I don’t like bullies. I have never been able to understand why they treat people the way they do. Some bullies grow out of it and learn to treat others fair and with respect. But, some never grow out of it and continue to torment those around them.

Recently, I learned of a bully that refuses to grow up and will never go away. While reading Jesse Itzler’s book “Living with the Monks: What Turning Off My Phone Taught Me about Happiness, Gratitude, and Focus”, I learned a truth I hadn’t considered before. In the book, Itzler talks about the bully in his head that he named Billy the Bully. He said that Billy the Bully had been with him ever since he could remember. Billy was always present when Jesse was considering something new. Jesse labeled the negative voices in his head as a way to identify them. By labeling them he was able to be aware of what was happening and defend himself against the negative thoughts. I had never considered the negative voices in my head as a bully.

Yet, as I read Itzler’s story it made sense. Our brain’s job is to protect us and keep us safe. The negative thoughts we experience are there to keep us scared. These thoughts act like bullies because they focus on our insecurities and doubts, picking on them until we give in. Seeing these thoughts in this manner has given me hope on how to deal with them. Like the advice I used to give to my kids, it’s time to stand up and fight the bullies. Many of the mental bullies we face come from the emotional footprints each of us holds in our mind. An emotional footprint is the residue left behind from life’s experiences. These footprints contribute to our self-worth and self-image.

For example, if we had a difficult conversation that didn’t go well, it will leave a negative footprint. Then, the next time we need to have a difficult conversation the mental bully will show up. The bully will run us through every terrible scenario imaginable to keep us from having the conversation. I recently had a conversation with a client about a difficult conversation they needed to have. As we explored the scenarios in their head, we realized that the probability of any of them happening was low. Then we went over positive scenarios and discussed other approaches to the conversation. When my client reported back, they said the conversation was very different from what they expected. It turned out to be a positive experience and improved their working relationship. Through this experience, we both learned a couple of things about mental bullies.

First, we learned that more often than not the bullies are wrong. Like my client discovered, reality is often very different than the negative thoughts in our heads. Second, we learned the need to be aware of the negative thoughts when they enter our head. Dwelling on these thoughts only makes things worse. We have to recognize the negative thoughts for what they are. Then we can look at them objectively and make deal with them positively. It is comforting to know that everyone experiences their own bullies in their heads. Remembering that everyone deals with them can give the courage needed to face our own bullies. In the end, the bullies in our head don’t have any real power unless we give it to them. The trick is having the courage to take a stand and tell them to go away. If we do, we will find–as my client found out–reality has a better ending.