When I shared my first essay back in April, my intention was to post a new essay every other week. Well, here comes essay number two and as you’ll note from the date above, many more than two weeks have passed.
I never follow through on things like that.
It’s a miracle I’m getting a second essay up at all.
And the chances of finishing and posting a third?
Uh…yeah…slim to none.
Actually, thinking that I would stick to an essay-every-other-week schedule is the least of it! Why on earth would I believe that I’d be able to write anything about my pathetic self that would be interesting or valuable to anyone? Talk about presumptuous!
And why the hell am I admitting how pathetic I am? I should not do this. So embarrassing! I can’t let anyone know what a mess I truly am. I can’t let anyone know how weak and small and ridiculous I am….In fact, ridiculous is the perfect word! Not only am I ridiculous, this whole endeavor is ridiculous! How humiliating to presume to share my inane, pitiful thoughts.
What possessed me to think that I could?
What possessed me to think that I should?
And that right there is the reason this essay has been so long in coming. I’ve been trying to write a second essay since the first one went live back at the beginning of April. I’ve started three or four. But I haven’t been able to get myself to finish any of them. I’ve had so much doubt and uncertainty about each one.
I have so much doubt and uncertainty about this one.
I have so much doubt and uncertainty about most things I do.
It’s thanks to an incredibly cruel asshole who has tormented me for most of my life: the bully in my brain.
She’s screaming at me right now. That italicized stream of consciousness? It hasn’t stopped; I just stopped transcribing it. The bully in my brain does not want me to write anything, but she especially doesn’t want me to write this essay in particular. She does not want to be named.
Well, too bad! I have this weird compulsion to shine a light on her—so sorry/not sorry, brain bully. I’m doing this.
The bully in my brain is relentless and loud and just plain mean. She is very good at what she does. She should be! She’s worked nonstop at perfecting her craft. I am only just beginning to learn how to live with her—to break away from her and keep her at bay instead of being dominated by her and constantly cringing from her abuse.
It is not easy.
The bully in my brain has two go-tos, and both hurt:
- The first is to constantly remind me that I’m going to screw up unless I’m super careful and diligent and conscientious. Her warnings are frantic and incessant: she sounds thoroughly convinced that I need to be hyper-vigilant about everything I do to avoid complete disaster. My brain bully regularly reminds me that I’m just naturally bad at life, so I have to make an enormous, carefully considered effort or I’m sure to make a catastrophic mistake that will ruin everything.
- The second is when something doesn’t go one hundred percent perfectly, the bully in my brain lays into me, outlining in great detail all the ways I screwed up—everything that could have turned out differently if only I was a good person who had made the correct choices.
Remember her warnings? What she told me would happen? Repeatedly? Remember how important it was that I do whatever I could to determine all that could go wrong and how important it was that I figure out how to avoid screwing everything up? Clearly, I wasn’t careful enough or diligent enough or conscientious enough. I failed, yet again. I obviously did not do what I should have done, and so see?!? I’m just a terrible human being and we are incredibly lucky things aren’t any worse.
Why, she’s just a sugar-sprinkled ray of sunshine, isn’t she?
I know lots of people can relate to being hard on themselves: it’s a common problem for just about everyone from time to time. But in my case, until very recently, it’s how I’ve related to myself pretty much all the time. The bully in my brain bombards me with a constant super-mean inner dialogue that leaves me anxious, insecure, doubtful, and not only terrified to take chances, but terrified to put myself out in the world in any way. The bully in my brain is one of the reasons I self-medicated with alcohol for so long—so I could shut her up for at least a little while.
Back in April I read an essay on Medium: A Critical Parent Will Linger Inside Your Mind for Decades by Brad Stennerson. In it, Dr. Stennerson describes how early messages from his father burrowed their way into him and before long, manifested into his own brain bully. I’ve long known that part of the reason the bully in my brain is so prominent is because of my dad’s attitude toward me when I was growing up, but it’s only been in the last 10 years or so that I realized why my dad was so critical. And so, I decided to comment on Dr. Stennerson’s essay:
I know my dad’s criticism stemmed from fear and anxiety. He worried a lot about me doing things well because he wanted me to become a responsible, stable adult and was afraid I wouldn’t. This was partly because of his own childhood (his parents weren’t responsible or stable) and partly because of how I’m wired. I wasn’t responsible a lot of the time. I messed up a lot of the time. On top of being a kid, I also had inattentive ADHD so I messed up and dropped the ball so much more than he (and I) thought I should. This was the late 70s/early 80s so of course it was undiagnosed. He criticized me, in the name of helping and protecting me. And I criticized myself, believing that I needed to or everything would fall apart. Not a fun way to go through life.
I’m taking care of myself now (including being treated for ADHD) and feel _so_ much better than I have for most of my life, but tackling that inner critic continues to be a huge challenge. I inwardly bash myself constantly, using both my dad’s and my voice. It’s so ingrained! I’m glad I’m aware of it now, and am learning how to rewire myself so being mean to myself stops being the default. I’m hopeful this can change for me, but I still have a ways to go.
Anyway, needless to say, I really relate to what you’ve written here….
I love my dad and appreciate him tremendously. The bully in my brain is much harsher and crueler than he was. My dad was critical in a factual, dispassionate way. When he pointed out what I hadn’t done well (or at all) and how to be better in the future, he was trying to protect me. And the weird thing is, in some ways, his early criticism, and the subsequent emergence of the bully in my brain, has protected me. I’ve managed to grow into a responsible adult. My brain bully has whipped me along and kept me on track. Fear is an effective motivator, after all.
And there has been another, related…I don’t want to say benefit, because overall, my brain bully has profoundly damaged me, so I’ll say instead…reason I’ve let the bully in my brain do her thing all these years:
That fear she uses to motivate me, also helps me focus.
About 10 or so years ago I started to notice how anxious I felt so much of the time. It was an awful edge-of-a-cliff/pit-in-my-stomach feeling. And the strength of the feeling seemed disproportionate to what was actually happening: getting out the door, choosing socks, deciding which route to take when driving somewhere, etc. Almost any task or decision flooded me with anxiety and most of them didn’t seem to warrant so much stress. I went through my days in this constant frantic state about pretty much everything. At the time, it didn’t make any sense, but ouch, was it unpleasant.
But last year I started noticing my thoughts. I started paying attention to the messages I was telling myself. And I saw that I was using my brain bully to wrangle my scattered mind.
The fear that the bully in my brain fosters in me floods my body with stress hormones, which help me focus. That’s what stress hormones are designed to do, after all. If your life is being threatened, you need to focus on survival, not be distracted by your zooming thoughts—the memories of what you watched on t.v. last night, or that super cool idea you have for the story you’re writing, or suddenly realizing you can’t remember where you left your keys. You can’t be derailed by all of that mental chatter—you need to run the hell away from the knife wielding maniac chasing you! And those fight or flight hormones your body releases when you are in danger cause your focus to narrow on exactly what you need to accomplish right then—saving your life.
Thankfully, I was not being chased by a string of knife wielding maniacs day after day. But my scattered, zooming thoughts needed to be corralled or I wouldn’t accomplish even the basics. So the bully in my brain stepped in. She scared me so much with her never-ending litany of all that could go wrong, or all the ways I’d fallen short, that she basically enabled me to self-medicate with my own adrenaline.
And what do you know? I’d get stuff done. Never perfectly, though, and lots still fell through the cracks, but that was good because it gave my brain bully more evidence to use in subsequent bullying sessions, which would terrify me and once again help me focus.
Evenings I would pound wine, etc. to numb out and escape my brain bully, the terrible thoughts and feelings she unleashed in me, and the almost constant state of panic I lived in. But of course, I couldn’t really escape any of it with alcohol—only ignore reality for a short, drunken while. Once the effects of all that drinking wore off, I’d feel awful about everything: screwing up, panic over future screw ups, tons of shame about how much I was drinking, even more shame about what an awful person I obviously was.
I lived like this for years—basically unaware of what was actually going on inside me. I knew I was full of anxiety. I knew I tended towards self-criticism, and I certainly knew that my drinking was problematic, but I didn’t know why. And I had no idea how to change any of it. I felt lost and stuck and hopeless.
I’m so grateful to be out of that hole.
Now I am aware of so much more. I see those unhealthy patterns and coping mechanisms so much clearer. I’ve been alcohol free for over a year and a half. I’ve been meditating daily for over a year. I’ve worked on being more self-compassionate and am starting to work on regulating my nervous system so that fight or flight response isn’t so powerful and omnipresent. I understand better why I have bullied myself, despite the pain it’s always caused me.
The bully in my brain is still with me—I’m guessing she always will be—but her influence is starting to weaken.
Bullies, by nature, are afraid and insecure. Sure, they are loud and conspicuous, but that doesn’t make them right or necessary. I’m finding new ways to focus and be a responsible person that are kind and encouraging, instead of cruel and abusive. As my bully weakens, I’m becoming brave enough to put myself out into the world more unapologetically. To unleash my scattered, but super-creative mind. I might not be perfect, but I have a lot of ideas to share and now that I’m not cringing away from the bully in my brain, I feel freer to share them.
So despite what my brain bully has been telling me about writing this second essay, I’ve done it. And I will write a third, fourth, fifth…lots of others. I’m finishing up my second novel and beginning a third. I’m pursuing audiobook projects that I’m super excited to record. I’m scared, of course. I’m unsure, of course. But that weird compulsion that prompted me to write this particular essay is encouraging me to keep at it. Shine a light on my shame. Stand up and be seen. I’m realizing that strength and connection comes from honesty and vulnerability, which haven’t been my way before now. But my way included feeling like complete crap about myself most of the time, feeling terrified most of the time, believing the messages the bully in my brain was flinging at me.
I don’t believe her anymore. She’s a liar.
And I don’t need her.
I’m posting this!
Sorry/not-sorry, brain bully!
 In case it’s not clear, trying to drink away one’s brain bully is a very self-destructive way to deal with self-criticism. Because once the alcohol wears off, we also feel hung over and ashamed for drinking too much. The original self-criticism we were trying to escape comes roaring back too. It just gives the brain bully even more ammunition.