Dealing With Mean Girls as an Adult

There is something we are told when we are younger, that we  hang on to with hope as we pack ourselves off to the real world. It is that bullies – specifically “mean girls” — are part of those years alone, and that once we graduate the spheres of primary and secondary school,  even college, everyone will just…grow up and stop being a dick. However we soon discover, it’s all lies. The truth is that mean girls become mean women, and every last one of us has the capacity to take out our own small, evil-spirited little demons on others in an attempt to feel better.

I was one of those wide-eyed naive who took off for the “real world” thinking my days of being made to feel small for stupid reasons was behind me. I spent the first 20 something years of my existence being targeted by mean girls. I even spent a very sad few occasions eating lunch in a large, rarely used bathroom, afraid that if I actually ate in public — alone — it would be like painting a target on my forehead. A scene that David Attenborough could narrate – as the wide eyed, fat, spotty, specky girl, sits in a wide open space, the hunters watch in amusement at her stupidity.

Bullying is supposed to be a kids thing, but everyone knows it doesn’t always end when childhood does. Today I have some tips for dealing with bullies, mean girls, and mean guys who are long past their cafeteria days.

Ask yourself, “How is this impacting my life?”

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When determining whether to shrug something off or take action, you should consider how it’s affecting you. If someone’s sniping is an irritation, let it be. Chalk it down to them being a dick and acknowledge it for what it is. If, however, you’re losing sleep, you hate going to work, or you’re feeling depressed or unworthy because of  how someone is treating you, then you need to do something about it. Personally I’m not a big fan of the old school  ‘ignore it and it’ll go away’ school of thought. I think ignoring it reinforces a sense of powerlessness. You sit in silence while your tormentor carries on with no repercussion or acknowledgement of their wrong doing.  So if someone’s belittling, humiliating, or insulting you at work or in your friend group, and it’s making you upset, it’s time to address it. This can be a face to face conversation, whereby you give name and weight to the behaviours and explain your feelings. For most this will be enough to stop the behaviour and give the assailant an opportunity to explain their side. Perhaps they were unaware of their catastrophic levels of dickheadedness and just needed it to be brought to their attention.

Write it down.

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Document EVERYTHING. Even a simple journal entry works. If you are being cyber-bullied, print out all correspondence and keep it in a file. Screen shot messages and send them to yourself. Write up the interactions and email them onto yourself so that you have a digital record with date and time stamps. Documenting what’s happening is key. Keep track of when, where and how it happens, along with who is present. This is important so that you can present an objective, coherent case either directly to the bully, or to an authority figure. It is difficult but try to keep your feelings out of it. Be as objective, descriptive and evidence based as possible. By that I mean qualify all of your statements. If you make a statement like “She was angry with me”  explain how you know. Include her actions, did she roll her eyes, did she pass a comment, did she slam things? Write down all of the things to show how you knew what was going on, so that it can not be interpreted as you being “oversensitive”

Seek help if necessary.

Once you’ve decided to do something about a bully, ask yourself whether you have the skills and inclination to handle the situation yourself. If so, you can confront the bully personally. If not, or if you just feel that someone else’s help would be beneficial, you have a number of options. If you’re being bullied at work, talk to a HR person or a line manager. If the bully is someone in your personal life have an ally on hand to stand by your side. Talk to your partner, your best friend, your sister, your therapist. Often sharing your problems and speaking them out loud helps you put things into perspective. Plus it’s always good to get input from others. There are also online resources available to people experiencing workplace bullying: check out The Workplace Bullying Institute or Bully Free At Work.

If you are going to complain about someone who is bullying you or your boss or workplace that isn’t helping you out, just make sure that you realize that what it put out there on the internet is there FOREVER. Don’t trash your co-workers or your boss because you never know who will see it. The same goes for putting your negative thoughts into an email. Once you hit the SEND button, your private thoughts are now basically in the public domain.

If you do confront the bully, be assertive, not aggressive.

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It’s tricky to confront an aggressive person, because they’re already insecure. If you approach them emotionally, or with a big group of people (one person should be fine), things can go badly. So it’s wise to prepare ahead of time — even rehearse in the mirror. When it’s time to talk, choose a neutral, private place — not your office or your apartment, but a conference room or coffee shop. Consider starting with a few positive things about the person. Then talk facts, not feelings. This is where that documentation comes in. Discuss the behavior you’ve observed from the bully, and then give him or her a chance to respond. From there, have an open-ended respectful conversation. Don’t back down or let yourself be cowed, but don’t get carried away with emotions  either. Your goal is to get the behavior to stop, not to start a screaming match.

If you’re a bystander, step in.

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The bystander definitely has the power to help change the climate — with adults and children. In bullying cases with children, almost half of all bullying situations stop when a bystander gets involved. More than half the time, bullying stops within 10 seconds of a bystander stepping in to help.

Helping doesn’t mean taking a stand or getting into the bully’s face. Sometimes just the simple act of not giving the bully an audience or just taking the side of the victim is enough to get your point across.

In many cases, bullying is sustained by the silence of those who witness it but say nothing. Cultural change occurs in small ways. When one woman refuses to gossip as a way to connect with another woman, or when another changes the subject when a group begins trashing someone not in the room, norms get redefined. But it’s bloody hard to do it — especially when you want your colleagues to like you or invite you out for drinks, and when it might be really fun and juicy to talk about someone else.I’m no saint I have engaged in bitching bonding talks on more than one occasion. Hell I have friendships that were forged on our mutual dislike of people. But being more vigilant about conversation patterns can be very helpful. If your social or professional circle spends a significant amount of its time talking about other women, it’s worth asking what your relationship as a group is built on in the first place.

Get out of the situation.

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This isn’t always possible, and it shouldn’t be your first response, but if bullying persists despite all your attempts to stop it, sometimes removing yourself from the situation is the best option.

The one positive thing about dealing with bullying as an adult as opposed to a kid, is that you have the choice to get yourself out of the situation. If that means getting a new job, moving to a new apartment or even a new city, adults have the benefit of removing themselves from the toxic situation.

Obviously it’s not fair for a bullying victim to have to move because of a bully’s behavior — and I hope you never have to exercise this option. But remembering that you’re a grown up and have some choices (at least, more than you have as a kid) can make bullying less scary.

Remember it’s not about you.

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Quite often when someone experiences bullying, the biggest question is, ‘why is this happening to me?’ But, most bullying comes from a bully’s issues, not from any characteristics of the victim. This isn’t about you in particular, and you shouldn’t feel embarrassed or ashamed. Bullying can hurt, but remember — whether you’re in the lunchroom, the nursing home, or anywhere in between, the bully’s the one with the problem, not you.

Most importantly:

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