While more head-scratching than gutting, the experience nonetheless worm-holed me back to high school, when I was tormented by a best friend who turned on me without warning, taking with her some of the meanest girls in our grade as her cheering section.
We never really leave the high school cafeteria. Even as an adult, I still recognize the former jocks, burnouts and prom queens — older and perhaps more mellowed but with their “Breakfast Club” essence intact. After experiencing my latest snub while volunteering, I had to wonder: Do mean girls just grow up to be mean old ladies?
“I don’t like the phrase ‘mean girls,’ ” says Rachel Simmons, correcting me as soon as we get on the phone. Simmons, an educator, bullying expert and the author of multiple books including “Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls,” prefers to use “aggressive” instead. “Aggression is a human impulse,” she continues. “Everyone has the capacity to be aggressive.” (By middle school, Simmons says, boys pull even with girls in terms of engaging in psychological aggression. For this article, I focused on my own experiences with girls and women.)
In her research for “Odd Girl Out,” Simmons spoke to teachers in early-childhood development. “In kindergarten, the teachers could identify those girls who would be trouble in middle school,” she told me. These girls shared certain character traits: They were natural leaders, highly precocious and especially good at navigating relationships.
According to Simmons, the same attributes that allow girls to be socially intelligent also allow them to be aggressive. “They are drawing from the same skill set,” she says, adding, “Social intelligence is about being savvy enough to understand people and relationships. These are the same skills girls deploy when they launch lobbying campaigns to turn peers into a target, or to figure out just the right insult that will cut someone down.”
“Girls tend to use their highly attuned social antennae, instead of their fists, to wage war on other girls,” Emily Bazelon wrote in her 2013 book, “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy.” “Girls can better understand how other girls feel,” she continued, quoting the work of Scandinavian psychologist Kaj Bjorkqvist, “so they know better how to harm them.”
It’s a lifelong skill. “The same behaviors that worked in childhood still work now,” says Cheryl Dellasega, author of six books, including “Surviving Ophelia” and “Mean Girls Grown Up.” “It’s what’s made them popular, because very rarely were they challenged.” What’s more, she continues, “by going along with the powerful aggressor, you stay with the ‘in’ group.”
Those bystanders who are watching are afraid to speak up because “they might be the next victim,” Dellasega says. Their silence only empowers the aggressor, who continues to lash out because they know their victim will not fight back. In what Dellasega calls a “preemptive strike,” an aggressor may continue her attacks, constantly distracting her gathered minions by focusing their attention on someone weaker so that her own deficiencies aren’t detected.
Dellasega was referring to what happened to me in high school, when my former BFF waited for an audience before launching her attack. But she could have been describing the passivity of my fellow volunteers, who, fearing retribution from Carol, were more interested in self-preservation — and getting first dibs on the best donations that came through the organization — than in coming to my defense.
“As a victim in the past,” Dellasega told me, “you are so sensitized to it [this form of aggression] that when it happens again, it’s not a new experience. You go right back to that place of being young and vulnerable.”
And the aggressor, she says, goes right back to a place not of power “as much as feelings of avoiding personal hurt.” Camilla Dorment, a D.C.-based therapist who works with people who have been chronically bullied, echoes Dellasega, saying: “Oftentimes, bullies have had their own experiences of being repeatedly exploited and mistreated. The desire for dominance over another creates a temporary feeling of power and control, which acts as a defense against deep-rooted shame.”
We all carry our injuries. It’s too bad we can’t go back in time and use a smudge stick on our former selves. But now, I want to be able to better face the Carols out there, who exist in the offices, checkout lines and book clubs of the world. Dellasega offered some scenarios and skills for recognizing and handling a mean girl in grown-up’s clothing.
“The most frequent form of relational aggression [Dellasega’s preferred term for bullying] is the ‘take-back.’ It’s saying something insensitive and unkind and then, when you realize it didn’t go over well, you say, ‘I was just kidding.’ ”
I instantly remembered my first job at Bloomingdale’s, when my manager pointed to my new Doc Martens. “Nice boots,” she said. “I had a friend in school who had shoes like that, but then she got her club foot fixed.”
One way of offsetting the take-back is with humor — “Haven’t you heard? Orthopedic is the new black!” — or using what Dellasega calls the broken-record ploy. Saying something over and over like: “Excuse me? I didn’t hear you. Can you repeat what you just said to me?”
This can make the aggressor recognize that they have said something inappropriate, as well as give the target some power to respond in a way other than joining in the mockery of, say, their questionable choice of footwear. “It’s all in the delivery, though,” Dellasega says. You don’t want to be hostile back as much as genuinely asking the person if you misheard them.
Another strategy is asking for clarification. “Saying something like, ‘Wait, I don’t understand. You knew someone who wore these shoes because of a physical handicap? I’m not sure how that relates to me,’ ” Dellasega suggests. If only I had had the wherewithal to say something this amusingly literal to my old manager.
Confronting a bully directly, however, can be profoundly difficult. Dorment says that for many, creating a safe space internally can be a good a way to tolerate the distress. “Visualizing a beach, a best friend or a mentor can provide an emotional resource in order to feel adequate and safe,” she told me. “This helps to develop the capacity to self-soothe.”
Launching a campaign, Dellasega says, is another form of relational aggression. “Someone in the friend group is trying to undermine and be hurtful to a person,” she explains. “And they expect everyone else to go along with them.” I recognized this immediately.
“The best advice is to remove yourself from the situation and regroup,” Dellasega says. “Don’t confront them in the moment, especially if she’s launched the campaign in front of a group.”
If this is a person you see daily, like a co-worker, head to a neutral space — the break room, the water cooler — and have a script prepared. “Saying something like, ‘We’ve been in some situations where I’ve said something, and you’ve rolled your eyes or whispered to the person next to you.’ Be calm and just state the facts,” Dellasega advises.
Offering concrete examples of behavior, she adds, is harder to refute than just accusing someone of not liking you or being mean. “If you get the response of invalidating your observations, you can reply by saying, ‘If it happened once or twice, I might agree with you, but it seems like a consistent pattern of behavior.’ ” Another option is saying something like, “That’s a relief. So, you’re saying that everything is good between us, and when those situations occurred it wasn’t about me?”
I took this route during a recent trip home to Connecticut, where my high school tormentor still lives. Even though we made up decades ago, I never asked her why she made my life a living hell back then. We met at a restaurant (neutral territory!), and I soon broached the topic. I wish I could tell you that she apologized, blamed her persistent teasing on troubles at home, or admitted to feeling insecure.
“I don’t remember that at all,” she said with a shrug.
Not the ending I was hoping for, but after a year of unspeakable loss and years of accumulated stress and disappointment, it’s easier to put things into perspective. Getting blacklisted from a volunteer job doesn’t seem as terrible in the scheme of things. And now that I’m armed with the antivenin, Queen Carol’s sting might not hurt as much.
Cathy Alter is a frequent Post contributor whose articles and essays have also appeared in O, the Oprah Magazine, the Cut and Wired. Her most recent book is the anthology “CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Lasting Power of Their First Celebrity Crush.”