October is National Bullying Prevention Month. I’m guessing you likely have been bullied a time or two in your life. I am not immune to the effects of bullying. Bullying is the use of force, hurtful teasing, or threat in order to abuse, dominate, or intimidate someone. It can be physical, emotional, or verbal in nature. While physical bullying is probably the most visible, verbal bullying is a very real problem that harms the Body of Christ. The following are some examples of some verbal bullying I’ve experienced:
“You’re an idiot!”
“You’re no good!”
“You’re too fat!”
“Why do you always have to mess up everything you do?”
“You’re not good enough to be in a relationship with anyone!”
“You don’t deserve to be loved.”
“Can’t you just focus for once and stop being so messy?”
“You’re a horrible person.”
“You’re too dumb to do this.”
“They’ll never hire you for that job. You shouldn’t even bother applying.”
Pretty harsh stuff, huh? While they used to say, “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” words can and do hurt us. And words are used in bullying. How did you feel as you read those hurtful comments? Did you feel sad or angry? Did you feel protective on my behalf? Did you agree with them? I don’t know if there’s a right or a wrong answer about how you were “supposed” to feel while reading them. But I think it’s safe to say they are not kind comments, and they are not nice comments. Sadly, each of these comments came from the same person. They came from a person who bullies me more than anyone else does. I sometimes struggle with stopping this person from bullying me, and I’m working on preventing it. Because it’s National Bullying Prevention Month, I thought it would be helpful to discuss what is perhaps the most common form of bullying. Bullying ourselves. Yes, each of those comments (and others that are far worse!) are comments that I have said to myself. And each of those comments are comments that I need to stop saying to myself.
I’m not telling you this so that you’ll intervene for me or correct me. I’m not telling you so that you’ll rush to my defense. I’m not telling you this so that you’ll feel sorry for me or contact me to tell me that I shouldn’t say those things about myself. I’m telling you this because I know that I’m not the only person who talks to himself unkindly. I’m telling you because I imagine there’s a strong likelihood that you have struggled with something similar at some point in your life, and I want you to know that you’re not alone. I’ve had many pastoral conversations with people who struggle with negative self-talk. Negative self-talk is an epidemic in our world. Some studies indicate that the average person has between 60,000 and 80,000 thoughts per day. Of those, 80% of them are negative. And of the negative thoughts, 95% of those are repetitive from the day before. This means that around three fourths of the average person’s daily inner monologue is made up of negative thoughts that are recurring day after day. That’s a lot of negativity!
If we are truly going to tackle bullying, I think a good place to start is from the inside. Isn’t it interesting that I would never direct similar comments toward another person, but I’m perfectly willing to direct them at myself? I mean, honestly. I’d be embarrassed to speak any of those comments out loud to anyone on earth! I would feel like I owed that person a genuine apology and I would feel ashamed. Yet, my inner talk is frequently negative, and that negativity is often directed at myself. This is not unique to me. It’s something that virtually everyone experiences in some way or another.
We must ask the question, why are humans so much harder on ourselves than we are on other people? Probably, it’s because we’ve internalized the negativity from other places and people, and it becomes trapped in our heads. After all, that’s the place where those 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts per day reside. If an influential person said something negative to us when we were children, that message might have become internalized and trapped within our psyche. Psychologists talk about our thoughts as like a balance of a financial investment. The “interest” that we acquire is likely to be in the form of negative thoughts if the existing “balance” is negativity. In other words, if we already have a whole lot of negative thoughts swirling around, then our subsequent thoughts are likely to be clouded by the existing negativity. Then, these future thoughts are likely to be negative. At the same time, if the abundance of our thought balance is positivity, then the subsequent thoughts are more likely to be positive. And, similar to an investment account, small “deposits” can add up over time. We want our balances to have more and more positivity so that we earn interest in the form of positivity.
These thoughts, in the form of interest, even work when we’re not actively trying to think. They work when we’re doing other activities and even when we’re sleeping. This is why it’s important to focus on positive thoughts as much as possible. When we need to make a withdrawal (say, for instance, in a time of high stress), if negativity is the most readily available sentiment we have available, there’s a higher possibility we’ll use it. If, on the other hand, we have a healthy bank of positivity, then we can navigate the stressful scenario in a much more healthy way.
So what does a healthy, positive mindset look and sound like? After all, sometimes we do have failures and setbacks in life. Sometimes we make poor choices and sometimes we make pretty big mistakes. Some of these mistakes even feel really dumb. And some have pretty dire consequences. Well, it’s important for us to take the personal piece out of the equation. Instead of “I’m an idiot,” we can say things like, “I did something I wish I wouldn’t have done.” See how it’s less personal? It puts the focus on the action and not on the person.
Instead of getting down on ourself because we gained 10 pounds, we can acknowledge that weight fluctuates through the day, through the week, and even month to month. We need to recognize that sometimes we can control aspects of our weight and other times we cannot. It’s much more healthy to focus on overall health and wellness than the number on the scale. Our weight doesn’t define us and we can’t let it. We can eat healthful foods, cut calories, and crank up our exercise. But sometimes, even when we do that, we don’t lose weight. And this doesn’t mean we’re “bad” or “too fat.”
When we feel like we’re “dumb”, we can acknowledge that we did something we’d rather not do again. When we experience consequences from our actions, it isn’t helpful to dwell on what we “should have done.” Instead, it’s important to focus on what we can do differently if we’re given the opportunity again. We can always work on improving and trying to get better. We need to extend ourselves some grace when we don’t get it right. It’s ok to feel whatever we need to feel when something goes wrong. But we mustn’t let our emotions drive us toward beating up on ourselves. That simply isn’t helpful.
Bullying is a real problem. And the bullying of another person causes true harm to that person and damages human relationship. God doesn’t want us to bully others or to be bullied. We all know that Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31). This indeed means we ought not bully other people. But this commandment, known as the second great commandment, is a two-way street. We can’t love our neighbor as ourself if we don’t love ourself. Notice the commandment does not say to love our neighbor more than ourself. In order to keep this commandment, we must love others and we must love ourselves. And while we’re at it, we need to refrain from bullying anyone in the equation. This Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, let’s remain mindful of the importance of stopping bullying when we notice it happening. And let’s remain mindful that kindness is important when it comes to self-talk. Together, we can work to put an end to bullying, and sometimes the starting blocks are at home.