Book Excerpt: 'Mean Girls Grown Up'

Oct. 10, 2005 — -- Remember those awful girls who ruled the high school cafeteria? Well, they didn't disappear -- they just grew up. You can find them in the workplace, houses of worship and the local PTA. Their snide comments sting just as much as they did years go.

In her new book, "Mean Girls Grown Up: Adult Women Who Are Still Queen Bees, Middle Bees, and Afraid-to-Bees," Cheryl Dellasega explains how to deal effectively with these troublesome women. She empowers her readers to improve the relationships with the women in their lives.

Below is the first chapter of "Mean Girls Grown Up."

Part One: Relational Aggression 201

TheWho,What, and Why of RA

You've always been there, even in

Kindergarten, pushing my face into

a can of worms on the playground.

In grade school, calling me a witch

and telling me you'll burn me

at the stake at recess.

In middle school, you didn't want to

be my friend, you said I was weird,

too smart, too serious.

High school moments of pure hell,

of National Honor Society,

leads in school plays. Kisses of death.

In college, I kept to myself,

stayed clear of your jealousy,

alone with my own self-loathing.

In the real world, at every job,

you've always gone out of your way

to hurt me.

Aliza Sherman, "Take Me Down"

Chapter One: All Grown Up andReady to Sting

Adult Female Aggression

Mean girls grow up to be mean women,make no mistake about that. -- a woman caller to a radio talk show on bullying

What is Relational Agression?

It happens when you least expect it: the sudden, painful stingthat hurts deeply, because you thought you were in a safe place,with other women and immune from harm. A word, a gesture, orsome other seemingly innocuous behavior can be all it takes towound in a way that hurts more than any physical blow. This isfemale relational aggression (RA): the subtle art of emotionaldevastation that takes place every day at home, at work, or incommunity settings. Unlike openly aggressive men, women learnearly on to go undercover with these assaults, often catching theirvictims unaware. Many carry this behavior into adulthood.

What Is Relational Aggression?

RA is the use of relationships to hurt another, a way of verbal violencein which words rather than fists inflict damage. RA seems topeak in the early teen years when girls use a variety of behaviorsthat wound without ever pulling a punch. Word wars are often dismissedas "just the way girls are," or "she's just jealous." Whetheror not you're a mother, you probably understand these scenariosintuitively: the girl who gets excluded from a crowd she previouslybelonged to; the newcomer who fails to be accepted by other girlsno matter what she does; the girl who is somehow different andtargeted for that reason; or the popular Queen Bee, who buzzesfrom place to place spreading discomfort and manipulating otherswith her words. Sounds pretty juvenile, doesn't it?

Unfortunately, some women never outgrow these behaviors,turning into adults who slay with a smile and wound with a word.The mean girls of middle school may change into grown-up"shrews," "witches," "prima donnas," and "bitches," but underneath,the same game that started in grade school is still beingplayed. In and out of the workplace, as individuals and in groups,these women continue to interact in aggressive ways reminiscentof high school hallways where girls jockeyed for social status.

After encounters with such women, you walk away wonderingexactly what happened, and, sometimes, why you care so much. Ina search for answers, you may even reflect back on your adolescentyears, when behaviors such as jealousy, gossip, and forming cliqueswere the modus operandi. You may remember the moments whenyou sighed thankfully, thinking it was all behind you. The endresult, when you discover it isn't, is feelings of confusion, hurt, andeven fear. Consider the following real-life situations:

Rhonda, age thirty-four, is one of twenty-five female secretaries ata midsize legal firm. Her boss, impressed by Rhonda's computerskills, suggests she go for further training so she can help with theinformation technology needs of the firm. He offers to accommodateher time away for classes if she will agree to stay with the firmfor a year after she finishes. When Rhonda tells her coworkersabout the opportunity, they congratulate her, but in the weeks thatfollow, the emotional climate of the office grows noticeably cooler.Within a month of starting classes, Rhonda is no longer invited tolunch with the other women, and they frequently "forget" to passon important messages that arrive while she is in class.

"What did I do wrong?" Rhonda asks Marci, the only coworkerwho isn't shunning her.

"Can't you see it?" Marci answers. "They're all jealous becauseyou're getting an opportunity they aren't."

Tina, an attractive twenty-two-year old, is one of three womenparticipating in a corporate internship that will result in a joboffer for one of them. So far, she is the strongest candidate for theposition, which will involve working directly with the company'smale CEO. One morning during a coffee break, Alice, one of theother interns, comes into the break room where Tina and theCEO are deep in conversation about a work project.

"Oh—excuse me!" Alice says loudly, a knowing smile on herface. Both Tina and the CEO invite her to stay, but she hurries outwithout another word.

A few days later, Tina finds herself alone in an elevator withBeth, the third intern.

"So, I hear things are really heating up between you and theCEO," Beth comments.

Blushing, Tina stammers, "What are you talking about?"

"Oh come on, Tina, you know exactly what I'm talking about.Everyone in the office does. You're sleeping with him just so youcan get the job."

Sharon, the forty-year-old mother of teenaged Susanna, decidesto volunteer for the band parents group at her daughter's highschool. When Sharon takes her lunch hour early so she can attendthe first meeting, the six other moms already there are slow toacknowledge her. When the meeting runs late, Sharon apologeticallygathers up her things and puts on her coat.

"I'm sorry. I have to get back to work," she explains.

"Oh, you're a working mom," one of the women comments,exchanging a knowing glance with the others.

Same Behavior, Different Age

The incidents just described involving adult women are not so differentfrom the teenager shunned by her friends, talked about inthe hallways, or excluded from activities by other girls. Meanbehavior exists on a continuum for both adolescents and adults. Inan attempt to understand why, Judith Sutphen, a former directorfor the Vermont Commission on Women, met with a group of 130teenage girls to discuss self-esteem and interactions with others.In the following excerpt from her report, Sutphen offers a possibleexplanation for why women may act to undermine one anotherand the consequences that result:

There's been a lot of attention focused lately on mean girls.. . . "Relational aggression" is the new buzzword for girlswho tease, insult, threaten, maliciously gossip, play cruelgames with their best friends' feelings and establish exclusivecliques and hierarchies in high school. Writers try toreassure us that it's not that girls are born mean; they just getthat way when they're with other girls.

. . . All the attention has made me think about why girlslearn to hurt through relationships, and how this translatesinto our lives as grown women.

Perhaps girls don't necessarily want to be mean, they justwant to be. "Be" in the sense of personal power, the kind thateverybody wants. The shortest path to this goal for a girl,the Morrisville teens told us, is to be with a guy.

It's not until a lot later that they realize that maybe thispower-through-another is not exactly what they were lookingfor.

But it's what they know.

Bringing all this into grown-up life as women, we areoften ill prepared to support one another as some gain accessto public power on their own. Women supervisors frequentlynote that directing male employees is easier thandirecting female employees. Women who are bold enoughto step into public life through politics or the media areoften most harshly critiqued by their own gender and heldto a double standard in their accomplishments. Perhapswe've learned those girlhood games too well.

It's time to unlearn them.

In her book "Meeting at the Crossroads: Women's Psychology andGirl's Development," Dr. Carol Gilligan adds further insight tothis issue. She stresses that while both girls and boys desiregenuine connections with others, girls mature through forgingrelationships rather than separating from them, which makes thefailure to connect so problematic.

When there is a persistent failure to bond, to be heard, and tobe understood, girls learn unhealthy relational patterns that canlast into adulthood. The results can be long lasting: The head ofa clique of mean girls in middle school aggressively makes her waythrough high school and college and bullies her way to the top incareer or volunteer pursuits. The go-between girl who learns tosurvive by staying in the middle position continues to operate"behind the scenes" in adulthood. Tragically, the teen whobelieves she deserves the role of victim continues to place herselfin a passive role in relationships long after she leaves the halls ofhigh school.

Women who have never had true female friends, who avoidactivities because they involve women, who disparage women asa group, or who deliberately work in male-dominated environmentsbecause they don't like women are everyday examples of abasic failure to connect with peers. This theory could explain whyRA is so much more common (but not exclusive) to females acrossthe lifespan.

The Mature Bee

Relational aggression in younger women generally involves threeplayers: the bully or aggressor, the victim or target, and thebystander, a girl in between who watches aggression occur butmay or may not intervene. In adult women, it seems apparent thatRA becomes much more deliberate as well as subtle, and thein-betweener may play a different role because adult women areless likely to stand by passively and watch such situations unfold.Some of these women even adopt a malicious variation of the inbetweenrole. If a bully is the Queen Bee, her sidekick is often theMiddle Bee, who isn't directly aggressive, but who creates a contextwhere women with a tendency to respond aggressively tothreats will do so. For example, the Middle Bee may be the womanwho makes sure the Queen Bee bully hears all the office coffeebreak talk -- twisted so that it reflects badly on her. The MiddleBee woman senses which behaviors are guaranteed to incite apotential aggressor and doesn't hesitate to use them.

In the same way, the Afraid-to-Bee adult woman demonstratesthe victim role perfectly. Unlike an adolescent girl whose formingidentity is vulnerable to the slings and arrows of a bully, the Afraid-to-Bee is more aware of her abilities and often knows that her tormentingQueen Bee is unreasonable but lacks the confidence torespond assertively. She is truly afraid to be her own person.

Why Are Women Often Their Own Worst Enemies?

Many of the women who voiced opinions on this question saidthat power is the underlying motivation for adult RA -- the powerto manipulate members of the PTA, the power to control a corporateclimate, or the power to dominate physically at the gym.

Because women traditionally have little power, this line of thoughtsuggests that the instant there is a perceived threat, aggressionoccurs as a protective mechanism.

Others believe women and men are naturally opposite in termsof roles and values. While women supposedly focus on nurturingand helpful relationships, men strive for power. Women want tomake connections and be liked, while men want to achieve goalsand be superior, even if that means alienating others.

Some suggest that low self-esteem propels a woman into anaggressive or passive stance, and that giving or accepting emotionalabuse is all about the view one has of oneself. Regardless of her roleas Queen Bee (constantly on the offense), Afraid-to-Bee (scaredvictim), or Middle Bee (always in between), according to this theory,hurtful female behavior is motivated by feelings of inferiority.

Then there's the suggestion that aggression is learned behavior.According to proponents of this belief, women who grew upin aggressive and violent situations or who learned to interactwith others in particular ways as children are more likely to usethose same behaviors to relate to others throughout life.

Evolutionary psychologists such as Dr. Anne Campbell (Men,Women, and Aggression) explain that women are not by natureviolent. Aggression between women occurs as a genetic, protectivedrive to find the best circumstances to ensure the survival ofchildren. Historically, this meant finding a protective male whowas a good provider, but there are suggestions that this instinct tocompete for resources may still motivate many women. That is,women are driven by a deeply ingrained biological need to acquireprotection for their offspring, while men are motivated by acquisitionand domination.

You might be the CEO of your own Fortune 500 company,according to these researchers, but underneath the power suitand between the networking lunches is a drive to care for and protectyour "children," whether they are real, potential, ormetaphorical (for example, clients, projects, employees, new business).In this world, women view other women as competitors forresources, with men being one of the more helpful resources. Tothat end, an evolutionist believes that all female interactions arepart of a quest to ensure the survival of real or potential offspring.Cognitive specialists stress another gender-based difference:men and women learn in different ways. Women attempt to seethings from all perspectives and understand diverse points of view,while men frequently take an adversarial position and questionnew material.

A major cultural difference in men and women's roles is theemphasis placed on physical appearance. Women want to beattractive and men want to have attractive partners, which mayresult in rivalries within both genders.

All of these theories suggest that an undercurrent of competitionmay underlie female relationships, manifested in covert formsof aggression such as undermining, manipulation, and betrayal.Regardless of whether you buy the power theory, the self-esteemhypothesis, the learned behavior position, or the evolutionarypsychology perspective (or some combination of all four) it isclear that RA is:

Internally motivated

Driven by a sense of threat or fear

Used primarily by women

A behavioral dynamic that can be changed with effort

Most experts agree that the aggressive Queen Bee is a victimin some ways, too, suffering from the same feelings of fear, anger,and lack of confidence she fosters in others. In fact, my work suggeststhat all women who get caught in the destructive dynamicof RA suffer in one way or another.

"Women who don't believe in themselves, who are threatenedby others and see them as 'the enemy,' will lash out in an effort tomake themselves feel more in control. In reality, they're not,"explains Tia, a women's health counselor who has heard many storiesof Queen Bee behavior. "But this isn't rational behavior we'retalking about." She adds that victims and in-betweeners oftenexperience the same conflicted emotions.

Undoing the Damage

The good news is that with help RA can be unlearned and morepositive relationship skills adopted. Across the country, organizationsgeared to help girls have begun to show that there are waysto nurture a kinder, gentler breed of young woman who is able touse power in positive ways. Adult women are also learning toleave the "RA way" behind, as the following story demonstrates.

A Lifetime of Bullying Comes to an End

by Lynne Matthews

At age twenty-four, I was passive, weak, and easily manipulated.I saw myself as a people pleaser, and I wanted everyone to likeme. For most of my life, I had attracted friends who were thepolar opposite; many were mean and demanding, and theybullied me.

When I was five, it was Linda, the girl across the street, whowas my age. She made me do things I didn't want to do, likedefy my mother, make fun of other girls, and lie. Bullying mewas her greatest pleasure in life, and I was the prime victim. Asa little girl, I was very responsible. If my mother told me to behome at a certain time, I was going to listen to her. One night,while Linda and I were playing handball against her garage asthe sun went down, I had a feeling of dread, because I knew mymother was expecting me. When I told Linda I had to leave,she cornered me and said, "You aren't leaving. You're playingwith me until I say."

"But—" I protested.

"No buts," she sneered, pointing to the ball. "Play!"

A little while later, I heard my mother calling my namefrom across the street, desperation in her voice. I was torn.Linda saw me hesitating and demanded that I keep playingeven though my heart wasn't in it. Everything ended when mymother marched over to Linda's house, a scowl on her face. Icouldn't please either one of them. I felt like a failure.

At age twenty-four, it was Marsha, another bully. She maskedher bullying with her sense of humor by using a joking voice toget me to do what she wanted. I loved her wit and wanted to bearound her all the time. She was funny and shocking, sayingthings to people I would never dream of uttering. Where I wasshy and reserved, she was boisterous and loud. She would doanything to get her way and loved to make me do things for her.But if I didn't, watch out. She would barrage me with whinythreats like, "Come on, you have to do it or I'm going to bereally pissed off," or "Don't be scared. You need to stand up foryourself!" If I still refused, she would get mean. "Come on,f—r," she would protest, using profanities to egg me on.When Marsha moved into her own apartment about an houraway from me, it was a big deal. I would drive up there everyso often and spend weekends with her. One evening, we decidedto order Chinese food. The delivery boy arrived while Marshawas in the shower. I had just enough money to give him for thefood and none left over for a tip. He totally understood. WhenMarsha found out, however, she was furious. "I can't believe youdidn't give him a tip," she hissed. The next morning, she droveme to the takeout place and handed me a few dollars.

"Go," she said.

"What?" I asked. I had been under the impression we weregoing to the mall.

"Give him the tip. Say you were stupid and apologize.Those guys work hard. How would you feel?"

It was a horrible moment. My heart started to pound and Iwas angry, so deeply angry that I couldn't speak. "No," I finallysaid.

"Do it."

"No. I can't believe this."

"Do it. Come on, f—r," she said. "If you don't do this,you're a horrible person. He needs his tips. He works hard."She said it in her half-joking voice, but it was a threat: do it oryou won't be my friend.

I got out of the car slowly, defeated. I went into the restaurantand explained who I was. I left the money in some girl'shand and got back into the car, slamming the door.

"See, was that so bad?" Marsha asked, already back in herteasing mode.

"No," I said, my head down.

Marsha and I are no longer friends. Last year, I decided thatI was tired of being a doormat and questioned why I wasattracting these types of friends. I explored it further. What wasit about me that allowed this to happen? Why couldn't I standup for myself? It was crazy. I seriously began to reevaluate myplace in the world and realized that I needed to be strong. Ithought back to that scared five-year-old. What did I expect tohappen if I didn't do what Linda wanted? The bullying startedwith me, and it could end with me. It wasn't physical bullying,but it was psychological abuse. These people saw that I wasweak and played on it. And it was going to stop.

If you've ever distanced yourself from a situation in whichanother woman deliberately prevented you from achieving yourgoals or made you feel put down and unworthy, you've probablycome to terms with your own Queen Bees. If you're the aggressorand wake up each day contemplating how to maintain yourposition as queen of the hive, you may be ready to free yourselffrom anxiety-driven aggression and develop genuine power.Regardless of your situation, the following passage shows how theinherent strengths of women can be used to continually transformpeer relationships.

The Art of Antagonism

By Olga Dungan Ph.D. and Sherry Audette Morrow

This spring, in the interest of nurturing our friendship (that is,finding an excuse for a "girls' night out"), we decided to nurtureour creative interests and take an art class together. By thefifth week of our six-week drawing workshop, the two men andfive women, including our instructor, had familiarized themselveswith the relational dynamics of the studio setting. Weartists had separated, both along gender lines and by attitudetoward one another. This separation became especially clearduring the fifth class, when the subtle tension of relationalaggression rippled between two of our female classmates.

The men, Arney and Joe, whose age difference mirrored thedifferences between their drawing styles and subject matter,took tables at opposite corners of the studio, effecting detachmentfrom each other and the rest of the group, while weoccupied two tables along a side wall, sitting close enough toshare our materials and the occasional word of encouragementwithout disturbing anyone's concentration. Our instructor,Bonnie, seemed to float about the classroom, simultaneouslydistant but connected as she entertained and instructed ontopics varying from ways to create form over shape using lightand shade to creative ways to dump undesirable weddingshower presents.

During the first two weeks, Reena and Micheline, or"Mitch," had migrated to what seemed to be front and centerof the studio, their tables angled in a way that kept them fromseeing each other's work, yet allowed them to share some"friendly" conversation. With pointed effort, they occasionallystood and crossed over the little chasm of floorboards betweentheir tables to peek around each other's shoulder and criticallyeye the other's sketch pad. We had become accustomed totheir wry exchanges, but one night their voices seemed pitchedan octave higher than Madonna's soprano lilting from theradio, their words polite, their tone hostile.

Tossing auburn hair over a squared shoulder, Reena madewhat we thought was a rare effort to look Mitch in the eye asshe described the Audi her husband "simply up and bought" forher "for no good reason." "I would have preferred a LandRover," she added for good measure.

Mitch didn't bother to toss her ash-blonde curls; they justdanced along the perfect lines of her gym-sculptured shouldersas she glared back at Reena. "My husband has this awkwardway of buying me the most expensive and strangely timedpresents, too," she claimed, bristling at the challenge of averbal duel.

They continued sparring, comparing Stickley furniture,classy neighborhoods, and Reena's career as a freelance journalistto Mitch's dalliance as a landlord working out of thepenthouse of her own apartment complex. Neither seemedable to best the other, until Reena changed her tactic.

"Have you ever eaten at Le Bec Fin?" Reena asked, inquiringabout a restaurant the mayor and others among the city'sglitterati frequented, but that she and her husband could affordonly once or twice a month. Expressions of pretended disappointment,frustration, and, strangely, satisfaction flitted acrossReena's face all at once. She was back on firm economicground, familiar turf upon which she felt equal to Mitch.

Mitch affected concession and shook her head no, then,smiling broadly, asked Reena if she would join her for dinner,rattling off a list of expensive eateries she and her husband visitedregularly. With a tight smile, Reena hesitantly acceptedher offer. Disappointment flickered in her eyes. She could nolonger deflect Mitch's parries without becoming openly rude.She had lost the verbal battle and thus was relegated to the subordinateposition in what looked like a potentially ongoingacquaintanceship. In the silence that followed this wordplay,the two of us looked at each other, awed by, yet undeniablyfamiliar with, what we had witnessed.

Relational aggression does exist between adult women onthe community level. Reena and Mitch were part of the politecatfighting and one-upmanship in which women often feelcompelled to engage. We have witnessed this type of behaviorin all venues of both our personal and public lives and havebeen guilty of partaking in it ourselves. When we go into battle,our ammunition is our prestigious careers, our brilliantchildren, our better homes, cars, clothes, and vacations, evenour illnesses and our shortcomings. As long as we have thebiggest and the best, we can outshine everyone else and, insome twisted way, legitimize ourselves.

We recently went through a transformational period in ourown twenty-year friendship, which made us especially sensitiveto and grateful for the stark contrast between our behaviortoward each other and that of the women in the studio. We hadreached a point where the "things" of our lives had becomemore important than the friendship, trust, and communicationthat formed the foundation of our relationship.

We now share our thoughts and feelings at greater depththan we ever have, with consideration for the freedoms andlimitations that characterize Sherry's lifestyle as a wife, mother,and editor of her own literary magazine along with the contrastof those that shape Olga's life as an English professor who issingle and financially independent. We celebrate the similaritiesof our interests as writers, painters, and middle-agedwomen who have known each other since undergraduateschool, but this did not come to us until we dropped the expectationsof each other that kept us insecure, poised for disappointment,and always competing for a place in the other's lifethat we could not trust we already had.

Mitch did not invite Reena to dinner; she dared her, andReena submitted to being bullied. Because of our experiencesreconnecting, both through our art class and through our honestefforts to accept each other, we now understand that wemust put aside our fear of failing to appear strong and independentin order to embrace the strength, self-sufficiency, andconfidence that exist in both ourselves and the women who surroundus -- our mothers, our sisters, our friends, and ouracquaintances. Women can and must learn alternative ways tofoster relationships based on understanding, acceptance, andmutual respect for every woman's right to define what it meansto be a woman in a community of women. Only then will weall be capable of reaching our full potential for self-explorationand for becoming true friends.

Olga and Sherry speak to the positive power of female connection,and describe why overcoming RA at all ages is a must.

The gift of friendship and support they share is one every womandeserves.

Excerpted by permission from "Mean Girls Grown Up: Adult Women Who Are Still Queen Bees, Middle Bees, and Afraid-to-Bees," by Cheryl Dellasega. Published by Wiley. Copyright © 2005 Cheryl Dellasega.

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