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What Is Self-Bullying?

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

Did you know that there is a marked difference between your inner critic and self-bullying?

I like to see the “inner critic” as stage one of self-bullying.

Our inner critic shows up through the words we say to ourselves during moments of frustration, angst, and despair. 

When we fail to recognise these detrimental words as untrue, we may engage in seemingly positive behaviours to overcome feeling unsettled because of the mean things we say to ourselves and as a means to silence the inner critic. This is stage two of self-bullying.

Where this becomes an issue is that these behaviours often appear motivational and can actually be motivational depending on the root cause behind what is driving this behaviour.

Stage two of self-bullying is more damaging because we fail to recognise these behaviours in ourselves or even consider them motivating, worse yet, it has the potential to become an addictive behaviour.

For example, we look at overachievers and admire them. But what really drives an overachiever if they are bullying themselves versus having a growth mindset?

If they are bullying themselves, they are driven by the need to find their worth and value in their achievements, if they don’t meet their goals, they feel like a failure. Are we really what we do? An overachiever pursuing goals with a growth mindset does it to improve themselves so that they can help others.

Image credit: Alexa from Pixaby

What about an underdog? If they are bullying themselves, they thrive on proving others wrong but here’s the real question, would they have set out to prove naysayers wrong if no one doubted their abilities? They give their personal power away to the opinion of others. The need to prove others wrong doesn’t come from self-belief, it comes from self-doubt. Think about this – if we truly believed in ourselves and our abilities, would we feel the need to prove others wrong? If someone perceived as an underdog is achieving goals with a growth mindset, they thrive on learning from failures (growth).

Being an obliger is another way in which we bully ourselves – avoiding tension, and keeping the peace but battling a raging war within ourselves because we choose not to speak our truth.

But someone perceived as an obliger who has a growth mindset bears the pain of others, while honouring their own boundaries, so that others can grow.

Do you see how fine the line is between self-motivation and self-bullying?

There are other ways in which we bully ourselves because of our Thought Processes and our Uniqueness (eg an Exhorter engaging in attention-seeking behaviour – causing drama. Afraid to take action/worry wart/fretter/nervous Nellie). This is something I teach extensively in my Uniqueness workshop.

So, why aren’t we able to stop these behaviours? Are we even aware of them?


In order to understand the difference between the inner critic and self-bullying, it is important to understand how our brains work. Imagine driving a car. What do you control? The brakes, the accelerator, the clutch if you are driving a manual transmission, and the steering wheel. What do you have no control over? The engine, how the oil ensures the engine runs smoothly, and how the

gas gets to the engine to turn it over.

We have direct control of only 10% of the functions of the car and no direct control over 90% of the other functions. That is how our brains work – we have direct access and control over 10% of our brain (the conscious brain) and no direct control or access to the remaining 90% of our brain (the unconscious brain).

Our behaviours come from the unconscious brain which we have no direct access to or control over. This is why we are unaware of self-bullying behaviours. Self-criticism comes from the conscious brain which we have direct access to and control over and hence are aware of the way we speak to ourselves.

Furthermore, we rationalize our unconscious behaviour consciously, we condone/justify the bullying behaviour and hence are unaware that it is bullying.

The inner critic is a voice that speaks to us harshly often in response to an immediate external event – mistakes, failures, self-doubt, insecurities, etc. It is from the conscious brain. We are somewhat aware of how we speak to ourselves. “I am so stupid, I am dumb, I am an idiot, what’s wrong with me, I should’ve known better!” Sound familiar?

Self-bullying are behaviours that are run by the unconscious brain – we are actually not immediately aware of these behaviours because of this. These behaviours are usually not in response to an immediate external event though it is built up as a response to a series of external events. Self-bullying is usually a way of self-guarding from feeling hurt or disappointed, judged or rejected and because of this, we convince ourselves that these are motivational behaviours and not bullying. Self-bullying behaviour is one response to silence negative self-talk, the other is embracing a growth mindset. 

Let’s take an overachiever who is bullying themselves to demonstrate this. The decision to achieve something/chase after an achievement is made in the conscious brain as a response to feeling unsettled after we’ve said something mean/harsh or feeling insecure after someone else has said something mean/harsh.

Despite the achievement, the person continues to feel unsettled, in fact, that feeling gets worse over time.

The act/behaviour of chasing endlessly after achievements to overcome feeling unsettled is a habit formed within the unconscious brain. It is this repetitive behaviour of chasing achievements to escape feeling unsettled that is self-bullying and NOT just being an overachiever itself.

Why do we feel unsettled? Our unconscious brain knows the truth, when we state a lie (by criticizing ourselves – the inner critic), the unconscious brain detects the contradiction between the two, making us feel unsettled as a way to get our attention like a check engine light in a car while draining our energy in hopes we will resolve the contradiction.

Can you chase achievement without bullying yourself? Yes! As long as you aren’t doing it to run away from feeling unsettled due to a contradiction (lie) you have embraced. It all comes down to the cause. Why are you chasing achievement? You can chase achievement to learn to grow and use that knowledge to help others. That is non-contradictory. 

The difference is that overachieving resulting from self-bullying is due to someone stating a lie about themselves and then trying to run away from the effects of feeling unsettled, while an overachiever for growth is about the non-contradictory positive effect you want others to experience be(CAUSE) of your added knowledge and wisdom.

Being an overachiever isn’t self-bullying in and of itself. What determines whether this is bullying is the cause of it:

  1. Self-bullying: behaviour of chasing achievements to overcome feeling unsettled caused by a contradiction.

  2. Growth: behaviour of pursuing an achievement to gain more knowledge SO THAT this knowledge helps others. This person isn’t driven by the desire to overcome feeling unsettled.


There are two main reasons why we are unaware of these behaviours, the first is mentioned above – our unconscious brain is the source of all of our energy, has an accurate record of everything that has ever happened to us and is where our behaviours come from. We aren’t consciously aware of these behaviours and in addition to this, these behaviours come across as motivational and even inspirational. Because we consciously change them and try to ignore our unconscious when it makes us uncomfortable. We try HARDER.

Let me ask you this: have you ever walked into a room and forgotten what you wanted to do? Have you ever tried to put the milk in the pantry? Have you ever written 2022 instead of 2023 for the first few weeks in January of a new year?

This is known as the Regulation Thought Process. When operating in this thought process, we are distracted and on autopilot. We have no thoughts or too many thoughts, making us unable to focus on a thought.

At the Regulation thought process, we are very likely to engage in self-bullying behaviours because we are distracted and unable to focus on what we are actually saying and doing resulting in us being unable to understand the consequences thereof. It turns out, people are in this Regulation thought process 94% of the time!


In order to combat the inner critic, we need to address the harsh things we are saying to ourselves. What makes this somewhat “easier” is the fact that we are comparatively more aware of how hard we can be on ourselves because we are consciously aware of how we speak to ourselves. We can trace how we embraced and caused the thought process.

When I work with those who are mean or harsh to themselves, I like to ask a few questions to help them address this negative self-talk. For example: What is my negative automatic thought? Can I prove that this thought is true 100% of the time? Is this thought leading to healthy feelings and behaviours? How am I likely to feel and act if I continue to think this way? What evidence can I find against this thought? Has this belief worked for or against me in my life? Does this belief help me or restrict me in life? Would I encourage a friend to speak to themselves in this way?


In my experience, self-bullying rears its ugly head often when we are consciously trying to achieve goals, avoid tension/criticism or disprove others/prove something to ourselves and our unconscious responds with a behavior that we didn’t choose. Instead, we rationalize its value so we can continue moving forward, embracing the self-bullying without being conscious of it. 

What is important to note is that whatever goals one sets out to achieve through self-bullying WILL be attained/achieved which is why self-bullying often wears the mask of self-motivation. The healthy way to achieve goals is through embracing a growth mindset. What sets a growth mindset apart from self-bullying is the intention (cause) of the actions we take in order to achieve our goals.

I would like to demonstrate this through two examples: 

Recently, I was invited to attend a workshop and when I looked at the date and time of this workshop, my initial thought was, “I don’t want to go, I can’t make it, there’s too much going on around that time.” The workshop was scheduled to take place two days before my kids went back to school, it would run through dinner prep time and I wasn’t familiar with the part of the city where this workshop was being hosted.

If I were to bully myself into attending this workshop, this is what it would look like: 

The cause of tension: Taking a chance to meet new people and doing a lot of work to get there.

Comfortable Result (excuse not to go): it is two days before the kids start school, the location is too far, it is late in the day, I won’t be back in time to make dinner etc. So I can choose to stay home instead because I have “valid” reasons not to go.

Self-bullying approach: Telling myself to do it, forcing myself to do it to prove that I can do it for the effect (not the cause) – the effect of not feeling FOMO, the effect of not wanting to lose out on the opportunity to network, the effect of not having regrets or what people will say about me. 

If I were to approach attending this workshop with a growth mindset, this is what it would look like:

The cause of tension: Taking a chance to meet new people and doing a lot of work to get there

Growth Result: Build connections, learn something new, and build confidence driving to a new part of the city.

Growth mindset approach: this is an opportunity to network, to meet new people, to learn something new. I will figure the rest out (dinner, school, etc).

What is worth noting is that I decided to attend the workshop either way but the WHY (the cause of why I attend it) would differentiate whether it is self-bullying or a growth mindset. The end result would be the same – attending the workshop but the difference between self-bullying and a growth mindset lies in the cause/ the WHY of attending it. 

The second story I wish to share comes from Andrew. In his words:

“When I was in high school I struggled with my mental health, but my teachers often could tell that I was gifted in my intelligence. They pushed me to try honours courses.

But when I took honors chemistry my teacher didn’t have patience for me loafing off. He made jokes at my expense and I felt stupid. After that class, I didn’t have to take any more science classes, but I wanted to prove him wrong because I felt bullied by him so I enrolled in physics, which was spoken of as the hardest class in the school by the student body.

I fell in love with the field of physics and that’s what springboarded me into engineering and getting deeper into science.

Because my teacher bullied me, I found a field of study that I got energy from intrinsically. That never happened from the teachers who tried to encourage me even though I was a mess. Comparing those two scenarios could easily cause someone to come to the conclusion that bullying works.

But I was still a mess! I continued to struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts for the next five years until I learned to deal with my own thought process.”

Take note, Andrew took on the hardest class in school to prove his chemistry teacher wrong. This is a self-bullying approach – trying to prove others wrong. What would this have looked like had he embraced a growth mindset to take physics?

The cause of tension: Being misunderstood and bullied because of being gifted in intelligence.

Growth Result: Exploring an area of science that would cultivate and nurture Andrew’s gifts.

Growth mindset approach: Seeing physics as an opportunity to cultivate, nurture, and explore the extent of Andew’s gifted intelligence.

Note, the end result is the same – Andrew still would have springboarded into engineering and science but the cause (the reason WHY) he chose to do it would’ve been different resulting in him being in less of a mess than he was when he bullied himself into it.

In conclusion, I feel it is important to differentiate between combating the inner critic and combating self-bullying because how we address each is different. Furthermore, self-bullying is a silent bully who wears the mask of inspiration and motivation which is celebrated and encouraged. 

Are you wondering what the harm is in bullying yourself into achieving your goals vs having a growth mindset? After all, either way, you achieve your goals, right? From my personal experience, self-bullying eventually results in burnout. 

How do you approach goals? Are you bullying yourself into achievement by disguising it as motivating yourself? What is your WHY? Is it CAUSE or EFFECT? 

Originally posted on bizcatalyst 360:

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