The Bully Inside of You

We talk quite a bit about anxiety in our house. My kids have names for their worry monsters. My daughter chose the name Alfred when she was around 4 years old. My son, more recently, when he was about 4 years old, named his Pooter Fart. As you can imagine it brings a lot of giggles. This weekend, my daughter attended a birthday party and they had an opportunity to do a rock climbing wall. This was her first time rock climbing and my child who has always been cautious would have, just a couple years ago, entirely skipped out on the experience. She would’ve been too anxious to try it, fearful of what could happen.

But this time, despite the fears that I could read on her face, she decided she wanted to try it. Part of that was because my son had been at a birthday party at the same venue the day before and had the opportunity to climb the wall. Being a bit more fearless (or sometimes reckless), he went ahead and climbed–and got up pretty far for a five-year-old. My nine-year-old daughter figured, if he could do it, so could she.

As she was waiting in line, I could see the anxiety starting to build in her body and mind. I was so proud of her for continuing to face those fears. She knew this was something she wanted to accomplish and she wasn’t going to let her anxiety get in her way. She got up there and started climbing and it was a little more difficult than I think she expected. She had a little bit of trouble finding her footing and that anxiety really started to skyrocket. She almost froze in place and we kept encouraging her that she was doing great and to keep going but at some point she decided she was ready to come down. I told her how proud I was of her and how impressed I was that she climbed as high as she did on her first time, but the anxiety remained. I knew it was time for a different approach.

The reason we have our children give a name and a personality to their anxiety is that it gives them a way to gain perspective. In doing this we can become a united front with them against the worry monster’s attacks. Instead of telling them “there’s nothing to worry about,” “why would you think that?” or “don’t be so scared,” I can say “Alfred is wrong and he is trying hard to keep you from doing something you’re really looking forward to.”

So I asked my daughter, “what is Alfred telling you right now?” This helps her to identify what she is anxious about because if I just ask her what she is worried about, it comes across as invalidating and then she goes into defensive mode. When she is in defensive mode, she can’t tell me what it is that is really worrying her. When I ask her what Alfred is telling her she is no longer defending herself, instead we are a united front against the anxiety. So when I asked her what Alfred was telling her, she answered that her brother had climbed so much further than her and that this meant that she was weak. She was feeling insecure about herself, that she wasn’t good enough. Isn’t that really at the core of so many of our anxious thoughts? This thing is going to happen and I won’t be able to handle it because there’s something wrong with me.

When I understood that it wasn’t about the fact that my daughter didn’t go as high as she wanted to, but instead it was that she wasn’t good enough and that there was something wrong with her that she couldn’t go as high as her brother could, then I knew how we could talk to Alfred. That’s where the title of this blog comes from because anxiety is really just a big bully. Anxiety is that one that’s saying “you’re not good enough,” “you can’t handle it,” “your friends are going to leave you,” “nobody will love you,” “something is wrong with you.” And so I decided to call it out for her because again, if we can be a united front against the anxiety then we can tackle it together and she’s no longer alone with it. I’m not against her, I’m against the anxiety and she’s against the anxiety and we will beat it together. And so I said to her, “Alfred is such a bully! What a mean thing to say to you! Would you say that to a friend? Would you say to a friend ‘haha, you can’t climb as high on the wall and you’re not good enough because someone else is better than you?” And she said “no” and I said “Well, Alfred is such a bully because he’s telling you that. And that’s not even true!”

The light bulb went off then and she could see it for herself and I knew she could now hear the truth about the anxious thoughts. Now we could put what Alfred was saying to the test. I said “Are there some things that your brother is better at than you?” And she said yes. So I said, “Ok, we know that that is true. Are there some things that you are better at than your brother?” And again, she said yes. So I said “Ok, so we know that that is true. So there are some things that he is better at than you and maybe he was better at climbing this wall than you this first time, right? But does that mean that there is something wrong with you? Or is it OK that we are all good at different things?” And she said “Well, yes.” And I said “Well, there you go. It’s OK that he is better at this than you and it’s OK that you are better at other things than him. We all have different strengths!” Her mood shifted in that moment. I took it a step further because I could see that there was still a little bit of Alfred hanging around. So I told her “You know you can say shut up to Alfred. Of course, we don’t use that kind of language in our house. You can’t say that to daddy or your brother or me or a friend or a teacher but you can say it to Alfred.” She smiled. I said, “Why don’t you go ahead and tell him.” Well she got a little nervous to say it out loud so I said “Do you want me to say it?” She nodded. I said “Shut up, Alfred!” and she smiled a little more. I said “You know you can say it.” And she said, “Well, I said it in my head.” But I could sense that she needed to say it out loud because when we say something like that out loud and hear our voice in it, it comes with a bit more power because it switches something in our brain. So like any good parent would, I bribed her with a thin mint cookie because sugar has power. As soon as she said it out loud the smile grew bigger and I could just see the anxiety lift.

So for you, when you hear that anxiety voice building up in you, ask yourself what your anxiety is saying will happen. Be ready to dig deeper with those “and then what will happen?” questions until you know you’ve hit on the thing that is the true core of that anxiety. Take a moment and step back to gain perspective on that anxious voice. When my anxiety says if go to this event, I will feel really awkward and people won’t talk to me and they will think I’m really weird. Understand that’s a bully. That is a horrible and mean thing to say to somebody and you wouldn’t say that to a friend. Understand that it is not true and that you are unique and wonderful and that it is that uniqueness that makes you so special. Know that there are people in this world who will appreciate you for who you are. Stand up to that bully inside of you. Speak it out loud and then see how it feels.

Hannah Lindsay, MSW, LCSW-C, provides individual and family therapy in our Sterling, VA office. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Hannah today.