When I was 12 years old, I was bullied by my best friend. She and I had been inseparable for years: playing basketball after school each night, attending church together, chatting for hours on the phone. So when she suddenly dropped me as a friend and cunningly created an army of fellow seventh-grade girls to simultaneously protect her and fight me — a move worthy of Cersei Lannister — it was a straight kick to the gut; a literal heartbreak of the gold Best Friends Forever necklace we had bought together at our local shopping mall.
Her personal vendetta against me turned so ugly that I would regularly fake being sick to stay home from school. Even the principal’s eventual involvement barely made her flinch. It was only through time and patience and strict observance from the adults around us that I was able to finish off the year without suffering another anxiety attack. But our friendship and my self-esteem concerning female relationships were irrevocably damaged. I ended up changing schools the following fall, and thankfully, I never saw or heard from her again.
After some self-reflection and therapy, I was able to forge new healthy friendships with other women in high school and university. I had a healthy self-image and I felt free to be myself around others. I felt like the sixth Spice Girl, an ambassador of female friendships and #GirlPower. Like braces and aggressive hickies, I thought that my experience with bullies would be over post-adolescence.
Unfortunately, I was wrong. Whether it was the co-worker whose constant silence sliced like a knife whenever I entered our shared office or the new “girlfriend” who only wanted me around to build herself up or the woman at the gym who berated and threatened me when I gathered up the courage to call her out on her dishonesty, my experience has proven that some mean girls only grow up to be mean women.
I’m not alone either. Many female friends have shared with me their own experiences of dealing with grown-up Regina Georges. One fought to get her female friend a job at her company only for her friend to go behind her back in an attempt to take her job. Another had a sneaky female boss who asked her to spy on other employees and report back whatever dirt she could find on them. Another had a mean girl as a “friend” who ended up turning an entire neighborhood against her simply because my friend had wanted some space from their friendship.
So what’s the deal with these mean women? Quite simply, “Adult mean girls are grown women who are bitter and/or insecure,” says individual and couples therapist Irina Firstein. “Sometimes they have been bullied or had mean friends or sisters in childhood. They normally are also jealous and competitive with other women. They are threatened by women and threaten first.” She adds, “Also, bullies can smell a potential victim who can’t defend themselves and will [unfortunately] take the abusiveness.”
Common grown-up mean girl scenarios that Firstein has counseled involve everything from a female boss abusing her power to highly competitive co-workers to a female who inserts herself between two close friends and tries to “win” one of them over, leaving the other in the cold.
So what do you do if you find yourself encountering a grown-up mean girl? “In general, adult bullies, just like young ones, respond to assertiveness and confrontation,” says Firstein. “So when possible, they should be called out on their behavior.” And the sooner you call out your bully on their mean ways, the better. “I don’t suggest passively taking in [their abuse] as a long-term approach,” says Firstein. “[Constant bullying] is traumatic and can cause depression and/or self-esteem issues.”
If the bullying has occurred in a casual environment, such as the gym or at a church group, Firstein suggests walking away if she’s a stranger. “If it is someone who you know, you may want to have a conversation and ask what is going on? Being assertive and not showing fear usually helps to tame the mean girl. If you’re in a casual environment like a gym, and things get contentious, you might want to seek help from a manager.”
And if the grown-up mean girl is your boss? “I would say stay away,” says Firstein. “You can and sometimes should stand up for yourself, but be prepared to potentially lose your job.” Also, contacting HR about your concerns regarding your boss is always a must before you speak directly to the Miranda Priestly in your life.
But perhaps the biggest question remains: With women fighting for unity and equality, why are we still so divided?
“I think there are more adult female bullies than male because women feel more victimized than men in general,” says Firstein. “They may feel that they have had less opportunities than men in the workplace and may feel angry or bitter about it. There is also a lot of competition and disappointment on the single scene for women, so they may also feel mistreated and bad about themselves.”
To paraphrase Tina Fey in Mean Girls, we’ve all got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it OK for guys to call us sluts and whores. We should welcome one another to sit with us whether we wear pink on Wednesdays or not. Because when women work together, we are unstoppable.