Do prepubescent hormones precipitate Mean Girl Syndrome? I wonder….
This genre of psychological warfare wasn’t a defined “thing” when I was a kid. But I learned at the delicate age of eleven all about the cruelty of the pathology.
In sixth grade I was a popular girl, securely tethered to a group of other popular girls. I did well academically. I was carefree. Life was a series of sleepover parties, giggles, pony rides, boy curiosity, and creative play.
One day, for no reason I could discern, my best friend, Louise, decided to shun me. We were both boisterous girls, perhaps a bit bossy and full of ourselves, the presumptive class leaders. We weren’t conscious of our coronation. It’s just how it was. And I certainly do not tell you this to boast about that dubious distinction but simply to depict that when I fell, I fell from a high perch into the abyss of humiliation and rejection.
Not only did Louise decide to stop speaking to me, she succeeded in rallying our mutual friends to her side of this manufactured battle. Worse, she made sure the entire class of boys and girls fell in line under her command.
It is well known that one of the most effective tactics one can deploy to break a person’s spirit is ostracism. That was her weapon. For weeks, not one person in the class would speak to me or even acknowledge my presence. Even if they were sitting next to me, had to hand me something, had to ask or answer a question. Louise had a firm grip on them all.
I remember one girl. She was naturally kind and wanted to be friendly, but she refrained from doing so when Louise’s evil eye bored into her. I could feel the fierceness of that hateful gaze without even looking directly at it. I found myself feeling sympathy for the poor girl on the receiving end.
During class, the isolation was relatively bearable. I could focus on the lessons and distract myself with the teacher and the work. But lunchtime and recess were excruciating. I was left to eat by myself and play (cower) outside alone. No one would come near me.
I recall about a week into this, my teacher pulled me aside. She noticed what was happening. With compassion, she asked me if I would like her to intervene. I appreciated her kindness but, of course, that would be the worst thing she could do! I thanked her but begged emphatically, please do not do anything.
I remember each day after school crying hysterically as soon as I got home. My mom comforted me, but she didn’t baby me. She very matter-of-factly told me simply to hold my head up. She advised me not to let anyone see how hurt I was. Like Michele Obama, she coached me to go high even if all others were going low. She believed that people would come around sooner or later. She urged me to be polite, stay strong, maintain my self-respect, and just wait it out.
Which is exactly what I did, painful and difficult though it was. I acted as if nothing about their behavior was odd or strange. I was courteous and non-reactive. I literally pretended I didn’t notice what they were doing. It was hard, but I did it without faltering. I never cried. I never begged for mercy. I smiled. I maintained poise. It was quite a feat for a young child, but somehow, I managed it.
The shunning only lasted a few weeks. As suddenly as it had begun, Louise stopped being a mean girl and started talking to me again as if nothing ever happened. What is even more crazy, I was willing to resume our “friendship!” Once she started talking to me, everyone else started talking to me, and the whole matter just receded without a trace, as mysteriously as it had emerged.
With the hindsight of maturity and wisdom, I suspect I must have done something that sparked her jealousy or threatened her ego. Rather than share the spotlight, she decided to grab it all for herself. Perhaps, in the end, the only reason she gave up fighting me was because the others grew weary of her tyranny. Maybe she chose to surrender before the tables were turned on her. Would I have returned fire? I don’t know.
This strange episode certainly was traumatizing at the time, but I can honestly say I am grateful for it, because quite early in life I learned a valuable thing. I learned how to withstand the criticism, judgment, hostility, and rejection of others. Being battle-tested this way created in me an inner courage I may not otherwise enjoy now. I do not fear being rejected. I do not worry if I take a controversial stand on some issue that others don’t approve or like. I know how to endure negative reactions from people. I know I will survive them. This experience strengthened me so much that I can fearlessly assert my truth no matter what the consequences may be.
So, Louise, thank you for the gifts of courage and freedom you unwittingly helped me develop!