Stop Being Your Own Bully

Overcoming negative self-talk and beating your inner bully.

Bully image
Andersen Ross/Getty Images

There is a bully in your head.

He might not be pushing you into the lockers and stealing your lunch money, but he’s chipping away at you bit by bit.

And he’s doing you real, physical harm – even if you don’t realize it.

That bully is you. He is the negative voice that keeps putting you down and holding you back.

Otherwise known as negative self-talk.

The ramifications of negative self-talk.

Negative self-talk is when you think overly critical or even downright nasty thoughts about yourself.

Stuff like:

  • “This is too hard. I should just quit.”

  • “I don’t know why I thought I could do this.”

  • “I’m never going to succeed.”

  • “I already fell off the diet wagon with that handful of chips. I might as well finish the whole bag.”

  • “She’s never going to say yes, so why bother asking.”

Those thoughts are sneaky – they can pop in without warning – but don’t underestimate their power: thinking negative thoughts about yourself translates into real, physical harm to your own body.

Here’s how it works.

Our brains are always chatting away with themselves, whether that’s in words, images, or feelings. Most of the time, we’re just not aware of it.

We now know, thanks to years of research (in studies like this one, and this one) plus fancy new technologies that can map the brain’s activity to the body’s chemical environment, that our “inner conversation” has measurable effects on our bodies.

For the most part, our brains and bodies can’t tell the difference between a real threat and an imagined one.

If you imagine something frightening and stressful, here’s what happens:

•           your heart rate goes up

•           your blood pressure rises

•           you release stress hormones

•           your body dumps glucose into your system for quick energy to run away

•           your immune system goes on high alert, releasing inflammatory chemicals

•           your digestion shuts down

Over time, these symptoms mess with your hormones and cell signaling molecules. Chronic psychological stress means you wind up with more of the hormones and physical cues that make you fatter, sicker and weaker, and fewer of those that could make you leaner and stronger.

Oh, and that long-term stress is a major downer for your libido. While short-term stress (such as playing a sport) can temporarily bump up testosterone, long-term psychological stress can suppress it. In other words, chronic self-criticism means no mojo.

Remarkably, studies have found that negative self-talk and self-criticism is often physiologically worse than physical stress.

That’s right: Being tough on yourself can be worse, physiologically speaking, than say, surviving a hurricane.


The good news.

Now that you’re aware of the bully inside and his ability to do real, lasting damage, here are two pieces of good news.

1.    If you’re prone to negative self-talk, you can change. Our brains are highly plastic, which means all we have to do is put down some new brain pathways.

Self-talk is a habit. Habits can change.

2.    Self-talk has physiological effects, but this works both ways. Negative self-talk has negative effects; positive self-talk has positive effects. Why not make your brain work for you instead of against you?

Stop punishing yourself; start doing push-ups.

Here’s a little trick to put that bully in his place.

Be on the alert of negative self-talk. Pay attention to your thoughts. And every time you hear that negative voice, do five push-ups.

That might sound silly, but it works. You’re not punishing yourself, you’re simply bringing attention to your self-talk patterns so you can change them for the better.

Once you’re aware of your inner voice, you can choose think in more constructive ways.

For example, suppose you’re facing a daunting task and the voice pipes up, telling you that you suck and you’re bound to fail.

Do your five push-ups.

Then think about your previous achievements. Visualize the ways you’ve succeeded in the past. Remind yourself about all the awesome things you’ve done, and why you’re capable enough to take on the task at hand.

You can overcome negative self-talk. Don’t let that bully tell you any different.


Looking for the best eating, exercise, and lifestyle advice for you? Download this free guide: Fitness for men: The busy man's guide to getting in shape and living better.


And for more about Dr. John Berardi, including links to his latest men's health articles, click here.

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