Feb 062012
 

So, I’ve been thinking about bullying lately – specifically girl bullies.

I just wrote this post about how to communicate, ending with the thought that, in addition to being able to tell someone how their behavior makes you feel, you really need to be able to HEAR when someone tells you how your behavior makes them feel.

Well now. For some people, asserting one’s feelings and needs is the hard part, and for other people, taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions (especially in the form of someone else’s hurt feelings) is the hard part.

Which is where bullying comes in.

Boiled down to nothing, the dynamics among girls are such that it’s not okay to tell someone you’re angry with them or hurt by them, because then you’re “in a fight,” and the other girl will rope in friends to side against you, she’ll escalate your offences in order to maintain those friends’ alliance, and they’ll use that alliance to isolate and stigmatize you.

Eventually one of you will apologize, and whoever apologizes “loses.” They capitulated.

It’s a zero-sum world where only one person is allowed to be hurt at a time, and usually that person is the one with greater social capital.

The alpha girls (“queen bees”) of this scenario are characteristically uninterested in taking responsibility for another person’s hurt feelings, insisting that that person is “too sensitive” or has blown everything out of proportion. She feels entitled to take revenge when someone hurts her, but judges and shames anyone who attempts revenge on her or even tries to communicate with her that she hurt them.

In other words, she is TERRIBLE at hearing that her behavior made someone feel bad, and she has the social capital to punish the other person for saying anything.

What on earth do we do to get this person to listen?

Better question: what is it that’s preventing her from listening?

1. It sucks to feel that you’ve hurt someone’s feelings; it doesn’t align with your vision of yourself as a good person. If you perceive yourself as a good person AND you’re very popular, doesn’t that prove you’re a good person and therefore this other person must be wrong?

2. Apologizing is capitulating, losing – specifically, losing social capital, which is the primary currency among these groups. There is more to lose (in the short term) by acknowledging responsibility for hurting this person than there is by pushing blame on to the target.

3. For some people it genuinely does not compute, this notion that you’re NOT actually allowed to do anything you want. Especially when you’re popular. “I’m allowed to do what I want and if she doesn’t like it, she can suck on it,” is what feels fundamentally true to the alpha girl.

4. In these cultures, negative feelings are viewed as weapons: simply to FEEL BAD is to hurt those around you. It’s a classic emotion dismissing framework, where people are punished simply for feeling hurt or angry or sad or lonely or overwhelmed. In such a culture, for me to say to you, “When you do X, that hurts my feelings” is to HURT YOU. I threw my hurt all over you, like vitriol, and therefore you’re allowed to do whatever you need to defend yourself.

What to do about it. Just as with other forms of violence, it’s perfectly reasonable for a person to learn to protect themselves, but prevention really lies with the perpetrator: to prevent bullying or any form of emotional abuse, potential bullies/alpha girls/whatever MUST learn to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

I don’t know how to do this. But if you’re a person who has believed that you’re allowed to do what you like and it’s not your fault if it hurts people, understand that there are rules about what is okay or not in a fight:

1. No name calling of any kind. No “bitch” or “asshole” or anything.
2. No physical touch when either person is angry.
3. No ultimatums or threats, including “I’m going to leave you” while either person is angry or upset
4. Your feelings do not entitle you to anything.
5. If someone says your behavior made them feel something, your first job is to believe them. They are reporting true and important information.

And finally:

The social rules you learned in school or from your parents are not necessarily the ones that will serve you well in life. If you cling to those old rules because they are familiar, you will be trapped in the same pattern of relationships you’ve always experienced. If you are satisfied and content with those relationships, okay. If you would like to improve your relationships, it’s time to find some new rules to follow.