Monica Lewinsky is a producer, social activist and a global public speaker who advocates for a safer social media environment and addresses such topics as digital resilience and reputation, privacy, cultivating compassion, overcoming shame, and equality. Her TED Talk “The Price of Shame” has been viewed nearly 22 million times. Her new awareness campaign called “Stand Up to Yourself” examines the role of self-bullying and self-shaming. She shared her personal experience with self-bullying and the tools she uses to silence negative thoughts with TODAY.com.
I reluctantly call myself “patient zero” of internet bullying. I went to bed one night in 1998 a private person and awakened the next day instantly public, known around the globe. It might have been before social media, but trust me that news websites, comment sections and chat rooms could do a lot of damage (not to mention the jokes passed around like memes via email). Though I’d lost my online reputation before social media was even invented, I still encountered a tsunami of hate.
It was a different kind of bullying than what I experienced when I was in grade school and high school because, back then, there was no internet. What happened at school, stayed at school (though of course the emotional bruises came home with me). Social media crept into our lives and changed everything. Not only for me, who had a reputation that preceded Twitter and Facebook, but even for those with stories more private and anonymous than mine.
In the fall of 2010, I had been talking to my mom about the tragic story of Tyler Clemente. And I came to see it through her lens, this story of a young college student who was secretly filmed being intimate with another man by his roommate, who then posted it online. Clemente was so humiliated that he jumped from the George Washington Bridge to his death. He was only 18. After what happened to me in 1998, my mom was devastated for Tyler’s family. The intensity of her reaction made me realize we were living in a world where people who were completely private (and completely innocent) were finding themselves as victims of public shaming. I’d hoped that in this new, shifting landscape, maybe my own experiences of surviving public humiliation and shaming could be of value — and help me give a purpose to my past.
For Bullying Prevention Month 2023, our campaign is looking inward, at the bullies we all know too well — and the ones who may be our harshest critics: ourselves. Maybe the Dalai Lama doesn’t have a negative voice in his head, but I’m pretty sure everyone else does, to some degree.
The inspiration for the “Stand Up to Yourself” campaign came from an experience I had over 10 years ago at a seminar that I attended anonymously. In one exercise, they put us in a group of three people and asked us to write down a list of all the negative things that the voice in our head said to us. It was an easy assignment because I could effortlessly write page after page of negative comments. But then, the twist, they made us read our list out loud to the other people in our group and it was a completely transformative experience for me. To hear myself say out loud the things that I was saying silently brought me to tears. I not only recognized how cruel I was being to myself, but how I was internalizing this cruelty, too.
We can be our own worst enemy, which is obviously not helpful or healthy. We’ll never fully eradicate that negative voice in our heads, but we can shift it. We can quiet it at times and even begin to see subtle changes in how we automatically talk to ourselves. I have worked tirelessly on my silent bully and yet my friends would probably tell you I’m still not as kind about myself as I could be.
In my personal work, I try to focus on the three Rs: Recognize that you’re saying negative things to yourself, reflect on whether you’d say these negative things to someone you loved, and if these negative thoughts aren’t serving you in some way, then refocus. (My therapist spends a lot of energy reminding me that even a neutral perspective can be an act of gentleness with oneself.)
Silencing or shutting down the negative thoughts in my head gives me a lightness of being and creates a space for more positive things to grow in my life. Our most intimate relationships are valuable because they remind us of who we really are. And our most intimate relationship is with the person we talk to our entire lives: Ourselves.