Hardly a girl escaped exposure to middle school terrorism: biting criticism about clothing, mean notes circulating, gym class taunting, teasing about lunchbox contents, cliques loudly discussing parties from which some were excluded. Even if you weren’t a target, bullying was surely on your social radar. You may have cringed as you witnessed it, rigorously monitoring your own behavior to avoid attracting the same fate. Perhaps you eventually breathed a sigh of relief, finding your high school or college niche, feeling strong in your network of supportive women. You grew out of it, beyond it, and trusted you were done with that phase of your life, having to dodge or defend against mean girls.
Then you joined a mom’s group, the PTA, or even a work setting; flashback to middle school. Gossip flies: “did you hear what happened at Joni’s bachelorette?” Criticism is thinly veiled: “can you believe she doesn’t vaccinate her kids?” Exclusive social events are whispered or bragged about: “girls’ escape to the lake house this weekend.” You dash out of work at lunch to volunteer for the band, only to have other volunteers ignore you and chat among themselves. When you excuse yourself for the return dash, one exclaims, “oh, too bad you’re a working mom.” You proudly dress for a party, feeling good about the style you assembled from Nordstrom Rack, until other guests begin to brag about their $465 boots and $800 jeans. Bullying is not confined to middle school.
Relational aggression (RA) is one form of bullying. According to Cheryl Dellasega, PhD, author of Mean Girls Grown Up, RA is verbal violence in which words, rather than fists, cause damage. October is Bullying Prevention Month, a good time to look at the ways in which RA continues to have a sneaky presence in women’s lives, regardless of age.
Competition and comparison seem to be human nature. An inherent gauge of success is how our accomplishments measure up to those around up. So keeping score–and possibly bragging or lamenting about it–doesn’t stop. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest are injecting it with new adrenaline for all ages. How many friends do you have? What glorious picture of your life can you paint with your tweets, pins, posts? Even at midlife and beyond, opportunities to “top this” and criticize abound. “Can you believe her son still hasn’t graduated?” “They spent that much on that wedding?!”
If you find yourself a target of RA, your first thought might be “I thought I was done with this; can’t she just grow up?” Here’s my short list of quick tips to cope with adult relational aggression directed at you:
1) Expect people to be who they are. Bullies don’t automatically grow out of it as they grow up. If an acquaintance seems like a bully, trust your gut that you are reading it accurately. Expectations are our biggest enemy (check out my list of posts under “Expectations” to the right, for further reading) and thankfully, one category that we can control to improve our well-being. Bullies just are. Don’t expect them to be otherwise, and their tactics will lose some power.
2) This is not about me. You aren’t the problem, the bully is. You are not deficient, weak, or unlikable. Behavior like this says it all about the bully, nothing about you.
3) Toxic people aren’t toxic if we fail to react. If you apply the first two tips, it’s much easier to step away and not react. Breathe. Dismiss. Let go. Invoke the mantra “what other people think of me is none of my business.” The final authority on approval lies within you.
Have you been a victim of adult relational aggression? How have you coped?