My daughter came home from the park sobbing one day. “They left without me, Mom!” she cried into my arms. “They saw me coming and they ran off!” She could barely take a breath.
My heart instantly started pounding and also breaking for her, knowing she was talking about her two friends. “I’m sure they didn’t do it on purpose,” I said half-heartedly.
“I know they saw me, Mom,” she cried some more.
This girl has the heart of a lion — fierce, strong, and loyal, so tender, hanging right on her sleeve. She held back nothing in her tears, just as she holds back nothing with her friends, giving them all her love. The desire to soothe her with placations coursed through me. I hated to see her so distraught. But as I opened my mouth to try and make it okay, I realized that in fact it wasn’t.
My own friendship experiences as an almost 40-year-old woman proved hauntingly similar to the scene she had just witnessed at the park, and I knew how deep those wounds cut. Instead of trying to minimize the damage with empty excuses, I made the split-second decision to join her in her pain.
“I know how you feel,” I told her. “The same thing happens to me.” Her crying quieted down, and she looked up, intrigued. That doesn’t happen very often, my children wanting me to keep talking, so I seized the moment.
“Even grown-up girls have a hard time with friendships,” I said. “I have friends that get together without me, and it makes me feel bad.” The truth of it stung even as I said it. My sweet lovely daughter smiled at me with empathy. “And I’m sure at some point I have been one of the girls in a group when someone else felt left out.” She nodded at that. “Friendship can be hard,” we agreed.
“I still think those girls are mean,” she said. “They wanted me to know they were doing something together without me.”
I knew what that felt like too. So I shared with her a special trick I use to help me decide who is a good friend and who might not be. When my feelings are hurt by a friend, I ask myself three things:
1. Have I felt this way because of this person before?
2. Does this person make me feel bad more often than they make me feel good?
3. Have they done hurtful things to other people that I have been glad wasn’t me?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, the friend is being mean on purpose. If the answer to all of these questions is no, then they probably just made a mistake and likely feel bad about it in hindsight. My daughter answered no to all of these questions and decided she could forgive her friends their small indiscretion.
“But why?” she asked. “Why would someone be mean on purpose?”
I realized quickly the most common driving force behind a mean friend: jealousy. Mean people are mean because they feel insecure. They are threatened by someone else shining just a little too bright, rising up a little too high, having something they don’t have. They work to take you down a notch just to even the score.
I kept the explanation simple, not wanting to taint her with how dark these things can get; excluding, gossiping, destroying other friendships, undermining with insults. All of the workings of a jealous person. You would think others would notice such behaviors and steer clear, but it happens quietly. The insults come with smiles. Spoken under the breath where no one else can hear, wrapped in ribbons and bows so the receiver doesn’t realize what has been handed to them until it’s too late. Only after does it start to sting.
Mean girls in particular can fly under the radar for days, appearing to others as charismatic. Girls who pull off this type of behavior are socially savvy and highly orchestrated. It is painful and confusing to be on the receiving end. It makes you feel a bit crazy. You might ask yourself questions like, did I do something wrong I have no idea about? How did I cause this person to become so angry with me? Did they just light me on fire to watch me burn?
It sounds dramatic, I know. But it is. Calmly, quietly, covertly, dramatic as hell. They can convince themselves that you deserve it, that you are the one causing it all. They will try and convince you, too. If erodes self-esteem and self-worth. It can lead to depression, anxiety, feelings of loneliness, and isolation. Even for adults.
I asked my daughter if she wanted me to help her talk to her friends, to tell them how she felt. She said no, she was okay. I reminded her that I love her no matter what, all the time, for exactly who she is. As I said it, I realized I held the antidote to jealousy right in my hands, that I could give it to my beautiful daughter as a life skill, a tool for the hard times, the complicated times, the times when friends are mean and everything feels dark. I hope that never happens to her in the first place, but it is unlikely, unfortunately. If I can’t stop it from happening, I want her to at least know what to do. You see, the antidote to jealousy is security, and it works both ways.
Feelings of security buffer the negative blows when jealousy is thrown at you like a grenade, and it works to buffer your own feelings of jealousy from growing into a bomb. The key to raising daughters who are kind even when they are jealous, because everyone feels jealous sometimes, is to sew inside them the resounding truth that they are good regardless of whatever else is going on. When we are secure in love, acceptance, and safety, we don’t need to be jealous of anything.
Hugging her, I said, “Everyone has their turn.” She looked at me funny, not knowing what I meant. “It’s okay to feel jealous of others. Your friends might have been jealous of you for some reason. When you feel jealous, remember that everyone’s turn to shine looks different. Being a good friend means letting your friends have their turn, knowing you will have yours too. The best friends share their shine and use it to make everyone feel good. But when you find yourself feeling jealous, take a deep breath and come talk to me. I’ll remind you how awesome you are and how bright your light is all on its own.”
I want my daughter to know there will always be mean girls, girls who compare, girls who judge. But there will always be more girls who love and support and cheer each other on no matter what. Look for those girls. Be those girls. They are the best friends anyone can have. And if you’re feeling jealous of someone who seems like they have it all, don’t take it out on them. Find someone who will remind you how great you are, and trust that your turn to shine will come if you let it.
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