Dealing With Grown-Up ‘Mean Girls’

I was packing up my things after a teacher training in a K-8 school when a woman stopped me. Her pained expression was as familiar as what she confessed; “I’m a pushover. I hate conflict. I avoid other teachers and parents. It happens in my other relationships. I feel like we don’t grow past ‘Mean Girls.’ We just get older.”

Over the years, women have reached out to me bewildered, frustrated and paralyzed by their inability to get past mean-girl behavior, even as adults. As the author of the book that was the basis for the movie “Mean Girls,” I have worked with girls and young women to navigate the complexities of their social world for more than two decades.

We complain about women undermining each other at work. We find ourselves in friendships with adult women that feel just as judgmental as the ones many of us experienced in middle school. Recently, we read about one of those in Natalie Beach’s confessional about her dysfunctional friendship with Instagram influencer Caroline Calloway.

We see it, we experience it, and we are silenced by it.

Indirect Anger

While cliques and social isolation can cause significant health concerns, they are not entirely the problem. One of the big problems affecting women’s relationships with men as well as with one another is that women are raised to express their anger indirectly. We tend to run from hard conversations, choke on our words and let relationships dissolve.

What does it look like when women believe they can’t express their anger directly? Just as in the destructive patterns in adolescence, women can be both the victims and the villains in these scenarios. Perhaps one or more of the following behaviors is familiar.

Suffer in Silence

Many of us say nothing to the person we are angry with while we beat ourselves up about how we’re too sensitive or insecure.

Blow Up Over Something Small

When the “small” things build, so does our resentment — until we blow up. The blow up may look overly emotional to others. But it’s not. We’re displacing our anger about all the things that came before it.

Over Apologize

It’s appropriate to apologize if you express your anger in a way that has taken someone’s dignity away, but apologizing because you expressed your opinions, ideas or feelings of anger takes away your dignity.

Pretend to Vent

Ever called up a friend to “vent” about someone else, but you’re really just talking behind that person’s back? Venting is processing your feelings with someone so we can think about a situation more clearly. Talking behind someone’s back is trying to undermine the reputation of someone else. Big difference.

Laugh as a Defense Mechanism

Most of us have had the experience of “laughing” or smiling awkwardly in response to a sexist or offensive comment or to deal with a person who is ridiculing issues and ideas we value.

Give the Silent Treatment

We give people the silent treatment until (hopefully) they notice and ask what’s wrong. When asked, we often still feel unable to share what we feel so we say, “It’s fine.” But we continue to hold on to our anger because the problem remains.

Hide Behind Social Media

There are countless ways we do this, but here are a few: Not liking other people’s recent posts in hopes they notice, subtweeting (posting without directly naming or addressing the person who we are posting about), taking screenshots of the texts or posts of the person we are angry with and then sharing with the person we are “venting” to (see above).

Express Rage, but in a ‘Safe' Way

Sometimes we feel entitled to have self-righteous “call out” temper tantrums in response to mean-girl behavior. But here’s the thing about safe raging: We only go after people who we perceive don’t have the power to negatively impact our lives. When we must have hard conversations with people who do have that power, most safe ragers resort back to the indirect expressions of anger described above.

In these moments, we feel, but often can’t put into words, that our dignity, our sense of inherent worth, is denied. And that makes us even more mad.

Coping More Effectively

So how do we deal with the mess?

Anger is an emotion that tells us something is wrong. That’s a good thing when we know how to process it effectively and then communicate it appropriately. Paying attention to the feeling when we have it and asking ourselves a few simple but powerful questions is essential to our well-being, whether we are the ones getting quiet or the ones being mean.

Why am I actually angry right now?

Do I feel as if this person or the situation is trying to take away my sense of worth?

Do I feel as if I can speak out?

If not, why not?

We are all in many different types of relationships, from the fleeting interactions we have in a parking lot, to a family member or colleague we have to put up with, to our closest relationships that we are in for the long haul. But they all require the same foundation of managing ourselves with the following principles.

Value Dignity Over Politeness

Being kind and polite is important. But when we are interacting with someone who is denying our dignity, kindness is not called for; demanding our dignity is. When we are grounded in our sense of worth, we can more easily value others’ dignity while projecting authentic power, empathy and grace.

Listen to Criticism

When we make mistakes, we must be able to accept criticism without automatically labeling that criticism as “mean.” If someone gives us feedback that feels disrespectful, then we need to address that. But if someone critiques us because they want the best for us, that’s a gift.

Face Your Fears

We can’t undo generations of cultural baggage in a day. But we can start small and practice. Remember conflict is going to happen and we are all capable of handling conflict with dignity. And when we find ourselves in infuriating situations that threaten to derail us, these prompts can help us get back on track:

Help me understand … (say what made you angry)

Tell me more …

When we need to initiate the conversation, we can admit this is difficult without taking away the power of our words. We can say:

This is really hard to tell you because I value our friendship …

I haven’t told you how I felt before because …

It’s uncomfortable to tell you about something that’s upsetting me because I’m worried about …(say what’s making you angry).

The stakes are high. But we’ll never accomplish our goals if we can’t get beyond mean-girl behavior that makes it easier for others to dismiss us.

Rosalind Wiseman is the author of “Queen Bees & Wannabes,” the book that inspired the hit movie and musical “Mean Girls,” and the founder of Cultures of Dignity, an organization that fosters civil dialogue and inspires communities to build strength, courage and purpose.

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