Although relational aggression (RA) is often described in terms of a group of negative behaviors, all too often there's a mindset that goes along with these actions. After nearly a decade of involvement with a diverse group of girls and women, I see a common underlying condition that has recently been supported by research: social anxiety.
Aggressors may appear to be overly confident and even well liked (bullies are consistently identified as "popular" by their peers, but no one wants to pal around with them unless they have to). Inside, however, they suffer from insecurity and the worry that if their manipulations fail, so will their "friendships." Targets, who are on the receiving end of the RA time bomb, lack the confidence and self-esteem to stand up and speak out. Even bystanders, who watch but don't stop the word war taking place in front of them, aren't sure enough to intervene.
Obviously, (BIG DISCLAIMER), this is not an iron clad rule, but more often than not, sorts people into being the bully, target, or bystander; perhaps even all three. (Roles can change from day-to-day and place-to-place: in fact, the person who is stuck in one rut of RA behavior is the most worrisome.) Understanding this mechanism can help guide intervention and prevention programs, especially with young girls who are still in the stage of identity formation. Removing blame and shame from all three roles and building social skills is a more positive approach for women (and men) of all ages.
Unfortunately, we often lack insight into how we impact on others. Believing that gossip is relationally aggressive will at least make it clear that the behavior has the power to hurt everyone involved. Not sure where you fall on the RA continuum? Answer the questions below and then see if you can sort them into the category of aggressor, bystander, or target.
What's Your On the Job RA Quotient?
Circle the ones that are true for you
1. I've changed jobs a lot because of the people I had to work with.
2. Every day on my way to work, I plan what I will say and how I will act around my coworkers, just to be sure I don't get taken advantage of.
3. I'm always angry when I'm at work, but rarely tell anyone.
4. I'm sick of watching the other people at my worksite bicker.
5. People I work with don't like me, and I don't care. None of them are worth hanging around with anyway.
6. I take secret joy out of seeing another coworker "get what she deserves" for poor performance.
7. Secretly, I think I am more competent than most of the people I work with. It's a shame.
8. I work harder than my coworkers.
9. None of my coworkers the last word with me; even if I have to respond later. I need to make people know I can't be pushed around.
10. At least once a day when I'm at work, I listen to gossip, pass on
gossip, start gossip, or am the subject of gossip.
11. If I'm angry, I sometimes ignore or act rude to my coworkers as a
12. I get excluded from joining others in breaks or meals, or I do the
13. The emotional climate at my workplace contains a lot of "drama"
14. My feelings are often hurt by women I work with.
15. I can't say "no" to my coworkers because I know they will be upset with me.
© Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D.