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Adult ‘Mean Girls’ and What You Can Do About Them

High school is over. With age comes experience and perspective.


Not long ago, I was a panelist at a conference for women. After my session, a number of us were seated together at a large, round lunch table — the kind that, in theory, makes it easier to talk to one another. Within minute,s I began to wonder if I were wearing Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. The women, all moms around the same age, seemed to know each other, and only talked to one another. I went out of my way to say hello and attempt to facilitate conversation anyway. Was it the curl of my hair, the cut of my jeans, color of my shoes? No matter; I decided to view it all as a sociology experiment.

Then I went back to my room and made myself feel better by eating all the chocolate in my mini bar, which may have been a tad too soon. It turns out there were exclusive dinners over the next two nights held among the same group, and each evening, photos of the dinners were posted in real time on social media. This, of course, required more chocolate.

So was it intentional, and mean girl behavior in adulthood, or something else?

“Mean girls are women who have a negative point of view,” Elbaum said, “who always feel they are right and to be looked up to because of who or what they are.”

I asked women on my Facebook page to tell me what characteristics they felt defined being an adult mean girl. The descriptions, condensed here, included: They’re exclusive, manipulative and condescending. They give you back-handed compliments and one-up others because it makes them feel better about themselves. They’re vituperative, bullying and social climbers who drop you if someone higher on the social ladder comes along.

And those were some of the nicer things they said.

The Tina Fey Connection

The term “mean girls” was made popular with the release of the 2004 Tina Fey-penned movie of the same name about high schoolers. Based on a 2002 nonfiction book by Rosalind Wiseman (Queen Bees and Wannabes), the film struck a chord with women of all ages for its vivid portrayal of the cliquish and corrosive nature of adolescence.

Pam Willsey, a therapist and life coach in Boston, has made a career of helping young girls navigate the tricky shoals of girlhood, providing tools that will help them face challenges throughout their lives.

Ironically, what prompted her to take up her career was an accusation by a woman at her 10-year high school reunion that she’d been a mean girl herself. It was, she said, “a transformative moment.” The idea that someone “could hate me for not acknowledging her” in high school not only made her feel badly, but got her thinking about how differently people read others.

Of course, there are many reasons why an adult woman might appear to be a mean girl. She may have underlying feelings of insecurity and vulnerability, communication issues or health issues. As a result, Willsey finds the term mean girls to be “oversimplified,” and cautions that it’s “based on the stories we tell ourselves about how we perceive other people’s actions — most of which have nothing to do with us.”

What’s important to remember, Willsey said, is that we can choose “how we think, feel, and behave in response to these situations.” (This includes eating chocolate out of a mini bar.)

It’s unclear, however, whether that mindset adjustment is enough to change the underlying sense that we’ve been wronged. In an informal survey of mine, of 87 women who responded when asked whether they’d experienced the wrath of a mean girl in adulthood, only six said no. That is, 81 most definitively said yes.

Same Behavior, Different Platform

Social media is often identified as the newest way to enable mean girl behavior in adulthood. That certainly doesn’t mean the concept is new — or that it only dates to Fey’s 2004 film. There was probably a cavewoman who thought her rocks were better than her neighbor’s and made that emphatically clear.

I was curious about what our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations might have faced. So I asked my mom, who is in her eighth decade, if there was someone in her learning group who might have a helpful perspective. She connected me to Jan Elbaum of Laguna Woods, Calif.

Elbaum is 99, or as her family calls her, C-1 (century minus 1). She was a teacher and principal of a high school, earning her Ph.D. in 1940, and is an artist who works in several media. When I asked her if she’d experienced being on the receiving end of any mean girls as an adult, she said she had.

“It was in my early married life,” she said. “They usually traveled in a pack of sorts…They had an entourage, and the entourage either really admired the tone the mean girls were using or were afraid of being their victims.”

Her education, though she had not discussed it with any of them, was discovered and interpreted as being snobby, and one of the reasons she was picked on. Remember, this was a time when few women had Ph.D.s.

How to Move On

“Mean girls are women who have a negative point of view,” Elbaum said, “who always feel they are right and to be looked up to because of who or what they are.”

This certainly jibes with the Facebook responses I received. So what then should we do when we’re in their company?

“Don’t let yourself be minimized,” Elbaum said. Tell yourself you’re just as smart.” It’s also important, she said, to “rise above.”

All this brings me back to the question: Do mean girls know they are being mean? Mindy Greenstein, a clinical psychologist in New York, said it’s possible for someone to snub you without realizing it or to be mean without realizing it.

Greenstein said she’s no stranger to being on the receiving end of mean girl behavior. She now realizes that what bothered her most was her “inability to see and respond to it in real time” — a feeling to which we all can relate.

But while it can be useful later to consider what you wish you’d said (to aid you if there’s a next encounter), be careful not to blame yourself or reinforce negative thoughts about yourself. It’s more helpful to focus on forging real friendships with people you can talk to, depend on and enjoy.

“You don’t need to spend a lot of time theorizing about what was in their heads,” Greenstein said. Sometimes it’s better to simply move on.

A Sense of Entitlement

Perhaps some mean girls as adults are really just “misunderstood women.” But is it the job of other people to understand them? As grownups with years of life experience — and, in many cases the help of counselors or feedback from others — shouldn’t we be able to gauge how we’re speaking to one another, or if we’re behaving in an exclusive way that might be hurtful? Perhaps some mean girls are, in fact, mean.

It may simply come down to a sense of entitlement: the entitlement to tune you out — to subjugate your feelings to theirs. Whatever the reason, it’s likely not about you. When you’re on the receiving end of mean girl behavior (intentional or not), draw from your acquired knowledge about human nature and psychology and put the behavior into perspective. Then find your real peeps. The ones who spread happiness, not pain.

At that conference, I found two women who were also excluded, and we bonded instantly. It made us happy.

“When you’re not happy,” Elbaum told me, “it shortens your life.”

And C-1 would certainly know.

By Melissa T. Shultz
Melissa T. Shultz is a writer, and the acquisitions editor for Jim Donovan Literary. She's written about health and parenting for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Readers' Digest, AARP’s The Girlfriend, NBC’s Today.com and many other publications. Her memoir/self-help book From Mom to Me Again: How I Survived My First Empty-Nest Year and Reinvented the Rest of My Life was published by Sourcebooks in 2016. Melissa recently co-founded Card Sisters, a new line of greeting cards for women.    

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