Understanding ‘mean girl syndrome’

April 21, 2014

homeboaboa-envsrcboawebsitesite_mediaangry-woman_1Several women in my age group have talked to me recently about people they know who could be considered “mean girls.” It’s mildly surprising that age is no barrier to this kind of behavior.  It’s been apparent for a long time, at least to most of us, that age and maturity don’t always go hand in hand.

You’ve probably known some ‘mean girls.’  You might have even gotten your feelings hurt.  It’s a “yes” on both counts for me.

Emotions complicate everything, and when you feel hit at your most vulnerable spot, it’s hard to think it through. Eventually, though, with time and space, it’s possible to look at ‘mean girl syndrome’ for what it is:



 I don’t think mean girl behavior is necessarily evil, although it might look like it.

It might look like jealousy.

But it’s really a deep-rooted feeling that she’s not good enough.

And to be good enough, she’s got to make others smaller.

Or play a zero-sum game where for her to win someone else must lose.

That’s what it’s really about.

Understanding that ‘mean girl’ behavior has nothing to do with you or your own worth –and giving up the hurt — are important steps.

Because when we carry that burden of hurt feelings, we’re giving that mean behavior power over our future.

Which is why forgiveness can be so powerful.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to be friends with a ‘mean girl.’  It just means you’re no longer willing to give her power over your life.

It means you recognize the sadness that person carries.  You can’t do anything about it, and in fact, you shouldn’t. It’s hers to deal with if she chooses.

But understanding the root of her behavior takes any misplaced responsibility off your shoulders and lets you release the burden of pain you’ve carried.

Yes, we all wish the world were a gentler place, but sometimes, it isn’t.

We wish everyone could just be nice, but sometimes they aren’t.

 And here’s what mean girls should consider:
5580292534_1a744e1dd5_zI am 100 percent sure that the mean girls whose behavior I have observed haven’t considered that there are observers.  And that some of those observers don’t think ‘mean girl’ behavior is cool. Or excusable.

And are drawing their own conclusions.

Which may come back to bite them in the ass one day.

(Not that I believe in revenge or anything. Just sayin’.)

I “ping” on mean girls–I can recognize them a mile away.  In fact, I “ping” on people in general and always have.  What about you? Have you run into any “mean girls?”

53 comments on “Understanding ‘mean girl syndrome’
  1. Ryder Ziebarth says:

    Sadly, I have. Usually, I have enough 12 step program to follow the wisdom you so perfectly put forth in your post. But two of the mean girls are family. They are back-stabbers. Incredibly nice to my face, and nasty as all get out behind my back. Which in turn always gets back to their brother, who is constantly in the middle of these cat fights. After 25 years and some counseling for my husband and I, it was decided it was best for me to simply let go. Forever. There is no communication between us. We are ‘unfriended”, ungifted, uncommunicative. This behavior is completely counterintuitive to how I was raised, so hard for me.. But it was the only choice, and I am left with a sadness for all of us.

    • admin says:

      I have a family member like that, too, but we are not in communication any more and that is for the best. Something in common, R.

  2. Doreen McGettigan says:

    Oh my, have I ever. The mean girlfriend of one of the murderers of my brother loves to leave mean reviews of my book on Amazon. She also loves to harrass my daughters. She always manages to stay right on that legal line.
    I have also recently encountered a few mean women in my age group (sad).
    After battling several real life bullys a few years ago at great cost to my self esteem, I gave up caring about them and began caring more about me..
    I know longer allow myself to get stuck in that kind of hurt.
    I just move on.
    Of course my feelings still get hurt but it is getting easier to focus on people that are for me and ignoring those who are not.

  3. I haven’t encountered as many mean girls since I left corporate America to work as a consultant because I have the luxury of choosing (and declining) clients now. I would say that in the past 15 years, I’ve only encountered 2 really “mean” girls. I’ve learned to keep them out of my life since there are so many better things to do with our time than waste it on mean spirited people. And I do agree with the old adage that what goes around comes around.

    • admin says:

      I didn’t see as many in corporate America as I expected. I do see them around the rest of life, though, and always shake my head is dismay.

  4. Karen says:

    Carol, sometimes I think that the overarching life lesson for me has been to learn to deal with “mean girls” without becoming one myself.

    I’ve been watching some interactions lately (from a distance, thankfully!) and been appalled all over again at some people’s ability to take a dump on others, seemingly without thought for any consequences. I think you’re right that mean behaviour does stem from profound insecurity and emotional immaturity; and the relative anonymity of the Internet just spurs it on, as it seems as though there’s less chance of being caught.

    As you say, though, things have a habit of coming home to roost.

    • admin says:

      Like you, I know when things do not involve me and keep my distance. Unlike some others I know. BUT the Universe is just. Eventually.

  5. Laura Kennedy says:

    My mom. >Sigh<

  6. This rings so true with me: “But understanding the root of her behavior takes any misplaced responsibility off your shoulders and lets you release the burden of pain you’ve carried.”

  7. My observation is that mean girls (and women) know when they’re feared, and just as quickly when they’re not. But it’s frustrating to know you shouldn’t personalize but not know how to stop. So, I like your specific suggestion of reaching a level of compassion that allows a clear view of what drives the behavior – and how little it has to do with us.

  8. Donna says:

    The world is a small town..I found is as soon as I didn’t care what folks thought about me I could simply repeat mean things they said back to them and ask if that is what they meant to say.
    Sometimes I was being too sensitive, sometimes they were just being mean and knew they had been found out.
    Carol I love your blog!!
    Carry on new friend

  9. Lance says:

    When I entered high school in 1984, I was the smallest and youngest boy in my class. I had just endured 3 years of middle school bullying. The first thing I did was join the football team. Your couldn’t get cut and I knew it wouldn’t toughen me up. I also knew it would bridge social gaps for me.

    4 years later I was a jock and the kind of person I despised and later in life fought against.

    I have 3 daughters, one of which is graduating high school next month. I’ve witnessed every time of stereotypical behavior from her and her friends. It’s all based on social pressures and insecurity.

    That being said, the Lindsay Lohan flick, Mean Girls, is a classic. I’m still trying to make “fetch” happen.

  10. Good article on this puzzling thing…I just don’t get why we have mean people, however naive that may sound. I’ve certainly met my share of critical girls and women. And now days when I encounter criticism or meanness I try to remember that this is about ‘their’ stuff, not mine.

  11. Beverly Hine says:

    I’ve certainly encountered more than my share of mean girls and mean girl behavior. I’ve had my feelings hurt just about enough for one lifetime. I don’t always buy that these women are insecure or jealous because I’ve known some seriously brutal women who seemed to take delight in making others feel small or cut out of the herd. I don’t rule out socio or psycho-pathy in some cases. I also don’t excuse just plain bad manners or insensitivity (my mother-in-law, bless her heart.) I know people who delight in being right all the time and prefer to be in a power struggle whenever possible. I’ll stop being contrarian, now, though, because I do agree with you, Carol, and admit to having been mean a time or two in my life (especially according to my sisters, but what do they know, calling pots kettles?) but it really isn’t my choice or in my nature to be mean. I’d rather be laughing or eating or drinking or watching a good movie or reading and let all those mean girls sit with their toadies at the popular table, being mean about everybody else.

  12. Helene Cohen Bludman says:

    I knew plenty of mean girls when I was younger, but only one in recent years who stands out. She was someone I worked with — co-workers can be some of the meanest! I chose to shut her out of my life when I left that job, and good riddance.

  13. I have long forgiven the mean girls I’ve known, both years ago and more recently. To a person, they each had emotional issues that made them pick on people and act out of anger in destructive and hateful ways. We are all grown-ups. If someone is mean or malicious, walk away. And I always try to remember to consider WHY people act as they do, as you suggest. It helps a lot.

    Everyone has moments of small-minded meanness – it’s human nature. It’s whether you act on those feelings or understand that they will pass that indicates maturity.

  14. It’s truly amazing to me that at my age, I still come across mean spirited and petty women. It’s even worse when someone that you considered a friend starts behaving like that. I’ve gotten to the point where I just say goodbye to those people…time is short…I don’t need (or want) the drama in my life.

  15. I didn’t even realize I needed to put forgiveness into the equation. Insert headslap. I’ve been avoiding, feeling bad, feeling rejected, feeling ganged up on… well, you know… and all I have to do is forgive? It’s hard to do but you are so right, in not forgiving you are giving It power over you. All this time I’ve been trying to figure out why and all I have to do is forgive, it’s like the magic ruby slippers. I’m going to think on this while I tangle Carol. xo.

  16. Haralee says:

    I was just wrote a blog kind of about mean girls that I haven’t published yet! You give a wonderful Zen like attitude. I think there are mean spirited individuals both men and women. For the most part women are better at couching their meanness than men.

    • admin says:

      It’s taken me a while to get there. My sister is one of those mean girls and having her absent from life has been far liberating than I could have ever imagined. I see the root of it, but I don’t need to experience it any longer.

  17. Diane says:

    I have certainly seen it and I really, really don’t get it!
    We, too, had mean girls in our family. It broke up the family. Our only recourse was to stay away. Now the next generation has been raised without any knowledge of each other. It is so sad. But the alternative was far worse. And you are so right. Meanness is just a cover for insecurity.

  18. Linda Roy says:

    That’s exactly it – to not allow the mean girls to have any power whatsoever. That is pretty much my mantra. Because when I finally came to that realization, it was so liberating. We can’t change them, but we can change our own attitude about that kind of mentality. Great post! Just excellent!

  19. The majority of mean girls I came up against in my younger days were that way because of jealousy—girls didn’t like girls that other boys liked. So it meant lots of tripping me, shoving me into lockers, calls of “slut” as I’d walk by.

    The most recent mean girl I had to deal with was a woman who was a year away from retirement when the market crashed in 2008—she lost almost all of her retirement money. She was already a pretty unhappy person before that, but she was in a completely different pit of despair after. I waffled back and forth between loathing her for the way she treated me (and everyone else) and feeling so incredibly sorry for her and her situation.

    The weird thing was she was a wonderful daughter to her mother, who had Alzheimer’s and she was the sole care-giver. I told her every chance I had how much I respected her for the way she was with her mother, but even that couldn’t cut through her ‘mean girl’ facade.

  20. Yes, I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that mean girls just turn into mean women. At this age, I truly have no patience for them. I don’t know how forgiving I am but I basically just ignore them and don’t give them any power in my life. Who has time for that kind of negative energy?!

  21. Corinne Rodrigues says:

    I’ve had my share of mean girls especially last year, Carol. They were online bullies and looking back, I’m glad I faced them head on, because that helped me to take more control of my life and realize a lot more about myself. Does that sound crazy? 🙂

  22. Chloe says:

    What I find fascinating about these sorts of discussions is how readily women recall any meanness towards them but how rarely I ever hear any woman admit that they are the one who is mean. Maybe it’s all in our heads since there are so few perpetrators among so many victims.

    • admin says:

      For people to recognize themselves, they need to be in touch with their own insecurity. But if they did, they wouldn’t be mean. So it isn’t a surprise to me.

  23. I’m now helping a middle-schooler navigate this. I think it’s no coincidence that during a time of intense identity formation, these issues arise. The more a girl knows who she is — has a true sense of identity — the less she has the need to define herself in relationship to someone else. As you say, play the”zero-sum game where for her to win someone else must lose.”

  24. Laura says:

    Twenty years ago was the last time I came in contact with “Mean Girls” I was a 30-something stay-at-home-mother struggling with boredom, an empty marriage, and unflagging insecurity around my ability to be great mom to my two boys. Those women–The Sweater Seat Cabal aka The Vicious Mommy Cartel–saw these things in me and seized upon them. I was a pariah and not one of “them”. It was even more painful than junior high school when I was the shy and awkward new girl.

    My biological sister is a mean girl and that’s specifically why she’s not a real sister. I simply don’t have the time and energy for woman who degrade and back bite other people. It’s unseemly behavior at any age.

    • My sister is also a mean girl,although I’ll bet 100 percent she does not recognize that she is. That kind of behavior IS unseemly and although I have forgiven her, I’m glad it’s not in my life any more.

  25. Risa says:

    One of Adair’s exercises was to write about something you hate as though you loved it, or vice versa. I wrote about how I owed the 8th grade mean girls a debt of gratitude for teaching me to enjoy my own company (no one to eat lunch with), and encouraging me to meet some people who appreciated me for who I was. Honestly, if I had stuck with those girls my life in high school and beyond would have been much different. To my shame and regret, I was briefly a mean girl,. You’d think I’d have known better after my own experience. If I could talk to my 14 yr old self, I’d give her a hard time for that. Anyway, got no time for those folks like that now. Great discussion going on here!

  26. Liv says:

    I’ve known more than a couple mean girls. I’ve been lucky to get out from under them – but I’m still convinced that they were (are) evil incarnate. I refuse to give them power over me though.

    • That’s it, exactly! I have heard so MANY rationalizations for women holding on to that pain instead of working through it. AT the same time, though, it really is kind of amazing how many mean women don’t see themselves in that mirror. I agree that that kind of energy is best left behind and I absolutely would NEVER give them power over me, not my emotions and not any part of me.

  27. I think it’s incredibly helpful to remember that “hurt people hurt people.” It’s so hard to shrug off cruelty, and lord knows I have not always taken the high road, but reacting to hate with hate is always wrong. I think I need to share this post…

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