Recently I presented a TEDX Talk on “The Danger of Your Inner Bully” and the response has been fascinating. Part of the focus of the talk is how we, as a culture, have bought into the idea of beating ourselves up to get better at something.

“You can’t hate yourself thin.

You can’t hate yourself successful.

You can’t hate yourself better.”

“The Danger of Your Inner Bully” Theresa Byrne

This internal “beating ourselves up” phenomenon is seen most often in the United States, with the idea if we berate ourselves or yell at ourselves for perceived mistakes we will stop making them. Beating ourselves up has become so commonplace we rarely stop to notice we’re doing it. For so many of us being hard on ourselves is how we’ve learned to do life. Negative self talk is just “what you do” but it’s far reaching effects are also biochemical.

If you’ve ever raised children, or pets, you know yelling at them consistently doesn’t produce positive results — in fact typically the opposite is true. They rebel and get mad. They get scared. They freeze. None of which produces a positive result of growth or expansion. No one flourishes in anger or vitriol. No one and nothing.

And this is exactly what the inner bully does: creates an inhospitable inner landscape where nothing grows.

The inner bully is less verbal than it’s loud, mean, noxious cousin, the inner critic; the inner bully is younger and more somatosensory (feeling) based. It triggers our “fight or flight” stress response even before we may realize it’s happening.

In my work I’ve seen how we can observe this internal reaction by what we’re doing or not doing. It’s more obvious by looking at outcomes, or the lack of desired outcomes, as if we’re stuck or stopped or frozen. NOTE: The inner bully might have important messages or alerts for our growth and safety, but being triggered into a distressed response won’t help us find the messages.

Here are three ways you may have a triggered inner bully and not even know it:

One – FIGHT:

Your fight response might be triggered by something your inner bully is telling you, or the fears it’s activating internally. You might feel frustrated and not know why; or you might be mad at yourself without a reason. This can also look like being impatient, unsettled, or self-sabotaging by doing things you know aren’t good for you. It’s like being a little kid and doing whatever you want, even if you know it’s not helpful. If you’re on a no sugar healthy eating plan, it might look like telling yourself you deserve a cookie. It pushes a “fight back” response against your own self.

When my inner bully is triggered I find myself not doing the things I need to do; boundaries I’ve set up for myself like going to bed at 10pm or turning off all electronics by 9pm. “I don’t want to! You can’t make me!” is something I’ll hear myself saying if my inner bully is triggered. And also I might think I deserve that cookie.


Another favorite response is fleeing from what needs to be done. In self-defense, the flight response is useful when escaping danger but when the inner bully is triggered fleeing (or flight) is running from something we fear may be a threat. Or difficult. Or scary. These can be things that simply make us nervous like a phone call we don’t want to make, a tough conversation we don’t want to have, or to-do list items we just don’t want to do.

The flight response can also show up as avoidance or distraction (a reported fan favorite) using TV, social media, shopping, relationships, drama, food, alcohol, or anything else we discover works. I’ll even distract myself with “shiny new thing syndrome” and while trying to finish writing this book, start working on a podcast.

Three – FREEZE:

Out of all three responses this is the one I see most often in clients. Also known as “analysis paralysis” it’s what happens when we are afraid to make a choice or decision so we don’t make one. Or we put it off. Why? Our inner bully might be showing us every potential negative outcome, or our past perceived mistakes. It might be demonstrating all the possible dangers in something and so end up feeling powerless. We may shut down and feel paralyzed. As a professional self-defense instructor this is the most vulnerable response to danger and the same holds true in life.

Not acting is action; not making a choice IS a choice. Even if we choose to chill out or hold off on a decision, it’s better than simply freezing because our inner bully is making us afraid!

The truth is anytime we aren’t in control, something else is. Learning to be the most powerful version of yourself means looking at the places you feel powerless, so you can take your power back. Make empowered choices, as often as you can.