“I’ve forgotten my keys again. I’m such an idiot!”
“These glasses make me look so old.”
“Ugh! I look horrible in this outfit.”
“Another job rejection. I’m a loser.”
How many times have we spoken words like this out loud, or said them silently in our heads? For some people, a steady stream of self-criticism dominates their inner dialogue. Their negative thoughts might be so pervasive that they barely notice them anymore. They might be convinced that they deserve the unkind thoughts that pop into their head.
While Islam does promote humility, being extremely hard on ourselves is not the way of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. Sincere Muslims should definitely take an honest look at their weaknesses and strive to improve, but they should not be unduly harsh with themselves. Islam is a religion of moderation, mercy, and gentleness. Those core values should influence the way we treat others and the way we treat ourselves.
When the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, looked in the mirror, he used to make the following dua:
“O Allah, just as You have made my external features beautiful, make my character beautiful as well.” (Sahih Ibn Hibban 959)
How many of us follow that particular Sunnah? For many of us, it is more likely that we will grimace at our reflection as we scrutinize each and every flaw, wrinkle, or blemish. While we may not be as strikingly beautiful as the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, was, we are nevertheless creations of Allah, and He chose each and every one of our features purposely. We are beautiful in the mere fact that we are His handiwork, and He makes no mistakes. Instead of griping about our perceived shortcomings and pointing out all our flaws, we should focus on expressing gratitude for the bodies and abilities He has given us. Self-bullying has no place in Islam.
What is self-bullying?
According to Christine Arylo, a leadership advisor and teacher, “Self-bullying is the act of pushing, pressuring, judging, and criticizing yourself to do, feel, and think in ways that hurt or sabotage you.”1
In some cultures, self-deprecation might be encouraged and interpreted as a sign of modesty. But there is a difference between humbly saying “Alhamdullilah” (all praise and thanks are to Allah alone) when we receive a compliment, for instance, and constantly berating and belittling ourselves. We should beware of repeating unkind words to ourselves – out loud or silently – because we are likely to believe a repeated narrative, whether it’s good or bad. Because of the Illusory Truth Effect, people tend to believe information is true after repeated exposure to it, even if it's false. So, if we keep feeding ourselves negative messages, we will come to believe them, and this will limit our potential and adversely affect our mood and mental health.
We are not the only ones who suffer when we bully ourselves. Our children are observing us, and our unhealthy behavior can harm them. “However you talk about yourself out loud, your children are picking that up,” says child psychologist Janet Lydecker, a professor at Yale School of Medicine. When you trash-talk your appearance or your abilities, you may be teaching your kids to feel bad about themselves, too.”2
According to an article entitled Why You Shouldn’t Criticize Yourself in Front of Your Kids, “Studies on parents’ negative self-talk have mostly focused on weight, body image, and disordered eating. For example, a 2010 study of 356 teenage girls showed that when parents talked about their own weight at home, their kids were more likely to demonstrate ‘extreme weight-control behaviors’ like skipping meals or taking diet pills.”3
But kids absorb more than just our insecurities related to body image. “When parents disparage their own talents or intelligence,” says Michael Whitehead, a marriage and family therapist, “children will do the same.”
Basically, if our children see us being harshly critical or unkind to ourselves for any reason, they are likely to mimic that behavior. Surely this is not a cycle we want to perpetuate.
So what can we do if we have a habit of self-bullying?
Here are some steps you can take to change your own behavior.
1. Recognize the pattern.
“The first step in transforming negative self-talk and self-bullying is self-awareness — becoming aware that you have this inner force within you forming your thoughts, emotions and actions,” says Arylo.4 We cannot change what we do not acknowledge, so we must first take an honest look at the way we speak to ourselves and recognize that it might be negatively affecting our mental health, and possibly our children's, too.
2. Replace a bad habit (negative self-talk) with a good one (positive self-talk).
“By focusing on creating new, productive habits — including positive self-talk — we are actually forcing tiny dendrites and neurons to grow in our brain,” says Donna Rockwell, PsyD. “The more we practice the new habit, the more those neurons connect to each other and become wired together. Because they are now wired together, they fire together, and voila, the result is a change in our behavior. We’re simply trading one habit for another, and in the process, creating a brand new neural network. This rewiring process is called neuroplasticity, and it just happens to be the result of a healthy habit you can start right now.”5
3. Teach our children that everyone has an internal monologue.
And, with practice, we can use that self-talk or inner talk constructively. Instead of berating ourselves when we make a mistake, for instance, we can practice speaking patiently and productively. Here is an example.
I’ve spilled a pitcher of milk all over the table.
What should I do first? Do I need to ask for help, or can I solve this by myself?
First, I should move the laptop away so it doesn’t get wet.
Then I should get some towels.
If we model healthy self-talk, our children will learn to face their own setbacks with proactive steps instead of shame, helplessness, or self-hate.
When addressing the topic of bullying, many parents remember to warn children about the unkind kids on the playground or the meanies on social media. How many of us remember to discuss the danger of self-bullying? How many of us recognize that sometimes we can be our own worst enemy?
Aisha reported that the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
“Allah is gentle and loves gentleness.”
(Sahih Muslim #2593)
Of all the voices we hear on a day-to-day basis, our own inner voice is the most frequent and impactful. Therefore we should ensure that we are speaking to ourselves in a helpful, gentle, and healthy way. It will make an enormous impact on our own well-being, as well as our children’s.
Laura El Alam is a freelance writer and editor and the author of the book Made From the Same Dough, as well as over 100 published articles. A wife and mother of five, Laura lives with her family in Massachusetts. You can visit her online at www.seaglasswritingandediting.com.f