When my boys were small, we had frequent discussions about bullying — what to do if they saw it or experienced it. I laid out the different ways kids can be bullied: physically, mentally, and emotionally, and throughout their early school years, the other moms and I were always on high alert for the faintest whiff of bullying. Once the kids hit high school, most of us believed we’d given our children a hefty toolbox that would help them combat bullying.
But what about us? Who prepared us for grown-up mean girls?
Throughout most of my adult life, I’ve been surrounded by wonderful, welcoming women — the kind who go out of their way to include newcomers, lift up those who hurt, and feel women should support one another.
Everything changed when I moved from San Francisco to the DC exurbs. I found myself immersed in a toxic world of aging Alpha Females who were desperate to hold onto their youth, and if anyone stepped the slightest bit out of line, they’d tear them down with nasty glances, blatant exclusion, and knives in the back.
I was fascinated. It reminded me of high school shoved into better dressed and surgically altered bodies. These women hid behind the facades of being kind in the “bless her heart” way, but truthfully, they circled like sharks at the first hint of weakness or at any perceived threat to their territory. If a newcomer didn’t have the right look, the right house, or the right kind of kids or husband, they weren’t acknowledged. In fact, they were often gossiped about and ridiculed.
After a few years of observing this ruthlessness and the destruction it left, I felt I had a clear picture of how adult women bully each other, and I wrote a novel based on my observations. The response to the book fell into two camps: the first reaction was that real adult women do not behave like this; the second reaction was, unfortunately, that it hit too close to home. Among readers who had experienced adult bullying, they cited 5 different ways women bully each other:
This can be subtle like posting and tagging pictures to someone on Facebook of a get-together they weren’t invited to, or it can be blatant like making plans in front of someone and not asking if they’d like to come. Granted, no one is obligated to invite you anywhere, but there’s a clear, definite line between being kind and being mean.
Inclusion Upon Rules
This is where the group puts pressure on themselves to look or behave in a certain way. Like in the movie “Mean Girls” where they always wear pink on Wednesdays, adult women will bully each other into what they deem socially acceptable. This is why eating disorders, anxiety, and depression runs rampant among these groups of adult women.
Have you ever walked into an event, party, school, really anything, and not known a single person? It can be nerve wracking, but someone will usually make small talk with you. Now imagine if you walked into that same party and knew several of the women there. They don’t acknowledge you, let alone invite you over. In fact, and surely you’re imagining it, they seem to be making fun of you. They laugh, turn their backs, huddle around a phone, laugh some more. Maybe you’re going crazy? Maybe it’s in your head?
I think this is rarer among women than men, but spilled drinks definitely fall in this category. So does shoving someone into a wall or casually bumping into them. The goal here is to intimidate in a physical way.
Think about all those ’80s and ’90s movies we watched as kids. There was normally a character who was openly ridiculed and mocked. Mean women do this to each other. They gossip. They spread rumors. They report things “out of concern.” They try to elevate themselves by knocking others down.
When you experience bullying, it’s hard to know what to do. After all, adult women know better, right?
Bullying has no age limit and too many women fall victim to the faux-sisterhood of female empowerment in which the only requirement is ripping other women to shreds. That’s not the kind of “girl gang” anyone should want to belong to, but it is oddly alluring when it seems like you’re the only one left out.
Unfortunately, the toolbox I made for my kids doesn’t work with adult bullies outside the workplace. There is no one to report the bullies to, and there are no consequences for exclusion, gossip, or weight-shaming.
So what do you do?
After talking to dozens of women who have experienced woman-on-woman bullying, I’ve discovered our most important tool is self-care. Here are a few ways to protect yourself when being bullied.
Get off social media, or block the women who bully you.
Social media is a weird place. It can help us keep in touch with people we care about, but it also can make us feel awful. If seeing pictures of get-togethers you weren’t invited to hurts, or you suffer from FOMO, or you are trying to keep tabs on your bully, you need to pause your social media. At the very least, block the women causing you pain. They aren’t your friends and do not need access to your (social media) life. While hitting the block button or getting off Facebook can be scary, it’s also liberating to cut toxic relationships from your life.
Talk to a trusted friend/sibling/partner.
Nearly every woman I know has experienced some form of bullying. By sharing our stories, we realize we are not alone and having a sympathetic ear can help frame our hurt in a more understandable way and validate our feelings.
Talk to clergy or a therapist.
If you find yourself in a position where you don’t have a close friend to talk to, speaking to a therapist or clergy member can help you sort through your feelings and identify steps to bring more peace into your life. These people are wonderful at helping us step back and see the bigger picture that sometimes becomes lost when we’re consumed by the pain of bullying.
Bullying breaks down our self-esteem and can make us doubt our worth. It may be difficult, but try focusing on three positive attributes you possess. Remind yourself of them daily and give yourself permission to believe them.
Write it down.
As tempting as it may be to lash out, engaging with a bully often results in increased bullying. If you need to say angry things, write it down. The act of putting our thoughts on paper can release the pent up anger we have over our circumstances and help us see the situation more clearly. Personally, when I tear up the letters, I feel free of my frustration and hurt.
This is the toughest one, but I feel it is the most important. When we forgive, it’s not an absolution of someone else’s hurtful actions so much as a tool that allows us to move forward without pain. You do not have to tell your bully you forgive them, but trying to understand what exactly makes your bully act in the way they do, can bring clarity to the situation. Hurt people hurt people. Forgiveness heals.
If you are being bullied, you do not need to suffer, and you are not alone. Like kids, we do have a toolbox, and we can push back against bullying by taking care of ourselves emotionally, mentally, and physically.
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