bullyingNobody likes a bully. Our collective awareness of the dangers and harm of bullying are rising. Teachers and administrators are searching for solutions, state lawmakers are crafting bills to protect victims, yet one of the worst bullies is getting off scot-free. He has his way with his victim, wreaking emotional havoc, and meets little or no resistance. You have may have witnessed this bullying and done nothing to stop it.

Who is the bully? You. The victim? Yourself.

Self-bullying is only beginning to be recognized as an emotional danger, but a growing number of researchers are establishing the connection between abusive self-talk and emotional pain.

One of the fascinating characteristics about bullying, according to educators and authors Katherine Liepe-Levinson and Martin Levinson, is that “despite the large number of individuals that do not agree with bullying practices, there are very few that will intervene on behalf of the victims.” Bullying witnesses that do not intervene are called bystanders. The researchers continue, “If the bully faces no obstruction from the bystanders, it gives permission to continue behaving badly.”

Consider the bully within. He or she, most often, encounters no resistance. The bad behavior is not challenged by restraining voices. We act as our own silent bystanders and, worse, our shame and self-hatred may offer confirming testimony and encouragement.

Dan Olweus, a Norwegian researcher, gives this commonly accepted definition for bullying: “A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself.”

It is important to realize that the inner self cannot detect the source of the bullying; whether it be self-inflicted or not, it only suffers.

Self-bullies engage in the same emotional attacks as normal bullies. Self-bullies denigrate (“You idiot!”), criticize (“You never do anything right!”), use name calling (“You stupid…”) and threaten (“The world would be better off without you!”). Self-bullies are especially good at mocking (“Oh, that was nice!”) and, because they know their own history, self-bullies have all kinds of historic references that can remind of past failures, guilt and shame.

Few would allow others to speak to a friend the way so many speak to themselves. It is easily recognized as hurtful, demeaning and just plain wrong. Fewer would use their inner-talk catch phrases in dialogue with a friend or loved one. People just don’t go around telling those they love, “You are an idiot!” — but they might repeat that to themselves 20 times a day. We give ourselves a pass, and are blind to our own self-abuse.

Bullying victims often feel isolated and unsafe. When the social system, persons of responsibility and bystanders do not come to their aid, they can feel abandoned. By withholding self-affection and love, self-bullies can put themselves into a social isolation similar to what other bullying victims experience. Statements like, “I am not worthy” and “I don’t deserve anything good” prepare one for social self-exclusion.

Mona Moore of the Anti-Bullying Centre has written, “There is a growing body of research which indicates that individuals, whether child or adult, who are persistently subjected to abusive behavior are at risk of stress related illnesses which can sometimes lead to suicide.” This remains true even when that abusive behavior is self-inflicted.

Psychology researchers and authors Kipling D. Williams, Joseph P. Forgas and William von Hippel found, “Those who have been the targets of bullying can suffer from long-term emotional and behavioral problems. Bullying can cause loneliness depression, anxiety, lead to low self-esteem and increased susceptibility to illness.”

Ben Leichtling on his “Bullies be Gone” blog discusses the part that perfectionism plays for some: “Self-bullying perfectionism can suck the joy out of success and ruin our lives. It’s one of the worst forms of negative self-talk.”

“We know that harassing, abusive, inner voice that focuses only on what we didn’t do perfectly, … has the most horrible, bullying tone when it picks on our emotions, spirit and flesh,” continued Leichtling. “It guarantees inner emptiness, pain and self-loathing.”

Some foolishly believe they are helping motivate themselves to higher action by their attacks. Unfortunately, the harvest is more guilt and shame, not excellence of performance.

Leichtling suggests we learn to create an inner coach that can stand up to and dispute our bully: “Choose the future we want to create and to pursue it with determination, courage, perseverance and grit. When we accomplish this, our paths open up. Our internal self-talk stops being negative and becomes encouraging and strengthening. We develop realistic goals and expectations. We motivate ourselves by desire for the future we want instead of by avoiding the pain of old wounds lacerated.”

When we stop being a bystander and stand up to our bully, good things happen. Like all bullies the self-bully is not very brave and backs down when faced with courage. When our bully leaves us alone, we find a new emotional strength. Peace and confidence can return to our lives and we can begin to express our gifts.