Make Friends With Your Inner Bully

“People who feel shame and self-judgement are more likely to blame others for their moral failures.”

So says, Kristin Neff in her book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. Neff is a professor at the University of Texas, and has spent over a decade studying the effects of having or not having self-compassion. She says that anger allows a temporary feeling of power, “covering up feelings of weakness stemming from personal failure.”

Neff sees men are particularly “vulnerable to this pattern” because of the way our culture creates an idealised image of men as strong and infallible. Faced with their own shortcomings, some men feel inadequacy and shame.

But women are far from immune. I’ve been there, done that, blamed everyone else in sight for my inadequacies. It hurts more than owning them, far more.

This post is part of today’s 1000 Voices Speak For Compassion’s initiative Building From Bullying, which specifically addresses ways we can find solutions, rather than kneejerk reactions. Compassion for those who bully is often in short supply, but it is actually essential if we are to ever resolve this problem.

inner bullyWhen our daughters were little, my husband got a new job that meant moving 500 miles. I was delighted because the move was back to a city we’d previously lived in and loved. However, for various complex reasons, for the first two months after our move, my husband was working away almost all the time and I was alone with two little children who missed their dad.

It was usually worst at bedtime, with our younger daughter sometimes so distressed, that by the time I’d got her calmed enough to sleep, I felt like crying myself.

Then, thinking (hoping) the children were settled, I would be in the kitchen doing the washing up and our three-year-old would appear giggling at the door. I’d take her back to bed, but a few minutes later she’d return. This went on a few times each night, until I lost patience. From her earliest days, she had not been easy to settle to sleep. I had attended a sleep clinic; I had read books on how to get your baby to sleep and on how to develop a bedtime routine for your toddler. Nothing worked, and, as far as bedtimes went, I felt that I’d failed. I was inadequate as a mother.

I also blamed her. I’d done everything I could – apart from have any compassion for myself of course, but I didn’t realise back then that that could make a difference. In blaming her, I yelled at my beautiful, lovely child. I yelled at the child I’d waited years for, the child I loved intensely, the child I never ever wanted to harm. I roared at her to get back to bed.

It’s a long time ago now, and I can’t remember how many nights this happened – but it was more than once. I also can’t remember the details of afterwards – in my mind I see an image of her running back to bed. I would have gone to her, because I never could stand to think of her falling asleep upset at my anger. Once, I remember sitting on her bed as she said sorry for getting up and running around when I felt so tired. I don’t remember my reply.

I do remember though, that after a few nights, I realised that in some ways I was almost enjoying the feeling of anger – the adrenaline rush and the sense of power. This worried me. A lot.

On the site CompassionPower, Steven Stosny writes, “resentment and anger have amphetamine and analgesic effects – they provide an immediate surge of energy and numbing of pain.” Like Neff, Stosny knows what he’s talking about. He has been working for many years with those who commit domestic violence – and his programs have a very high success rate.

Fortunately, although my anger initially felt cathartic, I didn’t want to direct it at my small daughter. Stosny adds, “you will soon crash from the surge of vigor and confidence into self-doubt and diminished energy. And that’s just the physiological response to amphetamine; it does not include the added depressive effects of doing something while you’re resentful or angry that you are later ashamed of, like hurting people you love.

I knew nothing of Stosny’s work back then. But I knew that my outbursts of anger were always followed by feelings of shame and depression that far outweighed any temporary satisfaction. I also knew deep down that it truly wasn’t my daughter’s fault.

The short-term outcome was that I started to sit quietly with my daughter until she’d calmed or often until she was asleep. The long-term outcomes were that I began reading parenting books to understand my children better and I took up meditation and mindful inquiry processes. I learned to question the beliefs that led to my angry outbursts, and they came less often. It’s still work-in-progress, but it’s been a long time since I felt anything close to rage.

Although Stosny works with a wide range of people, what he says about anger and parenting is particularly interesting and illuminating. Stosny explains that with any new endeavour, we feel inadequate at first. It follows then that new parents will feel inadequate. (As will parents at any new stage, which is most of us, much of the time.) He says that moving beyond inadequacy into competence is one of the greatest feelings we can have.

If we simply accept this, then we can use our feelings of inadequacy as a signal to learn more or get the support we need. It’s a statement about our lack of experience, not about us.

Stosny says we become angry at our children when we confuse feelings of inadequacy with failure. This is, of course, exactly what I did.

It is unfortunate that parents are generally expected to know what to do, and any admission of difficulty is likely to be met with judgement rather than compassion. When parents compete with each other to prove that our way is best, we are causing each other terrible pain and that inevitably gets passed on to our children. When I yelled at my three-year-old, my mind was filled with images of people disapproving, and of remembered criticisms: “It’s your fault. You should be firmer, clearer. You should show her who is boss. You should be kinder. You should, you should…” A few magazine articles even sneaked in to join the throng of criticism, particularly one I’d read saying that if you weren’t prepared to have your baby in your bed, you shouldn’t be a parent but get a cat instead.

None of that helped me to be kinder to my daughter. All of it left me feeling shame, guilt and despair.

I don’t know of one parent who hasn’t at some time yelled at their child. In their book When Anger Hurts Your Kids (by McKay, Fanning, Paleg and Landis) the authors point out that all parents sometimes feel angry, with many still resorting to spanking.

There’s a popular idea in our culture that the way to deal with bullies is to show them zero tolerance, and to punish them. This line of thinking assumes that somehow bullies are different to the rest of us; yet as I think this essay illustrates, we are all capable of the feelings and behaviour that count as bullying. As Susan Buttenweiser reports in Brain, Child magazine, Zero tolerance programs have a poor success rate – precisely because of their punitive and aggressive tactics. You can’t fight bullying by bullying, no matter how much many people would like to! Buttenweiser writes that restorative practices that address underlying causes of bullying are much more likely to be successful, and long term “positive development of the school community” is most effective of all. In other words, instead of blaming bullies, we all need to work to make friends with our inner bully, to release our shame and with that our bullying tendencies. And we need to teach bullies to do the same.

If this seems daunting (and it sometimes does to me) we can draw inspiration from those who already deal with bullying with compassion. When Maya Van Wagenen was bullied at school, her mother gave her a book from the fifties, filled with advice on how to dress and how to become popular. She started following the advice, reaching out to kids in groups she felt afraid of, and generally being friendly, whilst standing up for herself. She became the most popular girl in school, and her journal Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek, is now a best seller.

When Lindy West, who writes at Jezebel, was repeatedly trolled, she wrote about it. She wrote about how upsetting it was to receive abuse, and she also wrote: They are human beings—and I don’t believe that their attempts to dehumanize me can be counteracted by dehumanizing them. The only thing that fights dehumanization is increased humanization. A man who had previously trolled her, sent her an email in which he said, among other things: “I think my anger towards you stems from your happiness with your own being. It offended me because it served to highlight my unhappiness with my own self.”

You can read the rest of the email, and what happened when Lindy later reached out to this man and forgave him in her article What Happened When I Confronted my Cruelest Troll

Even that short snippet gives insight into his mind, and illustrates the points that Neff and Stosny make. Writing about a person who blames, Neff also says that, “by blaming the other, he can also feel like a victim… which in turn justifies his righteous anger. It’s a vicious cycle that can lead to truly vicious behavior.”

Had Lindy West reacted by shaming this man, he would have retreated further into shame and anger. Equally importantly, it would not have strengthened her.

We don’t actually help those who are bullied by reinforcing beliefs in victim-hood. It makes far more sense to encourage victims to find self-compassion, and to enable us to find strength to stand up for ourselves. Yes, I am including myself – I’ve been on the receiving end of bullying: as a child, a teacher was truly vicious to me. (Among other things, he called me ugly, pinged matches at me from a toy cannon and set off a firework beneath my chair.) Later, at college, a tutor behaved in a similar  – though less severe – way. My first long-term boyfriend hit me more than once. For a long time, I believed that I was worthless, and that belief made me in turn more susceptible to feeling shame and yelling at my daughter.

There is no instant answer. There is no magic anti-bullying bullet. It takes time and it takes willingness to confront our deepest shame. But when we do, magic happens.

There is no Anti-bullying bullet. It takes time and willingness to face our shame. When we do, magic happens.


This post is part for 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion, a massive link-up, when over 1000 bloggers are writing for compassion. This month we are focusing on Building From Bullying. To read more posts, or to add your own, click on the blue button below. To accommodate all time zones, the link-up is open from 12 noon GMT 19th March – 12 noon GMT 21st March.

Besides me, your hosts are:

American Indian Mom, Finding Ninee The Quiet Muse, Chronically Sick Manic Mother, Just Gene’o, Driftwood Gardens, Getting Literal, The Meaning of Me, Head Heart Health, Considerings, Paper,Pen,Pad 1000Speak

1000 Voices Speak For Compassion is a blogging initiative started in response to violence and alienation in our world. If you would to be part of a movement for loving change, join our Facebook Group,  like our Facebook Page, or look for our posts on Twitter with the hashtag #1000Speak.



  1. WOW. I can relate to so much of this, Yvonne. There is one particular incident that haunts me from when my daughter was 3. I know she doesn’t remember it, but I was very mean to her and it took me a long time to forgive myself for that. Even now it makes me feel bad to think of it. Luckily I stopped short of getting physical with her, despite my own childhood experience, which included a lot of physical punishment. This post really puts things in perspective, and I bet it will be healing for many a mother (and father) who has been too harsh on their child because of their own situation.

    1. Author

      Jen, I have a feeling most parents have some incident buried away in their minds haunting them. It’s almost impossible for most of us not to experience anger at kids, especially if we were physically punished as a child (I was too.) But self-compassion is definitely the way forward!
      Thanks for your comment.

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  3. Having trouble conceiving my daughter and being so thankful to drop her off at school some mornings, I so get this.

    1. Author

      Ah, Erin, I’d forgotten the school runs. Yes that could also be a trigger point. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Oh I know exactly how you felt. I too have screeched at my kids to get to bed, and then spent hours at night lying awake hating myself for being so mean, so useless, so BUSY that I couldnt spare 5 minutes to take them up myself and give them attention until they settled. I once, and once only, spanked my child, through her nappy so she didn’t feel a thing (In fact she laughed and wriggled her bum at me) but I remember the feeling at the time, and it was more a release of my frustration than any effort to teach her something. Not the greatest feeling I have ever had! The guilt and depression I felt then – and feel more and more now as they get older and I fail to get wiser, it never seems to stop.

    1. Author

      Piper, this post seems to have hit a nerve with many mothers! The pain and shame at feeling anger at your children is universal I guess. Truly, if you feel this and struggle with not being able to be how you’d like, then self-compassion makes a huge difference. Take a look at Steven Stosny’s site because it’s really good. (I only discovered it while writing this post.)

  5. Honestly, we all have been there. I have also lost my temper more so since body was aching and the toddler had his own mind….


    1. Author

      Ruchira, aching bodies don’t help do they? I had fibromyalgia when mine were little and it didn’t help my patience.
      Thanks for dropping by.

  6. Love this so much. The internal work we need to do, the compassion we need to show, and just how much can happen from authentically doing both!

  7. First of all, the amount of research you did for this piece is just so impressive. I read Lindy’s post and the outcome and now I want to read Maya’s story!
    I think as parents, a lot of our actions are knee-jerk reactions. At least for me, most of the time, I feel like I’m rushing to beat the clock or at least accomplish something in time! Then I see my sons’ faces and I feel shame at having harassed them to get ready already! So, of course, each one of us is walking in the same pair of shoes but the way you described it so beautifully and lucidly opened my eyes to the *reason* we do it!! And, that helps! It really does!!
    {{{hugs}}} my friend!!

    1. Author

      Roshni, I’ve been gathering up the articles for a while, but I didn’t have them all in one place to had to go on the hunt again! Lesson learned for next time. Lindy’s story is amazing and Maya – I just love hers!!
      I think you are right about knee-jerk reactions being all too easy for parents. I only came across Steven Stosny’s work very recently and I am very, very impressed with it.

  8. Been there, done that, right beside you. Yvonne, you’ve provided so many great resources here for me to check out.
    Here’s the biggest thing hitting me here – so much of all of the issues that fall under the umbrella of bullying stem from our own feelings about and treatment of our selves. This is huge. Self-compassion is a greater need than I think I ever realized.
    So happy and proud to be part of this with you!

    1. Author

      Lisa, yes. So much of it stems from our own feelings about ourselves. A few years after the time I wrote about here, the same daughter kicked me. It came apparently out of the blue, and as I tried to understand what could have made her do it, I realised I’d been mentally kicking myself all day. She’d just followed my lead!
      It’s so strange yet most of us (including me) can feel very resistant to treating ourselves how we want to be treated, yet it’s so important. Thanks for being part of this, and yes, do check out the resources – they are worth it!

  9. This brought up some pain for me, I completely relate to this post. I clearly remember a time or three I have sat in my bedroom crying after having it out with my daughter. Thank you for this post, I will be bookmarking this and coming back to it often!

    1. Author

      Oh, Darla, love to you. One thing that’s becoming clear is that few of us have not felt this way at some time. Especially after a difficult childhood like you had, it’s not surprising you’ve had times you’ve struggled. Do check out the books and sites I’ve linked to, especially Neff’s and Stosny’s because they are brilliant.
      Thanks for your comment.

  10. I can identify with this, Yvonne.
    My daughter also behaved in a similar fashion!
    I agree with your views. We need to conquer the inner bullies.

    1. Author

      Anita, I’d say befriend rather than conquer, but yes, we need to still the self-criticism to be truly free. Thanks for your comment.

  11. A thoroughly good post, Yvonne, and really important.

    I think it will help a lot of people to know that they don’t need to beat themselves up constantly for flipping, but also that it would help them to acknowledge the heritage of those feelings, and to manage them in a more appropriate way.

    1. Author

      Lizzi, although I read Neff’s book ages ago, I’d missed this bit till not long ago and only came across Stosny very recently. And the message I got is what you say here – that we don’t need to beat ourselves for flipping – in fact it’s not helpful, but likely to make things worse. Stosny’s information on the effect of anger and how it so rapidly switches to depression was like finally having a missing piece of a puzzle for me. I am so thrilled to have found it!
      Thanks for your comment and glad you found this useful.

  12. I guess every parent who is engaged with their children understands your dilemma though few will self analyse quite as thoroughly. Fascinating research and Lindy West’s article is fascinating. And as I sit and type I know I was that self same bully, dealing with a child incapable of settling and who I couldn’t deal with. A hard day at work and my one job – read to the children and settle them in bed and I failed. I held the bedroom door shut as my daughter – four or so – hurled herself at it. And when later, at seven or so, she was asked in class what punishments we used (not sure what the teacher was after) she said she was locked in her room by her father. I was horrified – at the accusation, as how it was described, at what I had done that so stayed with my daughter. It was the complete abuse of power, a failure of management and I had no clue how to remove myself form that vicious circle. I’d not thought about this for years but I am now. Thank you Yvonne.

    1. Author

      Geoff, this post does seem to have struck a chord with parents. I wish I could say that incident I wrote about was a one-off, but I can’t. My older daughter hated going to bed, and I tried the door closing method once too – it was recommended in a book!!! You are absolutely right when you say it is an abuse of power, and I felt terrible doing it. My daughter didn’t tell her teachers like yours did, but the next day I heard her telling off her dolls and saying she was going to close the door on them. Hearing that really made me see how hurtful it must be, and recommended by sleep experts or not, I never did it again.

      On a lighter note – our younger daughter was usually easy to settle but one rare occasion she was totally hyper and it was way past bedtime, so my husband said if she didn’t settle down he’d take her toys out so that she had nothing to mess with. Seconds later her bedroom door opened and toys came hurling out! She was 3 at the time, and I remember wondering what we’d be in for when she was a teenager, but she’s fine!

  13. Yep. Lost my temper just last night because I was doing dinner alone with my picky eaters. My daughter said, “Mama, I want you to stop being mean.” And I was being mean because I feel like I should somehow get my children to eat a healthy, well-rounded meal at supper every night. And if they’re not, I’m failing as a parent. Anyhow, I agreed and apologized and congratulated my daughter for speaking her needs so well. I don’t know if that was exactly right, but I felt somewhat better.

    1. Author

      Sarah, getting annoyed because you want them to eat healthy – yes been there too! It’s crazy really because the stress involved is probably far more likely to do them (and us) harm.
      I love your response to your daughter though. Just wonderful!! You teach her so much by that – that she can speak out, that you listen, that you value her. Really your story is a great example of how really anything can become a worthwhile exchange. Thanks so much for sharing that!

  14. Such an honest post. We need that because none of us are ever fail-proof, especially as parents. I remembering trying to study for college classes and my three kids were ages 6, 5 and 4. They wouldn’t go to sleep, and I so badly wanted to go to sleep but I had an essay, chapters to read and a test the next day. I roared at them that if I had to come in their room one more time I was going to duct tape them to the wall. Five minutes later, I hear, “Mommy…” My kids were standing on my eldest’s bed, against the wall, “waiting” for me to duct tape them. I almost burst into tears I felt so embarrassed, but then the youngest giggled and we all laughed. And yes, I got through college. They survived.

    1. Author

      Charli, yes, we do need to be honest because none of us are fail-proof. The more we are willing to be honest about our mistakes, the more others can be too, and then we feel less alone and more able to cope! It’s win-win.
      Your kids sound wonderful, so glad you all laughed at that!

  15. I think it takes a lot of patience to recognize that the one who is bullying us is also human… Sometimes it’s easy while at other times it takes a lot of effort and even then seems impossible… But yes they do it because they are missing something, due to some sense of lagging in something..Yes, maybe our first reaction is to counter it with consideration while ensuring we don’t get demoralized ourselves

    1. Author

      Nabanita, I love your suggestion – yes counter it with consideration while ensuring we don’t get demoralised. Not always easy, but yes, worth a try for sure!

  16. Humans are so similar in many aspects.. I say this as i went through the same phase with my 2 yr old daughter. Loving her, getting irritated on myself for being imperfect mother, than blaming her, scolding her and (I am shameful to admit) even spanking my doll (tears!!) Meditation in the form of jotting down my thoughts helped me and its been more than 3 months since I have spoken loudly to her.. You are so right that it becomes kind of cathartic to act like a boss to a child but to only followed by shame, guilt and disgust.. i am trying every moment to be friend with the bully inside me and thanks to articles like yours i understand my negative energy much better..

    1. Author

      Roohi Bhatnagar, I love your solution: meditation in the form of jotting down your thoughts. That’s very similar to what worked for me, along with learning self-compassion.
      I’m so glad you found this helpful, thanks for letting me know.

  17. *Sigh* I thank you for pointing out that compassion with ourselves is also important. . . You said, “You can’t fight bullying by bullying, no matter how much many of us would like to!” While I’ve had this view about external bullies, I had never thought to apply it to myself. Thought-provoking, Yvonne. . .

    1. Author

      Ah, Reta Jayne, why is it so often easier to have compassion for others than it is for ourselves? It took me decades to realise that!
      Thanks for your comment and be kind to you!

  18. Beautiful post, Yvonne. It’s so hard to stop the cycle of anger and shaming but it’s the only way. Thanks for sharing your experience and the other links.

  19. Thank you so much for this. I have felt like such a monster of a mother so many times. And it causes me so much self-hatred and shame. “I roared at her to get back to bed.” – Oh God, how I have done this too many times to count. You have given me some great reading recommendations. I am familiar with Kristen Neff, but I had not heard of the others. Thanks for being a voice for so many mothers.

  20. Being kind to ourselves is important! I know I beat myself up all the time for not being the perfect mom I want to be. Self compassion is needed. : )

  21. I agree with Roshni, the research you put into this is very impressive and the honesty you share helps me to see that I am not alone. Even at 3am when my 2yr old is awake and running around and I loose my temper. The remorse and horror I feel at myself after he finally goes to sleep and I look at his beautiful peaceful face is something that I have been trying to address and you have provided some valuable resources.

    Great post Yvonne

  22. So well written – thank you so much for writing this. The line I stopped at was this one: “we become angry at our children when we confuse feelings of inadequacy with failure” – YES. That’s my life stage at the moment and something I need to work through. This was a helpful read for me.

  23. Clearly you touched a number of parents with your post. I’m not a parent, but I appreciated your post nonetheless. The research you did, the links you provided (and I followed them all, even reading the “look inside” portion of the books mentioned and listening to Lindy West’s radio segment) were all selected with care and creativity. Releasing the shame we feel for hurting others, as opposed to blaming them, does seem to be the logical first step toward becoming a more compassionate person.

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