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“You are enough.”
It is amazing how this phrase took hold of so many.
Much like how, “You got this,” did too.
These are such powerful affirmations about ourselves—that we can hold both fullness and strength. But, often in my own and others’ experiences, those who, “got this,” never truly feel “enough.” They are never enough in their own eyes. Despite so many achievements, there is still the constant pressure to keep doing more.
The three merciless inner bullies are unrelenting in their demands for doing and extremely uncomfortable in simply being.
I often catch myself trying to cram a million things into my day, and it often leaves me feeling exhausted. “Really, can’t that wait,” but the pressure to complete unrealistic goals or standards is constant. While I have gotten a whole lot better at loosening the reigns or the noose, I can still have moments when my anxiety levels increase and the whips of my internal bullies bear heavily on my mind.
I have also felt my anger and frustration rear its head when things do not work out to plan. There can be moments of feeling dissatisfaction when completing one thing and then quickly moving onto the next, without many moments in between to take it all in or even to rest.
I never realized how often I never gave myself permission to simply rest. I do not necessarily mean sleep, but to be still and mindful in my moments. “So much to do and so little time to do it all in”—it is a constant race against the clock.
Why do we place so much pressure on ourselves? Why are we so inflexible about the demands and expectations of ourselves?
Research in psychology indicates that there are three types of relentless and attacking inner bullies or taskmasters. They are unyielding in their expectations and are uncompromising. Some of us, unfortunately, might have all three at play.
We are often obedient to their demands because we find ourselves lacking approval from the important people in our lives, or we are trying to feel alive when our cups are empty. We might also feel defective and shameful, never truly belonging anywhere. So, we decided to prove our worth and gain acceptance and escape our fears.
We have no other option than to yield to the voices within that demand perfection, achievement, and a high degree of status and recognition.
The first inner bully places an unrealistic demand for perfection—the attention to every detail, often in fear of making mistakes.
I can only describe this as feeling frustrated when things are not right as one defines them to be. It can be the smallest task to the major issues, but for me what underpins this compulsion is the fear of making mistakes and staying in control in one area of your life when you don’t really feel in control in others.
“To err is human,” is unfathomable.
As with most things in life, nothing is perfect. When I was younger and was held tightly by the bully of perfectionism, I would often feel frustrated with myself and criticized myself for not getting things right.
I know there are many who would never blame their environments for the mistakes, failures, or shortcomings, and would direct a lot of anger and frustration at themselves. However, there are also those who can be equally angry with their environments feeling like their environments have failed them in some way.
Imagine constantly performing a task with the antagonist paying attention to any spots or blemishes in the work and then reproaching you with a whip every time you make a mistake. The exhausting degree of self-control that is unforgivably unleashed on yourself every time you make a mistake amidst the most amazing achievements. There is so much self-doubt that delays your attempts at even getting started. Procrastination is a real time-waster, but at least we are seen and approved of as perfect.
The second inner bully is focused on a high degree of achievement.
The workaholic that can spend 18 hours a day of solid work and leave extraordinarily little time for rest and connection with others, or for any other needs to be met.
In school-goers or university students, time and energy is dedicated to getting As or distinctions and feeling extremely distressed at the thought of getting anything less than an A+. This is not necessarily the fear of failure because many of those who are bound to achievement believe that they are at least average, but are driven to a high degree of excellence and outstanding standards because mediocrity is unacceptable.
Unfortunately, there are times we can fail if the bar set is unachievable. Imagine feeling a constant state of irritability and frustration every day as you set out to achieve really high standards—angry with yourself and others for hindering your progress.
“No rest for the wicked,” “sleep when you are dead”—these are the words of many plagued by this bully.
Do not be fooled—we can be workaholics about things that are not even about our actual work: anything you obsess over and spend your days perfecting, sport and exercise, decorating your house, even shopping, believe it or not.
If you have this inner taskmaster, you probably received attention and love only when you were achieving, or your caregivers modeled high achievement to you.
The final inner bully is the focus on status and recognition.
This might present as wanting to “keep up with the Joneses,” wanting to be seen as exceptionally intelligent and usually have the job that matches the status, acquire wealth, and want to be recognized and acquire status symbols to let everyone know just how important one is.
Some of us might not want to admit to being bossed around by this bully. Conversations may be about the car you drive, where your kids go to school, the sport played, or who you know. Sometimes, this may feel like a mask for deep feelings of inadequacy, shame, or for feeling like one never fits in.
The coping style is one of overcompensation: “If I work hard on the exterior ideals of success, I can hide my insecurities deep within.”
The three merciless inner bullies will:
>> Impact your health due to daily stresses.
>> Leave you feeling exhausted and overworked.
>> Create no real work-life balance.
>> Leave you feeling empty and discontent no matter what you have achieved.
>> Consume your time, and you will have little left for yourself and others.
>> Hurt your relationships because you are never available or even present.
>> Leave you feeling alone because others feel uncomfortable being around you due to your highly competitive nature.
>> Not offer moments of celebration of successes.
>> Leave you focused on endless lists.
>> Overwhelm you with too much to do and too little time to do it.
>> Hypercritical of others who never meet your standards.
>> Disconnect you from your true self.
To be inflicted with any, if not all, of these three inner bullies, would lead to feelings of emptiness, unhappiness, and discontentment.
Having the perfectionist driver, I can only attest to the absolute criticism I shoveled on myself. I never knew in my 20s, or even early 30s, what it meant to make mistakes with compassion. Any blemish caused me a great deal of anxiety, and I made the most mistakes during these times and was certainly unforgiving of them.
Whilst I held the highest degree of empathy for others, I held the least amount of compassion for myself.
What freed me from the onslaught of my inner bullies?
A tender, nurturing, and compassionate inner parent.
I had to learn to re-parent myself with more love and acceptance and to be reasonable with myself. Along the years of my own inner work, I learnt to lower the unrealistic standards, incrementally. It’s a gradual process of unlearning and learning.
I cannot stress this more, but taming the attack of our inner bullies requires a recognition that we cannot grow whilst being whipped and beaten.
Instead, we might want to explore the following:
1. Identifying an area where you place a lot of demands on yourself—to achieve, be perfect, be in control, and/or gain recognition.
2. List the pros and cons of meeting these standards. By doing this, we explore a more balanced way of thinking about the requests we make from ourselves. These are often requests we would not dare ask from another.
3. Disarm the inner bully with your self-talk. “That’s enough; I won’t let you speak to her like that again.” Setting healthy limits and not accepting self-abuse is critical. Sometimes we need to listen to our own inner voices to reign them in. Punishing and degrading self-talk needs to be stopped.
4. Hang out with more balanced people—those who are reasonable and are accepting of humanness. They are usually nurturing to self and others, and cheer their own and others’ success.
5. Identify those needs you are neglecting—a need for spontaneity, creativity, connection, and intimacy.
6. Attune one’s self to the inner child, who is weary and sad, and feels insecure and worthless—they are in need of nurturance in the form of relationships that accept them for who they are, regardless of what they do.
As with most things, inner nurturing is work.
It means pausing before we act. It means holding the hand of the bully and sometimes asking them to leave.
For those who have children who already have inner merciless bullies, the importance of a nurturing voice is critical for their self-esteem and healthy connection with themselves and others.
It is even more important to change the voices within to give permission for growth, health, and increased contentment.
It’s not being soft or flaky—because nurturance takes guts and involves boldly setting limits. It is about putting an end to unrealistic expectations that entrap us rather than free us.
Let us give ourselves permission to be human, to muddle through life, to learn as we go along. When we are gentle with ourselves, only then can we be authentically gentle with others.