It’s one of my earliest memories: one girl holding my wrist while another unbuckled my beloved Flik Flak watch –a present from my father – throwing it into the loo and flushing it with a laugh. I was six. Josephine* (as this junior ringleader was called) was my first encounter with a mean girl: popular, sporty, and didn’t like me, so made sure everyone knew it.
I was a sickly child with a limp due to a club foot, and when I’d moved to the school in year one, our well-meaning teacher would make the rest of the class walk behind me to assembly, so I wouldn’t come last. But the unsympathetic audience to my shuffle-step was terrible.
As well as the limp, I also had a stomach criss-crossed with surgery scars – something girls took great pleasure in mocking as we changed for PE, taunting in a sing-song voice, ‘What a pity Kitty’s got scars, no one will ever love her.’ I remember feeling ashamed, my gut hollow, my eyes stinging, my heart thumping. It’s a feeling I’ve become familiar with.
In my teenage years I got off relatively lightly, despite my health issues continuing, and eventually requiring me to have an ileostomy [similar to a colostomy] for a year – unpleasant at any age, but brutal at 16. Luckily, I’d found my gang – three fellow ‘misfits’, best friends who always had my back. When Josephine mocked my ileostomy bag in front of the whole class, their friendship created a barrier against which the cruel words (almost) bounced off.
I told myself that when I got older there would be no bullies, no mean words. Grown-ups don’t behave like that, do they? And wouldn’t I have the resilience and confidence to brush it off? But of course, life isn’t like that. In my early twenties I’d have to retreat to the loo to cry when a senior person at work belittled me, publicly tore apart my efforts and left me off email invites to office social events. I tried to toughen up, but the treatment hurt.
Then came the thousand small tortures that is social media. I remember sobbing when a group of women I considered good friends uploaded photos from a special night out. They hadn’t included me. It felt too petty to complain, but the snub was clear. My bruised little soul – still desperate to belong – was sad.
With motherhood came some new life- enhancing friendships, but also the realisation that those Mean Girls often turn into Mean Mums. These were women who gossiped about others, spreading untrue rumours, judging parenting choices, clothes, lifestyles. Recently, a mum I thought I was friendly with decided we definitely are not. She deleted me from Facebook, ignores me whenever our paths cross – and I don’t understand why. She has every right to decide she doesn’t want me in her life, but to the insecure six-year-old inside me, it feels horrible.
What’s going on? Is there something about me that provokes this behaviour? And why can’t I just (wo)man up? I’m no wuss; I’ve reported from war zones and overcome serious illness. I asked therapist and author Marisa Peer, who explained the driving human need to find connection and avoid rejection. ‘Our ancestors needed this to survive, therefore we have a primal fear of being excluded. Bullies deal with this fear by ganging up and excluding someone else, because as long as they’re doing the rejecting they aren’t being rejected.’
She points out that school-kids need to find common ground, so if you are different in any way, it can be hard to fit in. Most telling was her explanation of the pattern; the most tragic thing about being bullied as a child is that you learn that role, so continue to be bullied even if you move school, and also later in life. ‘We play the only part we know and it becomes our own. If you don’t want to play that part any more you have to change that narrative. So say the positive things you want to hear from others to yourself – the little girl inside you will hear and be buoyed up.’
The clinical psychologist Linda Blair agrees. She suggests that the grown-up Mean Girls haven’t found ways to feel good about themselves and try to raise their own self-esteem by putting others down: ‘That’s what keeps the bullies going, and if they see you’ve been affected they feel powerful.’
The key thing is how you respond – whether you’re bullied as a child, at work, or as a mum at the school gates. She says you have to shift ‘the habit of being hurt’. So when you next see that person, it’s important to be assertive. ‘Treat her as an equal. Say hi and smile. That makes you feel strong and takes away her power,’ she explains. ‘You must act as if you know you are equal to all the others, because you are. The more you do that, the more you will feel worthwhile, building your own self-esteem by standing up for yourself.’
I like her suggestion that confidence can be faked and ‘we are what we pretend to be’. If only I’d known that at the age of six – or even 26. Now, at last it’s time to tackle the fear of being left out, that old desperation to say or do something to gain approval. Why should I bother what the Mean Girls think?
I still have my beloved band of loyal school friends, even though we live far from each other now, as well as wonderful local friends and my beautiful family. I don’t need anyone else. Of course, I can’t change how some people behave towards me, but I can shrug, breathe and let it go – knowing it doesn’t change who I am, but says a lot about them