

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Hannah Keegan

Hannah Keegan is the features writer at Stylist magazine.

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