Break Free From Your Inner Bully

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

An Introduction

I love jokes, comedy, and humor. Dad jokes are my number one choice of wisecracks. Those are my favorite because they’re light-hearted, and they usually don’t come at anyone’s expense. I actually just heard a really funny one the other day, here it goes:

“I was talking quietly with my wife the other day, and she asked why I was whispering. I joked that I was afraid Mark Zuckerberg could hear me. I laughed, my wife laughed, and then Siri and Alexa laughed.“

Hey Mark Zuckerberg, can you hear our conversations at home?

I’m not sure why, but this one gave me the gigs. It’s so pure, but it also manages to point out our lack of privacy in this day and age. It’s genius, and I love it so much. My point about telling this joke here is that these are the best kinds of jokes for most everyday situations. They don’t point out someone’s deficits or insecurities, like many middle or high school bully’s jokes do. 

Dad Jokes > Self-Deprecating Humor

In adulthood, we have all (hopefully) learned that bullying is a crappy thing to do. Most of us can’t resist roasting our friends when given a prime opportunity, but this can be totally healthy and fun for all parties involved. Sometimes, though, we take things too far.

We become too critical and relentless in the roasting, or we point out things others are genuinely insecure about, making them question their self-worth. I understand the importance of having a thick skin, and I do believe life is much more difficult if you don’t know how to let comments from others roll off your back. But what if the criticism is coming from you?

Me to myself everytime I make a self-deprecating joke

I’m not afraid to admit that making other people smile and laugh is one of my absolute favorite past times. I especially love it when a friend and I start laughing so hard we can’t breathe and tears roll down our cheeks. That’s life at its best, in my opinion. In my younger days, I did stoop down and tease others for laughs sometimes.

I wanted to fit in as we all do, and I obviously preferred to be laughed with than at. In high school, I decided I didn’t like potentially hurting others just to get a laugh. The bread and butter of my jokes started coming from self-deprecating humor. I figured it was fine because it wasn’t hurting anyone, and other people usually related to and laughed at what I joked about. 

Have you ever heard someone make a negative comment about themselves like “oh my gosh, I’m so fat”, and it makes you feel awkward and you don’t know what to say to smooth it over? Maybe you try “no you’re not” or join in and say “me too”. Perhaps you just give them a light laugh and hope they change the subject.

It took me a long time to notice how agonizing it can be when other people criticize themselves so harshly in my presence, and I now realize I probably made boatloads of people feel uncomfortable with my own comments. 

This realization occurred when a friend, and fellow dietetic intern, refrained from laughing at one of my self-deprecating jokes. After I made a comment about some negative aspects of my personality or body in a light-hearted tone, she refused to laugh. She looked me in the eye, and said in a deadpan voice, “you have to give yourself more credit, Erin.”

My friend’s face as she said, “you have to give yourself more credit, Erin.”

It knocked the wind out of me, and it shocked me to my core. It was so unlike any of the other responses I get from making jokes out of my flaws. Whenever I had done this in the past, people gave me a polite, sometimes awkward chuckle, and we moved on. Or if they did say something to the same effect, they said it behind a laugh, so it didn’t sink in. But she didn’t do that. She refused to give me the response I wanted, and it has stuck with me ever since.

Language is a powerful tool, and it can have constructive or harmful effects whether it comes from ourselves or somebody else. You have probably heard of people using mantras like saying “I am powerful, I am a warrior” or other phrases in the mirror to solidify the belief that they are such things. Saying and thinking negative things, whether joking or not, has the same effect. Calling yourself stupid, lazy, or chubby enough times, in your head or out loud, can make you believe you really are stupid, lazy, or chubby. 

I’d be one rich dietitian if I received a dollar every time I hear the phrase, “you are what you eat.” Even though my profession revolves around food, I think this phrase is B.S. You aren’t what you eat, you are what you think, say, and do. And if you constantly think terrible thoughts about yourself, say mean things about your belly, and harm your body with restrictive diets and compulsive exercise, you’re a relentless bully. You’re a relentless bully to you. 

Yes, bully, you.

Let’s Work on Self-Talk

Unfortunately, most of us have been thinking or saying mean things about ourselves for as long as we can remember. We can’t flip a switch and replace our negative self-image with a positive one overnight. These are deeply-rooted thought patterns and habits, and it will take some time to stop tearing yourself down by commenting on your thunder thighs and cursing your muffin top. 

In the book Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, she compares attempting to improve your self-talk with training a puppy to go potty on a newspaper, “You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper. So I keep trying gently to bring my mind back to what is really there to be seen, maybe to be seen and noted with a kind of reverence.”

Any time I can include a puppy, I will do it. You have my word.

Reframing your thoughts, words, and actions toward your body and your eating habits can be done, but it’s a long and slow process. My journey started with my intern friend refusing to laugh at my joke, and it caused me to choose the words I use about myself much more carefully. From there, I noticed my thoughts getting less and less hateful over time. 

I have also found it incredibly helpful to try to talk to myself like I would a dear friend or family member. I would never make mean comments to a friend if I saw them going back for seconds, and I would never tell them they were worthless if they skipped a day of exercise. When your negative inner monologue starts going off, try to picture yourself talking to a kid version of you, or a beloved friend or family member. And give yourself a darn break.

Eventually, I was able to look in the mirror and see an honest, thoughtful person doing her best, not one with too many chins and stray eyebrow hairs like I used to. Well, to be clear, I do actually see those things, they just don’t bother me as much anymore. Because my language toward myself has changed over time, I am able to shake it off when I accidentally eat a little bit past fullness and feel bloated or I make a simple mistake like all humans do. Of course, I can still say mean things to myself occasionally, but I’m not nearly as persistent as I used to be.

Me thinking “oh well” after I see a pic of myself with 3 chins

In Conclusion

Diet culture has made it too easy for us to get into the habit of bullying ourselves about our weight, what we choose to eat, and how much exercise we do. Many of us feel that our self-worth is tied to these factors, which is why so many people joke about their tummy or back fat or call themselves fat-fearing names. I can only speak from my experience, but having somebody refrain from laughing at my self-deprecating jokes was jarring, and made me think long and hard about the harm I was causing myself on a regular basis.

We can burn these notions, and diet culture as a whole, to the ground, but we have to work together. If a loved one constantly makes negative comments or jokes about themselves, be brave and don’t take the easy way out by criticizing yourself too or just giving an awkward laugh. Stand your ground and and maybe use the, “you have to give yourself more credit” line. And if you find yourself constantly making jokes at your own expense, give dad jokes a try. You, and your self image, won’t regret it.

That’s a real knee-slapper

Do you have a favorite dad joke? Leave it in the comments below!

As Always, A Book Recommendation

Self-help books used to be my favorite genre. I loved the rush of adrenaline and possibility I got from picking up a new one as I envisioned how this particular book would change my life forever.

I have largely gotten away from the self-help genre, as I find other types of books much more fascinating now. Regardless, one book that has stood the test of time for me personally is You Are a Badass By Jen Sincero. This book won’t be everyone’s cup of tea- it can be a bit cheesy and even a little woo-woo sometimes, but I still think about its message regularly.

In You Are a Badass, Jen Sincero uses stories and other anecdotes to get us to see that, for most of us, we are our own worst enemy. Many of us suffer from a major lack of confidence, and as a result, we spend so much time overanalyzing that we don’t actually do anything.

This book delivers plenty humor and honesty, and I love it because it feels like Jen is sitting me down and delivering harsh truths that I need.

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