The truth is, Mean Girls often grow up to become Mean Women. You may work with one (or more), serve on the parent-teacher committee at your kids' school together, even sit next to one at every family get-together. Can you change them? Probably not. Can you change how you interact with them – for the better? Definitely.
We spoke with psychologist Dr. Joan I. Rosenberg, co-author (with Dr. Erika Holiday), of Mean Girls, Meaner Women: Understanding Why Women Backstab, Betray & Trash-Talk Each Other – And How To Heal, to get the lowdown on female bullies and how you can keep them from dragging you to their level of cattiness.
Understand what makes mean women tick
Mean women are often unhappy women. Although that doesn't justify their behaviour, knowing this may help you feel better about yourself. (It's not you: it's her.)
"Women often use meanness as a coping strategy," says Rosenberg. "Many girls and women have a hard time tolerating or managing 'difficult' emotions like being angry, competitive, jealous, envious or even aggressive." Females are traditionally expected to suppress these feelings, while males, on the other hand, get more opportunities to manage them, primarily though rough-and-tumble play and sports.
"As a consequence, when women experience these feelings, they tend not to manage them well and either turn the feelings against themselves (eating disorders or self-mutilation) or externally against other women," says Rosenberg.
It's easy to turn on a woman who is seen as a rival or who is perceived as "different" (e.g., way less or way more good-looking, who may not speak English as her first language, who is much older or much younger, etc.), singling her out for gossip, exclusion or outright hostility.
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Understand what makes you tick
When we find ourselves at the receiving end of a Mean Woman's ire, we may find ourselves paralyzed and unsure what to do. Common thoughts may include:
Am I imagining this, or did she just say what I think she did?
Should I tell her off or will that just make things worse?
What will everyone think of me if I tell her what I really think of her?
So, we often say nothing, for fear of being seen as the "bitch" or the "paranoid one."
"Women hold onto the details of being hurt and keep trying to make the relationship itself work," rather than "talk[ing] directly with the woman or women who hurt her, about what she's feeling or what she wants," says Dr. Rosenberg.
Know what you have to do
If you're being treated unkindly, you need to speak up, whether your harasser is a colleague, another mom in your informal playgroup, or your mother in law.
"Address the feelings directly. Be authentic and genuine," says Rosenberg. Describe what you're feeling truthfully and with good intentions. Then ask her nicely to stop the behaviour that's bothering you.
The next step is yours: "Let it go," says Rosenberg. No resentment, no harbouring ill feelings.
Best-case scenario: Your tormentor never realized she was upsetting you, and she'll stop.
Worst-case scenario: She won't leave you alone. But at least you've taken the proactive step of letting her know your feelings, and she can't plead ignorance down the line. (In a workplace setting, you're now ready to document any continued harassment and enlist your manager and HR department in getting a catty coworker off your back.)
"Know that being the target of bullying isn't about you at all," says Rosenberg. "Women who hurt other women get their 'significance,' or a sense of specialness, from making others feel insignificant."
So move on. Take care of yourself: Eat well, work out, get enough sleep. Surround yourself with allies: Friends, loved ones and supportive coworkers whose positive opinion of you cancels out the negative messages from the bully. Treat yourself and others with dignity, and maintain your sense of humour.
"Women who feel good about themselves have no need to hurt other women," so cultivate relationships with them (and be one yourself!), says Rosenberg.
After all, living well truly is the best revenge.
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