The Sassy Psychologist: Beating the bully at work or in the classroom by conquering the bully in our minds

Photo courtesy of pinkshirtday.ca

So Pink Shirt Day is upon us. I will most definitely be practicing kindness and protesting bullying on and until the 27th day of February 2019 and, to the best of my ability, forever more. I want to stand in support of the fact that bullying cannot be condoned and that bullies need to take responsibility for their actions and receive the care needed to heal their wounds - wounds that inevitably hurt their victims. (“Hurt people, hurt people” is not some played-out, cliché hipster hashtag. Put simply: It’s true – bullies hurt and are hurting, and they need help). I also know and support the notion that the only common denominator among victims of bullying is the simple fact that they were chosen. Now, before discussing this further, what if I told you that there is a reliable and perpetual bully likely affecting you this very moment? What if I told you that this bully is the be-all-end-all of all bullies? …and what if I told you that confronting and combatting this bully will empower all of us in the face all bullies? I’m talking about our internal bully. You know, that inhouse bully that slams us and throws shade our way from the inside of our minds. It’s crippling. Let’s talk about it. 

My readers know that I am an advocate for the legitimacy of individuals with Social Anxiety. This condition can be defined as a clinically significant fear of being humiliated, judged, embarrassed, and evaluated. At the foundation of Social Anxiety, like many other disorders and conditions, are symptoms related to feelings of worthlessness, low self-esteem, and lack of self-love and compassion. A harsh critical voice, or internal bully if you will, is at the heart of many clinically significant disorders. 

Over time, I’ve realized that treating my socially anxious clients involved a few phases of treatment. The first phase involves picturing a room of people (or a metro car full of people or a grocery store full of people…) and identifying my clients’ thoughts about what these people are thinking.  Socially anxious people believe that the people around them are harshly judging and criticizing, i.e. “That person has way too much food in her shopping cart, what are they thinking?” The second phase therefore involves resetting the scene and replacing the hypothesized exaggerated harsh criticisms with more realistic possibilities. In other words, we replace the critiques of other people with the thoughts they are likely thinking, i.e. less negative and more neutral thoughts like “That person seems to be getting a lot of groceries today.” 

While the first two stages are important and can be quickly put into practice with homework and reflection, the third step is absolutely imperative and is at the heart of this treatment plan. I would be doing my clients a disservice if I simply bypass the fact that, sometimes, people can be mean and that, sometimes, people are harshly judgemental. …like a bully, if you will. So what must we do in the face of someone like this? What do we have to practice in order to defeat the bully (on the outside and on the inside) and take our power back? Well, we have to adopt a daily practice of: self-love/self-respect/self-advocacy/upholding our own boundaries/having our own backs/sticking up for ourselves/standing up for ourselves. In the precise circumstance within which you are being judged, you must practice all of the reasons why the bully (internal or external) is wrong. We must stick up for ourselves in the same way we would a friend who was being insulted or beat up. We must accept (but not condone) the fact that someone is being unkind and we must immediately begin to count the infinite reasons why their judgements are incorrect and are simply a by-product of their wounds, fragility, and insecurity. As a matter of fact, I encourage victims of bullying to look at their bullies in the face and say, “Are you ok, man?” …a question that helps victims take their power back. 

Again, it is the bully who is wounded, and fragile, and insecure. The awful reality is that victims can become this way as a result of being bullied and it is horrible and can cause short-term and long-term trauma. Make no mistake, what I am applying is not the miracle or magical strategy that will instantly heal or ultimately stop bullying. But building a healthy self-esteem can most definitely be used as an effective therapeutic strategy for real and potential victims of a bully – the in-the-flesh bully or the one that resides within us.

Anna-Maria Tosco, or our Sassy Psychologist, has two masters degrees in the field of psychology and has studied and worked coast to coast. She has worked in both psychiatric and community settings in some of Montreal's most respected healthcare organizations and institutions, and has also given a variety of talks and workshops on neuroplasticity, meditation, and uncovering barriers to love.

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