Jane was stuck in an internal war.  Every time she made some progress toward goals she’d been pursuing for years – cleaned her house, did things on her to-do list, met people she’d wanted to, signed up for classes toward a better job, courageously risked being honest – she’d start beating herself up in ways she was familiar with since childhood.

A part of her would say, in an old, familiar voice, “Who do you think you are, you’ll never succeed, you’ll fall back into being a failure, you’re fat and ugly, you’re not good enough to stay on track, you’re weak at your core, you’ll never do the right thing, you’ll fail like you always do, no one likes you, no one will love you, you’ll be alone all your life.”

Then she’d isolate herself and start picking on herself physically.  That’d only make things worse.  She’d feel ashamed and guilty.  “Maybe they’re right,” she’d think.  “I’m not good enough.  I’ll always be a mess.  I’ll never change.  I’ll never succeed.”

She’d become angry at her parents and all the people who’d taken advantage of her, at all the people who weren’t supportive now and finally at herself.  And the cycle would continue; a little success leading to self-loathing and predictions of failure, followed by anger at everyone in her past and present, followed by more anger and self-loathing.  After several wasted days, she’d get herself together to try once more, but the emotional and spiritual cost of each cycle was huge.

Self-bullying – negative self-talk, an internal war between the side of you that fights to do better and the side that seems to despise you, that’s full of self-loathing and self-abuse – can go on a whole lifetime.  Of course, the effects can be devastating – anxiety and stress, discouragement and depression, loss of confidence and self-esteem, huge emotional swings that drive good people away and attract bullies and predators.

Perhaps the worst effect is a sense of desperation and panic, isolation and loneliness – it feels like this has been going on forever and doesn’t look like it will ever end; every failure feels like the end of the world; like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.  You feel helpless and are sure that it’s hopeless.

This is not a war between the left and right sides of our brains.  This is usually not our being taken over by an evil spirit that needs exorcised psychologically.

This is usually a battle between two sides of us that split apart because of terrible, overwhelming pressure when we were kids.  Back then, we didn’t know how to cope with the horror so we split into two strategies that have been battling with childlike intensity and devotion ever since.

On the one hand, we fight to feel inspired and centered and to do our best; to be courageous and bold and fierce; to try hard, be joyous and hope for success.  On the other hand, we fight to make us docile and not try to rise above our meager lot in life, to accept what they tell us and give up struggling against them so they’ll let us survive, to motivate ourselves by whipping ourselves so we’ll make enough effort and do the right things, and maybe then they’ll give us something in return and we’ll have those feelings of peace and joy.

Both voices want us to survive and to feel centered, peaceful and filled with joy.  Each takes an opposite path to get there.  Instead of a psychological exorcism, we need an internal reconciliation and a release from old battles with our external oppressors and between our internal, battling voices.

The inner goal is clear: We’ll be whole and unified, both sides will be working together toward the same end (centered joy and inner peace): the different possibilities for action will be presented to us in the encouraging voices of coaches; we’ll be inspired and motivated by encouragement, not whipping: we’ll have an adult sense of our strength and capability; we’ll feel like we can cope successfully without tight control over everything and we’ll act in a timely manner; situations won’t put us into a panic; mistakes won’t be a portent of doom.

The path or process toward that goal varies with each individual.  It’s not easy; it’s not instantaneous.  There are steps forward and steps back.  Sometimes it will seem like we’re back at square one.  It requires great helpers and guides.  But, as we are able to step back more and more easily and look with adult eyes at the big picture, we’ll recover our poise and press on more easily.

Have I ever seen these wars overcome?  Many times.

For example, Jane finally made internal peace.  Her warring sides accepted that they had the same outcome – making a good life for her, filling her with the joy she’d always wanted to feel.  They realized that neither side could defeat the other; their only hope was to work together using adult strategies of motivating her to take actions that would help her succeed.  They saw that her situation now, in middle age, was very different from when she was a helpless child and had to depend on parents who seemed to despise her character, personality and style.

In order to end the external war, she moved far away from her birth family and cut off contact.  She started a new life.  She knew she’d have to bear unbearable loneliness until she made friends and loves worth having.  It wasn’t easy but she did it.  You can too.

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Ben Leichtling, Ph.D. is author of the books and CDs “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks,” “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids” and “Eliminate the High cost of Low Attitudes.” He is available for coaching, consulting and speaking.  To find practical, real-world tactics to stop bullies and bullying at home, school, work and in relationships, see his web site (http://www.BulliesBeGone.com) and blog (http://www.BulliesBeGoneBlog.com).

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