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Mommy Cliques: 7 Ways to Beat Being Outside the 'In' Group

What's the best way to deal with "mean girl" moms?

Does this story sound familiar? Like so many urban moms, when my son was a toddler I signed him up for a “gymnastics” group. My hope was that this would give us some bonding time that would also use up some of the energy that tended to overwhelm our small New York City apartment. I also hoped that he might make some friends.

What I hadn’t fully put into words was that I was also anticipating finding a new chum for myself. My circle of friends had older children, and I wanted someone to compare notes with and share this trip across new, personally uncharted territory. I wanted a buddy who could reassure me that I was a good mom and my child was a good boy, even when I was exhausted and he was acting like a miserable 2-year-old.

What I found, however, was very different – something that took me back to third grade, when my BFF moved away, leaving me to negotiate with the neighborhood mean girls by myself.

At the gymnastics class, adult conversations started and stopped as moms and nannies watched our (mostly) adorable offspring playing like awkward kittens on the equipment. Many of the other women (no dads in this group), it turned out, knew one another from the neighborhood or from other groups. Some had joined this activity expressly to be together. And no one, it seemed, was interested in making a new friend.

I was astonished to feel myself slip back into what seemed to be an exact repetition of that third-grade experience. I felt awkward, unattractive, and uninteresting. I wasn’t wearing the right clothes and didn’t look like someone they would want to know. Worse, these feelings colored my sense of who my son was as well. Clearly, my newly revived childhood self seemed to be saying, there was something about me and my child that was keeping these other women from wanting to be my friend or have their children play with mine.

Like mean girls everywhere, these women seemed to want me to know that they were leaving me out. Two of them appeared to intentionally wait until I was within earshot to make their plans to have lunch together or to take their children to the park after the group.

At first, I thought I was being paranoid. They couldn’t be doing this on purpose. Maybe they were just rude and insensitive, not mean on purpose. But gradually, I could not miss the fact that they seemed to wait to begin these conversations until a moment when I could not miss it. It seemed that they wanted me to know that I was being left out, that they were doing something together, without me.

And more painful, in those moments when I felt transported back to my own childhood sense of inadequacy and inferiority, was the sense that now my son was in the frame. These moms weren’t rejecting just me, but they were also rejecting my child.

If you have had any of these feelings yourself, you should know that you are not alone. Furthermore, neither the feelings nor the rejection itself mean that you are not a likable person, a good friend, or a good mom. As a psychotherapist, I have heard similar stories many times from clients who are happily married, successful at work, and often have a supportive and caring group of friends already. So what makes us so susceptible to grown-up mean girls? And what can you do about it?

1. First, it’s important to know that it’s normal to want a friend or a group of friends who are going through some of the same life phases that we’re going through. This need for a companion on a specific phase of our life journey has been called the desire for “chumship” by the psychologist Harry Stack Sullivan. It’s also a form of what Heinz Kohut calls a need for “twinship. Both of these are what they sound like — the normal and healthy wish to find someone who is like us.

So it’s important to engage in this search and eventually to find a companion for this stage of life. It’s also important to try not to reject old friends along the way. This isn’t always easy since it can be hard to put the same energy into old relationships that you did before becoming a parent. But beware of becoming a mean girl yourself in this process.

2. Remember that although the feelings may take you back to childhood, you are no longer the helpless youngster you have suddenly re-accessed in your psyche. You have a whole box of tools available to help you manage this experience.

There is an exercise I like a lot for this kind of situation:

Ask the adult part of yourself to speak gently and kindly, but with the knowledge of adulthood, to that young, hurt and angry part of you. What can you tell your young self about these mean women? What can you tell yourself about you?

If this doesn’t help you access some of those tools, try it a different way:

What would you say to your child if he or she came home upset about mean kids in school? How would you want to handle it?

You may find that you revert to things that your parents said to you, or that parents say to children in these situations. Things like, “Don’t pay attention to them,” “They’re not important,” “You have other friends who love you,” and “You’re better than they are.” The problem is, however, that children (and that child part of you) don’t always buy into these comments. They want to be friends with the kids who are rejecting them because those kids represent qualities the child would like to share – power, popularity, intelligence, success, athleticism, attractiveness, knowledge, sophistication.

Are those some of the qualities the mean women in your life possess? Do you hope to get it by being part of their group?

3. Once you’ve asked yourself these questions, you are ready to open up your adult toolbox and manage the problem in a new way. The first tool that you have is your knowledge that things are not always what they seem to be. Children take what they see at face value. If a girl looks happy, she must be happy; or even more concretely, if she is pretty, she is happy. But as an adult, you know that that’s a false conclusion (even if you forget it on a regular basis).

So ask yourself this question: If these women were so happy and comfortable with themselves, why would they need to make sure that you felt left out around them? What do they get from making you feel badly? (Oops, that was two questions, but they were part of the same idea).

Now, let’s use another tool to help your adult self answer that question.

4. This is the tool of psychological awareness, which says that meanness means something. Because of a developmentally appropriate self-centeredness, young children often assume that everything that goes on in their lives is about them. As they get older, they (hopefully) learn that there are other ways of seeing the world than through their own eyes. This is the beginning of empathy. But when we’re thrown back into our third-grade selves, we automatically lose that knowledge. We assume that the mean girls or women don’t like us because of something about us.

Your task now is to find the adult part of you — that part that can see things from someone else’s perspective — and ask it to think about what might be going on with the other person, or people, who are triggering these bad feelings.

Here are some of the things you might consider: Are they basically insecure? Do they need someone else (you) to want to be their friend in order to feel good about their own friendship? Do they need to be admired? Do they want you to feel that they’re better than you so that they can feel good about themselves? Or is it possible that one or both of them is actually shy, uncomfortable with new people, awkward about making conversation with someone they don’t know?

5. Obviously, if you’re in a situation like mine, where all you know about the person is how they present themselves for an hour one morning a week, a lot of your answers will be hypothetical. That’s fine. Because where we’re going with this is mostly in your own psyche. And here’s an interesting thought: In young girls, meanness is often a developmental stage. It is about trying to separate self from other, exploring aggression, and trying to establish an identity.

I haven’t done any scientific data collecting, but in both my professional and personal experience, I have found that mean girls often become nice women. You may have seen this yourself — sometimes among school girls, the one who is identified as mean can shift dramatically, as can who is “in” and who is “out” of any group.

Conversely, mean women seem to be stuck in their meanness. I suspect that this is often because, for whatever reasons, they have not been able to work through some of the feelings about themselves that create meanness in the first place: often feelings of inadequacy and inferiority.

6. Once you’ve thought about and tried to answer some of these questions as well as you can without actually knowing the person very well, you can ask yourself this: Do you really want to be friends with that person? If you do, then use this knowledge as a tool. Choose one woman. Consider that she may be hiding anxiety, shyness, or insecurity behind a façade of superiority.

And then, the next time you see her, try acting like a kind and caring big sister or older friend to her. What does this mean? Instead of trying to join her group, quietly say something about how adorable her child is, or how sweet something she is wearing looks. Don’t do it in a simpering or adoring way — try to speak as you would to a younger sibling or even to your own child! (If it helps, say to yourself, “Isn’t she cute” — which puts her into the position of a younger sibling, right?). And then walk away.

Don’t try to engage in a conversation, and if (miracle of miracles) she attempts to engage you, be friendly, but not overly friendly. And pull out of the conversation at the first possible moment. But do it kindly! Be gentle! Don’t be spiteful or mean in any way! This isn’t meant as revenge but as a tool for intriguing a possible new friend. Often mean girls (and mean women) are particularly unkind to anyone who looks desperate for their friendship. So if you stop seeming desperate, and in fact let them know that you are not intimidated and are just fine without them, something might shift.

Maybe, just maybe, the fact that you are not frantically trying to be her friend will intrigue her, and she will reach out to you next time. If not, continue the behavior for a while.

If she still doesn’t respond, then take some advice from Emily Blake, who has a post about this topic on Filler magazine: First, she says, avoid bullies when possible (and not, she says, by eating your lunch alone in a closet!). And second, she says, don’t become a bully yourself!

7. If you decide you don’t want to be friends with these women, remember that you are making an active decision based on their behavior. You have a choice. And once you let go of the desire to be friends with this particular group, you will very likely find someone (or a group of someones) more to your liking.

That’s what happened to me. I finally gave up on the gym moms. After the course was over, I started taking my son to a variety of other activities. At a couple of them, I met women who were as eager as I was to become friends. We discovered that we had a lot in common. Our kids liked each other as well! And the mean women lost their power and their place in my psyche and in my life.

Copyright F. Diane Barth 2015

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