Mean Girls

Posted on in On Our Radar by Carolyn Brown

From Poison to Nectar

This is not about the 2004 teen movie Mean Girls, and it’s not about teen bullying. It’s about me and you and us: adult women trying to live a good life—and evolve ourselves and the culture along the way. What does the yoga tradition offer to navigate our mean girl realities?

While some experts call it “relational aggression” or “social torment,” most women know from experience what mean girl behavior is, and how we feel when we’re the target. Mean teens harass or ostracize their victims, spread rumors, cyberbully, manipulate, or make hurtful comments—all to inflict pain and real psychological harm. The targeted girl(s) may have no understanding of why they are being targeted and see no way out of the situation.

Sound familiar from your youth? Ugh. Blatant or subtle, it’s a miserable experience. Unfortunately, we haven’t all outgrown our mean girl tendencies. In the adult world, mean girls show up in the workplace, community projects, neighbor dynamics, families, social situations, and, yes, “spiritual” circles. Everywhere. In adult form, mean girl behavior is usually more disguised, and there’s no parent or teacher to help shut it down. It’s not limited to women, of course. However, the competitive dynamics among women have their own roots and rhythms. And we as women have the power to end it.

One definition of an adult mean girl: She uses directly aggressive or passive-aggressive tactics to hurt, shame, humiliate, ostracize, or outmaneuver other women—to inflict harm and fear, gain advantage or make herself look better. She cultivates an aura of power and spreads fear so others will defer to her. At work, she deliberately leaves you out of important meetings or information flows. She undermines you in the eyes of your boss or clients. She is locked into a sense of competition with you. She intends to win.

Before we heap our frustration and shame on the most obvious mean girls in our circles, let’s be honest. We all carry a dose of mean girl instinct in our psyches. We all feel the occasional tug of the evil-minded demon who can dish it out with no thought to the damage…an instinct to fight back when we feel wronged or insecure. Even if we don’t voice our critiques or take mean girl actions, we are conditioned to notice the appearance, attitudes, and actions of other women. They are our standard and the standard to which we are compared. Too often we are more critical of another woman than we would be of a man in the same situation. There are so many layers and factors in this—more than can be sorted out here.

Young girls showing attitude and emotion
Young girls showing attitude and emotion

What can we do about the mean girls we encounter now? Obviously we can and must choose our close friends and confidantes wisely. For the most part we can ignore low-level mean girl behavior—not let it get to us. We can see it as a reminder to strengthen our own selfrespect and confidence, to stay focused on our own goals and actions. We can also take the opportunity to consider our own behavior on the mean girl spectrum.

What can each of us do to quiet the mean girl demon within us?

One antidote from the yoga tradition is the teaching on four aspects of love, which I taught in my yoga classes—usually around Valentine’s Day when our culture surrenders to obsession with storybook romantic love. These four aspects of love help strengthen and purify our hearts—and can bring our actions in line with our aspirations. They can also dissolve some of the mean girl energy in people around us.

First, maitri refers to friendliness, loving kindness, respect. The opposite? Fake friendliness, insincere compliments, reflexive “You go girl!” encouragement—whether or not that is honest, wise, or helpful. Maitri is an easy starting point to practice. Is our friendliness toward this other woman completely genuine? Are we fully supportive of a woman who wants what we want—that promotion, that lover, that spot in the limelight?

Second, karuna refers to compassion, willingness to feel what another person is feeling. Can we distinguish true compassion and “feeling with” another person from “feeling sorry for” another? Is there arrogance or avoidance creeping in? Are we prone to giving quick advice, sometimes with a small unconscious blade of sabotage—since her success threatens our own excuses? Karuna protects us from retaliating when we feel harmed, because in “feeing with” we remember that everyone is doing the best they can, and so we more easily forgive. That strengthens any true friendship.

Third, mundita is joy in the joy of others. It’s strong medicine for envy, jealousy, sabotage. Mundita is great fun to practice. What a joy it is to fully feel the joy in the joy of another person! To yippee with a friend or neighbor or colleague. To delight in her good fortune or the fruits of her efforts.

Fourth, upeksha is spacious, all-encompassing love—big enough to contain the foibles and failings of ourselves and others. Upeksha is all-inclusive: There is no in-crowd… no outsiders, no outcasts. Upeksha is like the sun, like a perfect blue-sky day. Everyone is included, equally. When we explore upeksha, we realize we have no need of gossip—of bonding with others by judging another. We don’t have the desire to exclude anyone from our hearts.

Given our wild, strong hearts, the mean girls around us and inside us don’t stand a chance!

Carolyn Brown periodically writes for Common Ground and is an artist and activist rooted in the Wild West.

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