Recently, I told my closest friend, “I don’t know why women have a reputation for back stabbing and competing with each other. I couldn’t survive without all the women in my life who love and support me. I know nothing about this female combat everyone refers to.” She thought my outlook indicated that I had been pretty blessed in life and that I probably send out a vibe letting women know that I won’t be participating in that kind of play.
But a few days later, I was listening to school-age girl friendship stories, and I was like, “Oh yeah, that. That, I do remember. And it hurts. ”
I’ve been tossing around ways to support my daughter (and her friends who have trusted me with their stories) through the crooked path and rough terrain of friendship. Should they grow a tough exterior and keep their guard up never trusting each other? Should they keep their heads down and focus on their work? You probably remember versions of these stories…
Anne: We were sixteen, best friends and at sleep away camp. She borrowed a dress, but when she tried to zip it up, it wouldn’t budge. It was too small. She got red in the face and sneered, “Well, I guess this settles the debate; I am bigger than you.” I froze. I had not been aware of our unspoken competition. She was cold to me for a few days. I heaped my plate full for her to see. I complimented her endlessly. I tried to make myself less pretty, less desirable. Eventually, we grew apart.
Kirsten: We were in college; I was a sophomore and she was a junior. We both were recommended for a leadership role and she hated that I was on the advisory committee with her. Before I came along, she’d been the star of department. She stared straight ahead when I took a seat next to her. When I spoke in front of the group, she rolled her eyes and looked at the ceiling. She refused to laugh when I made jokes during meetings. Later in the school year, overwhelmed by my full load, I missed a few meetings. She cornered me in the cafeteria to confront me in front of other committee members. “You think you’re entitled to do this any way you please?” she hissed. “Now it’s clear you are not who everyone thinks you are.“ I can still feel the sting of those words as I type them. Humiliated, I tried to explain that I wasn’t slacking; I was just a little under water. I mumbled apologies; I shuffled my feet. I promised to try harder. I still remember her smug smile as she saw me become smaller, less confident and dynamic.
Kathleen: I was working my first post-college job. She’d been at the company a year longer than me. She was sparkly, funny and the most likeable gal on the floor. I spied her on my first day, noticed our similar dispositions and thought we’d be great friends. She created distance between us. She belittled me in front of superiors, brushed me off in front of clients and was dismissive when we were alone. I was miserable around her. At some point we reorganized the department and I answered directly to her. I learned that if I acted dumb and confused she was kind to me. If I had a great idea or suggestion, she was mean to me.
Victoria: For my 35th birthday I had five celebrations. I had a widespread friend base, and several of them, unbeknownst to each other, hosted little somethings special for my big day. Everyone who threw me a party invited her. After the third one – two lunches and a dinner – she sniffed and loudly said to me, “We sure are doing a lot of celebrating of Joy these days, aren’t we?” I apologized for the attention. I joked about it and acted as if it were all such a bother, all of these parties, all of these moments about me…. A month later we had a small misunderstanding and she hasn’t spoken to me since.
Once I began to think about it, I came up with many stories of my own that show how tough we women are on each other and how tricky our relationships can be. No wonder a friend of mine recently wanted to keep her professional success quiet. “I just don’t want to give anyone a reason to hate me,” she said. Even Sheryl Sandberg once asked her friends to stop mentioning it when her name showed up on the Forbes’ list of the world’s most powerful women.
As I’ve grown, I’ve been lucky (or intentional enough) to find ways to navigate around these women and make room for the ones who love me – all of me. Now I can hardly remember the me who willingly made herself less-than so that others felt more secure. But I did, Lord knows even though it never really worked, I tried. When I think about those gals now, I still feel a little sting, but I also can muster up some compassion. Common threads in the stories of all those women are childhood pain and fearful outlooks. Deep down they just didn’t feel pretty enough, smart enough, or liked enough unless they put me down. Seeds of insecurity grow into large roots or even tree trunks of poor behavior. I happened upon them before they figured out the universal truth that brings peace to all women: I am enough. There are enough slices of pie in every area of life to go around.
How about those girls of all ages who are getting the first taste of the underbelly of female friendships? They are experiencing the this-is-a-two-person-game during recess, the gossip, the put-downs, the you-are-my-best-friend-today-but-tomorrow-i-will-inexplicably-shun-you, the friend-until-a-boy-is-around behavior. I dunno…. It’s so clear from a distance that those girls are sad, lonely and scared, but that doesn’t make it any less painful to be around them.
If I could speak to the girls on the confusing, receiving end of this treatment, I guess I would say that if you have a friend who needs you to be less than yourself in order for her to feel good about herself, tread lightly. Love her from whatever distance you need to create so that you can still feel comfortable being fully you. Know that somewhere deep within she feels wrecked and from her wounding comes all the dark, ugly stuff you see. With enough love and support, someday she’ll heal. For now, you can be a beacon of hope in the love you show her, but go forward knowing it’s probably not a two way street. Someday she’ll look back and recognize that you were true blue and maybe that will serve as a guide for her. But for now, pick your head up and look around, my darlings. There are so many other girls and women out there for you. Most all of us are broken in big and tiny ways – you are too – but that’s why we need each other especially more. There are girls who will inspire you and who will feel inspired by you; there are girls who will feel lifted up as you soar and who will drag you even higher. Run as fast as you can in their direction, wrap your arms around them and spread your wings together. I love how Paul F. Davis instructs us with such clarity, “If you don’t feel it, flee it. Go where you are celebrated, not merely tolerated.”
But look with compassion on the mean ones. Someday you will realize that in a particular relationship you are the mean one. Shocker, I know, but it’s likely to happen. Insecurity does not discriminate; it seeks us all out over time. If you see mean girls now through the eyes of grace, you will have an easier time showing it to yourself and changing your course later.
We girls are complicated and hold the capacity for a full spectrum of emotions and behaviors – love, hate, greed, passion, loyalty, honor and betrayal just to name a few. But we are all also yearning for the same things – grace, mercy and sanctuary. Sweetie Pies, do your part to offer these gifts to the world around you… even to the mean girls.
PS – What’s your friendship story? Tell me tell me tell me!