You only think the bullies are helpful

A therapist once said a really helpful thing to me.

She said, “Even if you stop thinking negatively, you’ll still succeed.”

She was talking about my grades, in college.

I think it was the end of my junior year, and my dad had just been diagnosed with gastroparesis. So his stomach was paralyzed, and he couldn’t eat without being in incredible pain. It did not look like he would be able to eat again, at that point. I called the counseling center and got myself an appointment, and then I found myself sitting across from a pleasant-looking, nondescript woman who has mostly been lost to memory, with a standard soothing voice, who listened to me talk about how scared I was that my dad would die. How scared I’d always been about my dad dying, really, since he’d always been sick. And what would happen to my life if my dad died? I couldn’t imagine. It seemed like there was nothing, after that.

I came back for a second session, but this time I talked about how enormously important it felt for me to get perfect grades. To justify the cost of college. To make something of myself. To be good at what I was doing. To prove myself.  I had chosen a state school for its affordability and proximity to my job, but I still felt like I couldn’t rest for a second, because I needed to make sure I was succeeding.

(I think I’m bad at figuring out what this should unlock)

So I felt bad in general, and also, my dad couldn’t eat.

And that’s when this nameless therapist who I could no longer pick out of a small coffee shop told me that I would still succeed, even if I stopped being so mean to myself. She said hard work isn’t about guilt. It’s not really motivated by that desperate feeling of “what if I fail?” We just believe it is. She said that kind of thinking gets in the way of working hard. The results have nothing to do with it. They have to do with something else entirely.

And that idea caught on, for some reason, and I remembered it.


And then I forgot it, when I started thinking, “I’m such a failure! I have to pitch more magazines! If I don’t get published in a magazine, I’ll have failed as a writer.” And when I started thinking, “If I can write my book faster, maybe I’ll be more of a success. I’m so lazy. I’m always falling behind.” And I started thinking that those thoughts were helpful, in a way, because they might motivate me to do something. To write faster. To pitch more. To get ahead.

But they’re not. And they don’t. They just make me feel worse.

And then I started noticing that sometimes I used the same logic on my body. “Look how fat your arms are,” I’d say to my image in the mirror. “You’re gross. No one can be pretty with arms like that. You need to lose weight. Fifteen pounds. No…Twenty. No carbs starting tomorrow. And exercise! Why aren’t you exercising, you lazy bag of crap? You’re disgusting! You should be running, every day. For a long time. Forty-five minutes. Maybe an hour. Every day. No excuses. Starting tomorrow.”


Do you think that happened? Do you think I’m now running for an hour every day?

Of course you don’t think that! Because that’s not the way this stuff goes.

The way it goes is you get used to thinking mean, bullying thoughts about yourself. You get used to picking on yourself and your poor, confused arms that never actually did anything wrong. You end up heaping this abuse on yourself, and in the back of your mind, you actually think that it’s useful. That if you didn’t think this way, you’d never do anything about it.

And yet you’re not actually doing anything about it.

Look at that. That’s  interesting. You’re not doing anything about it. Just yelling at yourself in the mirror. Hmm.

So how about we try something different? How about we separate things. The way I feel about my arms is NOT going to make me stop eating cake. So I can either keep eating cake while I keep shouting slurs at my arms, or I can work on accepting my arms while I enjoy some cake. And if I really, really can’t get over my arms, forever, I can stop eating cake and start working out, and also, at the same time, work on appreciating the way I look more.  Because the working out and not eating cake is actually separate from the arms. It’s about building new habits, which requires encouragement and patience, not bursts of self-loathing. Maybe, if I really want to change my arms, I can restrict my cake eating, but not cut cake out of my life completely, and I can lift weights and sign up for kick-boxing, and focus on making those things a part of my routine. And at the same time, I can try to focus on things I like about my appearance, and let myself enjoy the gradual change in the shape of my arms.

Which is not to say I’m going to do that. But it would be a better route.


Or maybe I can make a serious effort to exercise more often, but because exercise is healthy and good for my heart and my longevity, and isn’t really about my arms at all. And maybe I can try to make sure that my exercise is happening because it feels good to get in shape. It feels good to not be out of breath when you have to jog a little, to get to the G train because it’s so damn short, and it stops in the middle of the damn platform. That is not about my arms. It’s about my life. And the G train.

The point is, we need to stop believing that meanness is motivation. It’s not. At the end of its cycle, it gets wrung out into a puddle of guilt, which seeps into everything, so that everything is damp and uncomfortable.

I love to write. Calling myself a failure doesn’t make me write more, it makes me afraid to write. If I leave myself alone, I’ll write all day. I’ll love the way it feels. I’ll work feverishly on my book, instead of being paralyzed by this gaping fear of rejection. Right now, for example, an agent is interested in seeing my book, and I have not sent it to her. Because I’m so afraid that she might reject me. Because I have made myself so certain that getting this book published is the most important thing in the world, and if it doesn’t get published, I will suck.

That isn’t right. If this agent doesn’t like my book, I’ll send it out again. And again. And eventually, someone will pick it gently up and cradle it. And eventually, it might even get published. Because I have that kind of drive, when I’m not talking back to myself. When I’m letting myself be.

And as for my arms—there’s no way I’m gonna stop eating cake right now. Or even restrict my cake eating. Maybe one day I will. Maybe it will feel more important. But right now, when my mind does that thing, in front of the mirror, when it starts up  with, “Whoa—your arms are SO fa—”

I cut it off.

“I don’t care what you think,” I say to myself. “I’m not going to go on a diet tomorrow. Obviously. We’ve been through this. So I can either like my arms, or I can move on. Those are the options.”

Sometimes I manage to like them, just for a second.

(nice arms!)

Sometimes I notice something else instead. My shoulders, for example. Look, they’ve just been sitting there, for so long, not getting any attention! My chin. Check out that chin! Exemplary. There is a lot going on with my body. It’s not all about the arms.

It’s never all about any one thing.

My dad’s stomach would never be normal again. But he did a lot of research and found a medication that relaxed  the paralysis. Something his doctors didn’t think to try. He just kept reading and reading and poking into forgotten corners until he found a solution. And I went to take my finals with the therapist’s words in my head. I could succeed without telling myself I might fail. I was succeeding already. And my mind relaxed a little, too.

Negative thoughts don’t make us stronger. They don’t help us get where we want to go. They’re bullies. They need to be ignored or put in their place. You are already succeeding. Look around at everything you’ve done. Eat some cake. You deserve it, because it’s delicious. Because your arms, and I’m not kidding here, your arms are fine.

*  *  *

Unroast: Today I love the way I look in green.

A version of this post is also up on Psychology Today


Kate on April 30th 2012 in beauty, body, exercise, fear, food

47 Responses to “You only think the bullies are helpful”

  1. Terri responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 12:48 pm #

    This post so resonates with me. I think I was nearly 40 years old before I realized that I was saying things internally to myself that I would never say to another human being. Once I understood that, it became far easier to extend the same respect to myself as I routinely did to others.

  2. Lara responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 12:52 pm #

    This is so great and so true! We are actually abusing ourselves with our negative speech. I wrote a blog post about how to feel more beautiful and a lot of it has to do with rewiring our negative thoughts about ourselves. You can check it out here –

  3. Melanie responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 12:55 pm #

    This is such a great post. I don’t think people realize how much we truly bully ourselves, and how bad it is for us. I’m still working on it every day. It is a really tough practice to get out of.

  4. Liz responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 12:55 pm #

    So true, Kate! Thanks so much. Unroast: today, I love how my feet look in my brand new sandals.

  5. Kate responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 12:55 pm #

    Thanks for sharing your post! I love when people link back to themselves. It expands the conversation!

  6. Cari responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 1:01 pm #

    During my first year of law school, I went to a therapist for anxiety disorder, and she gave me this sheet about combating perfectionism and told me to stop telling myself “have to” statements. She said that saying, “I have to make this call tonight or I am a bad person” and other similar statements just put more pressure on me and made me procrastinate in order to avoid the dreaded action. Instead, “I should make this call tonight, but it’s okay if I don’t.”
    It’s helpful when I remember it, but sometimes it’s hard not to be obsessively critical over things, especially when I know they are seemingly simple actions that others have no problem completing.

  7. Rachel responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 1:03 pm #

    I just wanted to tell you that I loved this post. I am getting over an eating disorder, and this is what I try to practice every day. Every time I have a negative thought I either stop it, and refuse to participate in the negativity, or I find something positive to think instead. I always feel like whenever I think these negative things the disorder is coming back, but reading your perspective shows me that negative thoughts just happen sometimes, and it’s how we choose to deal with them that is significant. Thank you.

  8. Kate responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 1:11 pm #

    First of all, GOOD FOR YOU!!! I’m cheering for you.
    And second of all, oh my god, yes. Negative thoughts just happen. They just happen all the time, and we all have to deal with them. They don’t have to spell out disorder. Sometimes they’re just you, being a regular, boringly normal person. So please don’t be too hard on yourself. At the very moment you’re dealing with something negative, remember that I’m probably thinking, “Why am I such a—no, no. Don’t think that…” And we’re both going to be fine.

  9. Johanna responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 1:17 pm #

    I do the same thing. With the same result. I become paralyzed with anxiety because I am convinced that procrastinating on this one thing shows that I am a lazy, talentless, worthless wretch. There is definitely this resistance, this sense of fear, perhaps, that won’t allow me to replace my negative thoughts with positive ones. As if *my* thinking those negative things prevents other people from thinking them, so I must continue or everyone will see past my facade…

    Anyway, I’m working on it. :)

  10. Gillian responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 1:26 pm #

    Thank you. Just… thank you.

  11. Kate responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 1:27 pm #

    Thank you for taking the time to read this!

  12. Jennifer responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 1:29 pm #

    To paraphrase you, calling myself a failure (for not exercising hard enough) doesn’t make me exercise harder. It makes me apprehensive and judgmental and on-the-outside of the moment.

    I started swimming a few months back–just once or twice a week. It was to get me moving without aggravating some physical glitches that running brings on in my feet and knees. It felt too easy, though, and the bully began revving up new ways to torture my near-middle age mind physical decline and how I’ll never be as good as I used to be.

    Then I decided to enjoy swimming–the getting out of the shower and being cold, the slipping into the pool’s relative warmth, the sliding through dark aqua of predawn at the gym’s pool, and how quiet it is with my head in the water. It became as much about meditation as about exercise.

    So into the pool I will continue, and to run the little bit I am able, savoring your reminder about bullying–how it comes from within far more than it comes from without.

  13. Frankie responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 1:49 pm #

    We have a painting of your last photo in our foyer. Seeing it here made my day!

    This is a great post. Negativity only breeds negativity. I’m trying to eradticate it from my life! :)

  14. Val responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 1:55 pm #

    A very close friend died eight years ago.

    Life changed very drastically and not for the better.

    But slowly this realization dawned: I could be the kind of friend to myself that she’d been to me.

    When those mean comments to myself would come around, I could hear her voice, “Oh come on now. That’s completely unfair.”

    And it’s true. I don’t talk crap to my friends. I’m nice to them–why would I be so mean to myself?

    Anyway, once again you are RIGHT. love, Val

  15. Lynn responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 2:02 pm #

    YES!!! Thank you, I needed to hear that today ;)

  16. Emily responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 2:12 pm #

    So so so so so so so so true. Excellent post. :)

  17. Gaby responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 2:14 pm #

    I love you Kate! This is so perfect, as all your posts are, but because I was just talking to a good friend yesterday and she was telling me she wished all her incredible girlfriends would stop talking sh** about themselves in their heads.
    I am sending this to her now !

  18. Emily responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 2:19 pm #

    Oh, and it is interesting to note that the research shows that when we are kind to ourselves we not only get happier, but everyone else gets happier too. Why? Happy people are better friends, lovers, workers, parents, etc. When you are happy you are better at what you do AND you are kinder to other people. It’s like, if you learn that bullying thoughts don’t help you succeed, you stop trying to change other people with bullying words. Suddenly what you thought was helpful just seems mean and you find a way to help them with love.

    So don’t feel guilty for being kind to yourself. Happiness is good for everyone.

  19. Kate responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 2:31 pm #

    SO interesting! Thanks for sharing. It makes perfect sense- being happy makes you an easier person to be around. But it’s interesting how so many things that make perfect sense are so difficult to figure out :-)

  20. Kate responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 2:31 pm #

    Oh wow, thank you!!!

  21. Marie responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 2:35 pm #

    Oh Kate, I so needed this post today. I am in the middle of self producing my first opera (shameless plug – it goes up on May 18 in the city and for the past week I have done nothing but think negatively about it. My big favorite is the thought that no one will come. So I work constantly, motivated very much by guilt and fear and I’m sure it shows in my work and in my business emails and everything else. Reading this made me feel like the solution is so painfully simple and “even if you stop thinking negatively, you will still succeed” is my new mantra :) love it!

    PS: My sister was recently diagnosed with mild gastroparesis and found a solution that most doctors don’t believe in, and it’s working so well. My thoughts to your dad.

  22. margosita responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 3:04 pm #

    In grad school a friend and I made a deal. If we sent something out (a story or essay) to a journal and it got rejected the other person had to buy the rejected one a drink. If it was accepted, the the accepted friend had to buy the other one a drink. Submitting is a lonely rejection-heavy process and this made us feel better.

    We don’t have the deal any longer because we don’t live in the same city anymore, and really, we should be submitting way more than we need to be drinking. But as I’m slowly getting back onto the writing horse and getting work out there, I’ve been thinking about that. I should find a friend that will, maybe for every five rejections, treat me to a drink. Or a frozen yogurt. Or something. You could try that, too! And books are bigger, so if your book gets rejected you are required to eat cake. Which Bear is required to feed to you! While telling you how amazing you are! I mean, obviously you should feel free to customize that as you see fit.

    I guess what I’m really saying is that I am a big proponent of the rewards and self-bribery method of coping.

  23. June responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 3:38 pm #

    Have you been reading my mind? It seems like the last few posts you’ve written have been so spot on with what I’m struggling with! This one really hit home – I put on shorts for the first time this season yesterday and actually teared up because of what I saw as my “disgusting thighs”. I would never talk to a friend that way!

    Thanks for your awesome insight :)

  24. Sheryl responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 4:08 pm #

    Oh, this is straight to the heart. Thank you.

  25. Suzie responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 4:32 pm #

    This is so true. My boyfriend is always telling me how hard on myself I am, and it’s true. A lot of times I don’t get anything done at all because I think it isn’t worth it and the things I create aren’t good. That isn’t the way to get anything done though, the people who actually create things just do it and better themselves along the way. Thanks for writing such an insightful post, it hit me in a serious way today.

  26. Nukrem responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 4:42 pm #

    This post really resonated with me today and honestly that last paragraph made me tear up a little.

    I’m going through something quite similar at the moment – My mum’s had serious stomach pains since last year and had surgery and was in hospital last month which has yet to make the pain better and is having more exploratory procedures this week. I have exams in two weeks and my focus switch has yet to be located. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m feeling tired and a bit hateful. But it’s okay, I just need to let myself be with what’s going on at the moment and breathe.

    With my exams I just have to remind myself that I’ve come far enough and that even if I never manage to study for another hour it will all be okay, it wont mean there is anything wrong with me or I’m a bad person or I’m not worthy of anything. This won’t define my life. I couldn’t have imagined ever taking exams when I left school at 13. So I’m proud, really proud :)

    There is a book actually called “The Invitation” by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, which I find really helps me to center myself when I’m feeling like this.
    “Not doing is not about immobility or giving up in despair. It is first and foremost about being able to be with, to accept fully, what is in this moment.”

  27. Nukrem responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 4:44 pm #

    Unroast – I love my flat monkey feet today :)

  28. Kate responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 4:51 pm #

    I am so so sorry that you are going through this stuff with your mom!! That is a terrible situation. When my dad was so sick and I had to take exams, I actually went to each of my professors and told them what was going on. I wanted them to know where I was, and why I was distracted. Not as an excuse, but just to humanize the whole thing. I actually got a lot of support from them, which helped. I don’t know if you’d consider doing something similar, but I wanted to mention it.

    And you’re right– you should be proud no matter what!

  29. Loren responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 4:57 pm #

    You are absolutely correct. I took a management course in college. The ‘berating’ management style was one of the worst ones. The most effective one was ‘respect’ meaning your employees would respect you and WANT to do a good job to make their boss happy. It makes sense that if I wouldn’t listen to a berating boss I wouldn’t listen to a berating ‘me’. Guess I should work on respecting myself more and hope I learn to want to make myself happy…

  30. Kate responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 5:00 pm #

    This is so true! I hear these stories about people’s bosses screaming at them, and I’m shocked. How do you even get to that point, where you’re so comfortable being so terrible to other people, who you have power over?

    I think too often we believe that being assertive can include being mean. And so leaders who are soft-spoken and kind don’t get the same mention that tyrannical leaders do. Which is really, really too bad.

  31. Andrew responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 5:47 pm #

    I see it as a valve, or a knob, for which you control the level of criticism or praise you afford yourself. You have to know when to adjust it.

    Of course we don’t criticize other people with the same harshness we save for ourselves. We have social customs which preclude that. Do you think these things about other people though? That’s what counts, because maybe you’re never satisfied with anyone, or maybe you’re a softie who always sees the positives in peoples’ behavior, but to me, the key is in being able to afford yourself the benefit of the doubt at the same clip as that which you use for your judgment of other people.

    There are a lot of people who think they can do no wrong, and a lot of people who think they can do no right. I don’t see either of these as particularly desirable traits. Think of a person who has an over-inflated opinion of themselves. We all know at least one. Not an ideal person to be around. On the flip side, think of a person who doesn’t give themselves the credit they deserve. Often that person isn’t much fun either, but more pressingly, they’re not having fun with themselves, which is a shame.

    There is a distinction between forgiving yourself for imperfections you can’t change and allowing yourself to languish in mediocrity that could be addressed. And doing nothing about fixable flaws is OK in small doses, as well. It’s a bit like coaching a team or teaching a class; motivating yourself is similar to motivating others: hopefully you learn which buttons to push, and when to push each.

  32. Sooz responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 6:48 pm #

    I like this idea. Good food for thought. :)

  33. katie responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 7:02 pm #

    So needed this today – first day at a new job – and the negative self talk has been a wee bit out of control.

  34. Beth responded on 30 Apr 2012 at 7:58 pm #

    Hi there! I am a long time reader but just coming out of the woodwork today. I love your writing, Kate, and look forward to each new post.

    I don’t know if you are familiar with the movie “What the Bleep” but it’s a fascinating movie that you might enjoy. One of the major themes running through the film is about the effect that our thoughts have on our body, physically. One of the portions of the film references a study that photographed the physical effects of different thoughts on water. Here’s a link, not that references that study and shows some of the photos:

  35. Josephine responded on 01 May 2012 at 3:15 am #

    This was a very insightful post!

  36. StephC responded on 01 May 2012 at 5:36 am #

    I just found your blog through Already Pretty and I haven’t had such a blog crush in I-don’t-know-how-long. Thank you for writing all these wonderfully thoughtful pieces, I’m going to really enjoy reading through your backlog. (And I was so excited when I saw you are a grownup unschooler and had a magical childhood. ME TOO.)

    I used to guilt myself into working hard, too.. But then I realized that my work ethic is a part of who I am, and that being unkind to myself, beating myself up, setting ridiculous deadlines and sky-high expectations of what I *should* be doing *right now* was just a waste of creative energy. It definitely takes up some of my much-needed headspace to be negative.

  37. Alpana Trivedi responded on 01 May 2012 at 6:30 am #

    Hello, Kate. I’ve had people who sometimes say negative things to “motivate” me. And the reverse psychology can work sometimes if you’re inclined to prove people wrong. But as a way of life, I really don’t like “tough love.” I DO seem to need people to baby me and bring out the kid gloves. I’ve been told that’s not a good thing to admit, but I admit it anyway.

    I’ve also been told “Don’t let it know that it bothers you. People will mess with you even more.” I just don’t know how to do that. I believe I’ve accomplished things just by letting myself feel whatever I feel at the moment, be it negative or positive.

  38. Elena responded on 01 May 2012 at 7:21 am #

    Hi Kate,

    well I was reading this post. I didn’t understand what the title was all about. Then I read the sentence your therapist told you and I thought it’ll be good for me to think like that too. “I would keep it in my mind today”, I thought, because tomorrow I have to defend my thesis in front of a bunch of people and I’m quite scared they won’t like it.

    And then I kept reading. And my body somehow started reacting to your words. It trembled a little, like small electric bolts were running through it. All the hairs in my body stood still. And finally the tears came. I couldn’t read anymore… I calmed down. And kept on reading.

    Thanks a lot for these words. Maybe they were just what I needed to read, what I needed someone to tell me so I realized I can’t be so hard on my self because doing that is only pushing me down, not helping me whatsoever. Because as you say, it’s not about my ass, or the thesis, or that conference everyone told you was great even thought it was true you looked a little nervous. It is exactly about you telling yourself once and again you’ll fail and you’re not good enough. Well, enough of that then! Time to believe a little more in ourselves! That I’ll start right now : )

    Thanks again! Really, thank you.

  39. Nukrem responded on 01 May 2012 at 9:25 am #


    Thank you, your kindness really means a lot :) Parents are complicated matters anyway.

    All my courses are distance learning so I can’t really do anything about it. I’ve kind of been all on my own with as well so it’s tricky, which is why motivation is such a hard thing to find at the moment, espically when I find myself not agreeing with lots of things exams are about. But I guess it’s about trusting in myself that I’ll do the best I can in this moment and if it isn’t enough that’s still okay.

  40. Rapunzel responded on 01 May 2012 at 11:51 pm #

    I think I love you.

    No, not really. But I love what you write. And in Ron Weasley’s voice, you’re “bloody brilliant.”

    I hope it’s alright if I print this, because I’m going to read it all the time.

  41. Kate responded on 02 May 2012 at 12:51 am #

    I really enjoyed being called “bloody brilliant.” Ron is great.
    And if you end up loving me, that would be okay.

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  44. Mandy responded on 05 May 2012 at 11:53 am #

    Kate, you are so right about being encouraging to yourself.
    And, Val, I’ve been using the mantra “Be as good to yourself as you would be to your best friend” for years.

  45. Life [Comma] Etc responded on 09 May 2012 at 1:30 pm #

    This gives me such a strange mix of chuckling and trying not to sniffle at work. And then suddenly inspiration.

    “My poor, confused arms”…. I used to thank my feet in the shower for what a great job they did on the court after a given basketball game. Then suddenly they were the enemy. What gives?

  46. Betty responded on 14 May 2012 at 4:38 pm #

    “The point is, we need to stop believing that meanness is motivation. It’s not. At the end of its cycle, it gets wrung out into a puddle of guilt, which seeps into everything, so that everything is damp and uncomfortable.”

    Thank you. I needed to hear this today. I’m going through a lot of rough stuff with my job and finances and the stress means I’m eating more because I’m trying to keep from crying all day and…

    I just needed to be reminded that hating on myself because I’m coping *somehow* isn’t going to help. That I’ll come through anyway, even if I don’t waste energy being angry at myself for not somehow “doing more”, or not “coping better”.


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