Are You Being Bullied By Your Friends?

Mean Girls

by grazia |
Published on

How do you cope when the people who should pick you up drag you down? Grazia examines the rise in ‘relational aggression’...

It's easy to tell ourselves we’ve left behind the person we were in the school playground. The cattiness, the whispering behind your friend’s back, that ‘I’m not going to be your friend any more’ mentality. But how far have we come really? Bullying within a friendship – or, more specifically, ‘relational aggression’ – is the subtle, learned art form of emotional devastation, and it’s on the rise. In fact, a recent survey of women in their twenties and thirties revealed that 82% felt they had been targeted by a female friend in this way.

Shannon, 36, an accountant from Edinburgh, was shocked when a close friend started to pick on her. ‘I don’t have hundreds of mates but those friends I do have are like my extended family,’ she says. ‘That’s why it was so upsetting when, about 18 months ago, my friend Maggie starting acting strangely towards me. I’ve known Maggie for years – we’ve shared both brilliant and horrible times – but suddenly, out of nowhere, she was using my vulnerabilities against me. It started with comments about my career – an area she knows I worry about – suggesting I was punching above my weight by taking on senior roles, and how I should consider taking less well-paid, more junior roles that would be “better suited” to me. She went from being a confidante to someone who seemed hell-bent on denting my confidence at every given opportunity.’ Cheryl Dellasega, author of Mean Girls Grown Up, says this behaviour is increasingly common. ‘Women have always bullied each other, but I think we now have more opportunities – and can do it in more subtle ways, like through social media. There are so many more potential weapons of emotional destruction at our fingertips.’

And when it’s coming from a friend it’s much harder to deal with, or even acknowledge. ‘At first, I ignored it,’ says Shannon. ‘I made excuses for her, knowing how unhappy she’d been over the past couple of years. She had regularly leaned on me for support and I know people often lash out at those closest to them – I thought that’s what she was doing. The problem was, the snide, underhand comments continued to come in thick and fast. I worried about it every day and felt dread every time I saw a text from her.’

Dr Jessamy Hibberd, clinical psychologist, advises, ‘Sometimes, when people are unhappy or feeling insecure, they can take it out on those closest to them because feeling angry can be an easier emotion than feeling upset. When a friend is going through a difficult patch, you might excuse it the first couple of times but, if it’s ongoing, it’s important to deal with it head-on. You shouldn’t have to find excuses for someone’s behaviour.’

Kate*, 25, a PR from London, says one friend’s behaviour nearly lost her all her friends. ‘We were a gang of six who met in our first week of university,’ she tells Grazia. ‘Afterwards, we all moved down to London from Manchester and got jobs in media. My friend Sarah* and I got placements at a PR agency, which turned into full-time roles, but the group stayed close. After about a year, I started dating one of the guys in the office and, naturally, I told Sarah. I made it clear I was worried it might hurt my reputation and wanted to keep the relationship a secret until I was really sure about him. But within a day or so, everyone from the receptionist to the creative director knew we were an item and were making innuendo-laden remarks. When I asked Sarah about it, she just laughed and told me to stop being “so sensitive”. Over the next couple of months, Sarah started arranging “impromptu” girls’ nights out with the group without telling me. I’d see pictures on Instagram and Facebook of my friends all together without me. I felt silly and awkward and didn’t want people to think I was being needy by bringing it up. But I felt so lonely and left out, I was regularly crying myself to sleep. The people I’d usually talk to about how depressed I was were the ones making me feel like this.’

It took time, but both Shannon and Kate eventually confronted their friends. Shannon says, ‘For a while, I kept my distance, but we had long-held plans in the diary with another friend that I couldn’t cancel. The three of us went out for a lovely meal but, when Maggie and I travelled home together, she became more vile than usual, saying my outfit didn’t suit me and asking if I’d put on weight.

I decided it was now or never, so tried to explain how she’d been making me feel. While I was talking she rolled her eyes and smirked. When I began to cry she walked away from me. I went home devastated.’

Shannon hasn’t heard from Maggie since, but Kate managed to repair friendships with everyone but Sarah. ‘In the end, I called another friend in the group, Jayne*, who said Sarah had told everyone I was too busy with my new boyfriend to hang out with them any more,’ says Kate. ‘Sarah had planned a way to get me out of the social circle we all belonged to, maybe because she was jealous of my relationship. I sent a group text to all five friends, including Sarah, to tell them I had no idea about their get-togethers, as I’d never been invited. Everyone was shocked and so apologetic – apart from Sarah, whose response was to block us all on WhatsApp. We soon realised she’d been manipulating everyone and she’s no longer part of our group.’

Dr Hibberd thinks both Shannon and Kate took the right course of action by confronting the situation. ‘If your friend won’t accept any responsibility for their actions, it’s time to move on,’ she says. ‘There’s a perception that just because someone’s been a good friend in the past, we’re supposed to put up with anything, but that’s nonsense. Realise it’s OK to have friendships for a time and to let go of them if they’re not working any more. Instead, nurture those friends who won’t judge you and who care about you no matter what.’

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