Friday, March 7, 2014

Mean Girls Redux

I didn't write last night -- failure in aisle 7 -- and I did it on purpose. I came home from a play around midnight, popped myself some popcorn, and ate it with a box glass of wine. I wanted to write about something sexy, but some of the comments about my post about Mean Girl kept nagging at me, blocking my ability to write something clever about .... well, that sexy post will happen later.

So I decided I'd write about that, but when I started to write, I realized I was going to come across as judgmental and angry -- more so than the situation deserved -- because some of the comments tripped booby traps about other, far more difficult, situations. It didn't seem fair, so I decided to put off writing about it until today. And yes, I'm going to fucking backdate this post. It's not cheating when it's my blog.

Several people who commented on various conversations -- most happened on Facebook in a couple of threads -- were most concerned about Mean Girl. They felt sorry for her. They assumed long-term neglect and people possibly threatening her like she'd threatened Coraline. Until I mentioned it, nobody said anything about Coraline or what the experience might be like for her as she moves into a world where she'll face more and better bullies. People wanted to understand Mean Girl; they wanted me to have corrected her, to have taken care of her so she wouldn't make the same mistake again.

I have really nice friends, and I love them for it. We don't always agree, but I adore them for their loving hearts. I do.

And I'm going to admit, I'm super sensitive to the protection bullies get from nice people who want to figure out why they're in so much pain -- because they must be in pain, right? Nobody would be mean just because they like to be mean, right? It's noble as all fuck, except that .... well, I decided to just share here what I wrote in one thread about my position on bullies and sociopaths.

I also have to confess that taking a day to sit on it was a good idea. When I went back and looked at those comment threads, I didn't see nearly as much sympathy for Mean Girl as I thought I had. It was there, but my reaction was bigger than it needed to be; it was colored by other situations, both past and present. So I'm glad I didn't write last night when I was angry and frustrated, although I do my best writing when I'm mad.

Anyway, here are my responses. I'm going to edit them slightly so they will be clear in the context of this post. Those of you who've already seen them, flip on back to your Facebook feed. Nothing new to see here. (I didn't get permission from anybody else to reprint their words, so you'll have to assume the questions I'm answering.)

"I don't know the little girl or her mother. I have only those minutes of experience with them, so I can't say whether I feel sorry for either of them. The little girl didn't seem unhappy, and she wasn't trying to get her mother's attention. Some kids do act out because of neglect. On the other hand, some people like to be cruel. Sympathy is wasted on them, and the idea that they are simply in pain and can be fixed or even understood is a dangerous one ...

I've studied sociopaths and bullies a lot over the past 3 years. It's dangerous to think they're like other people because they learn to manipulate people in ways you or I wouldn't think of. In ways we wouldn't recognize because it's so far outside of our choices for our own behavior. It's dangerous to assume someone who doesn't have empathy can or will learn empathy simply because they get sympathy. They use sympathy to manipulate people and further create havoc for their victims.

There's also a pattern of feeling sorrier for the bully than for the victim that many people fall into, because they think they have to understand why the bully (or sociopath) is behaving that way. And they think the bully must be in pain or he or she wouldn't act that way. So they try to get to the bottom of the pain .... In the meantime, the bully is just digging the attention, doesn't stop his or her behavior (often accelerates it), and the victim has been entirely neglected by people trying to help or fix the bully.

In this case, nobody has said a word of sympathy for Coraline, maybe because I didn't portray her as being damaged by the experience or maybe because she had 2 adults there to protect her. Maybe if she had cried she would be sympathetic? Anyway, since she's 2, I have no way of knowing how she integrated that experience into both her knowledge of how other people will act when she's being friendly and how she should behave with other people ...

[Mean Girl] certainly could have been experimenting, although she was at least 4 years old, so she had to have been told at some point that her behavior wasn't appropriate by someone. As I said, I can only relate the experience as it happened, and that Elvira and I really didn't know if we should engage with her and try to explain why her behavior wasn't nice or just walk away. It didn't seem worth engaging with her or her mother, although we might have made a different decision if Coraline had been upset. Really, the only thing I want Coraline to take away from it would be that it's not OK to behave that way. However, I wasn't going to introduce the idea of cutting people to her just to make that point. She didn't understand what the girl said and has no context for it, which is just fine. The growling she needs to recognize as a dangerous behavior in any animal though ...

I have to strongly disagree with [one friend who said he didn't believe in giving up on people no matter what]. Some people do not have the capacity for empathy or regret or guilt. They are dangerous people, and not all of them become serial killers. They do wreck havoc in nice, normal people's lives though. Because they don't feel guilt or remorse, they have no reason to change. Therapy designed to teach them empathy backfires, because it teaches them how to manipulate people instead. I don't dismiss or forget them ever. I avoid them when I can. I still don't know how to deal with them if I can't.

I'm not, just to be clear, saying that little girl is a sociopath. She was nice at first, and then she turned mean. I have no idea what that was about, and never will. I also have no idea if she deserves sympathy. Her mom might be more engaged with her most of the time. It was a snapshot of them, not a story. I was more interested in the reaction my class had to the story.

(In response to people who said I should have taught her a lesson.) First, I have no problem correcting children's behavior, my own or others. I do it every single day. This wasn't a case where I thought I could be effective, so I didn't. Had the girl's head started spinning and spewing pea soup .... I still wouldn't have. Her mother was sitting right there. It would have made no difference at all if I had told that child she was being mean. Behavior like that requires sustained attention, and if it's not being reinforced, I would simply have been wasting time I could spend with Coraline.

(In response being asked if I don't think it's better to try to understand bullies.) As for understanding sociopaths and their cousins the bullies, I can only say I have studied them both through an academic lens and a personal, anecdotal lens. I recognize their behavior and the patterns in their behavior. I recognize the patterns of behavior and emotions they elicit in their victims and also in people who are not their victims. So I guess I understand them because I understand their behavior and what to expect from them and others.

I do not, however, care so much *why* they behave the way they do, because the factors vary. Some people choose that behavior from what they see other people doing. They think it's an effective way to get attention (and it does work for many bullies) or impress their friends (again, it works). Or they are mimicking someone they look up to. Some people are born mean; their propensity for those behaviors can be detected in a brain scan. I'm more interested in understanding how the rest of us can stay safe from them -- physically, emotionally, socially -- and so far I do *not* have an understanding of how to do that. In other words, I don't take into consideration why someone is a bully before I protect myself from him or her. Same with a rapist (really just an extreme form of bullying). I will leave the caring about the reasons to people who think they can be reformed. I just want them to leave me alone ...

In this case, Coraline wasn't aware that she was being bullied, so it was easy to walk away from. The harder situations to deal will be when she knows she's being bullied, or when it's a sustained bullying behavior. Then the question of how to deal with bullies when you can't walk away arises, and it's not an easy one to answer. Very few methods effectively deal with the behavior."

The End

The next post will be sexy. Cross my left boob heart.

Mostly we just had fun.


  1. My policy is to get as far away from people who snap and bite and cut as possible, as fast as possible. I'm glad you all were paying attention and not over there texting so that you were able to remove Coraline from the situation before anything physical happened. I'm also glad she was not visible affected by the incident.

    1. I am also glad she was oblivious to the way Mean Girl was acting. It won't always be so.

  2. Replies
    1. Much as I can understand the frustration and pain of watching your child be bullied -- or anyone you love -- this wasn't the way to handle it. Now the mom is the bad guy.

  3. I'm SO glad Coraline has such thoughful and strong women as role models in her life. And that you are willing and (mostly) able to simply stay away from bullies. I wish more people understood that the sooner we stop giving them any kind of energy, the sooner we can be free.

    But I'm torn about the impulse to understand and show compassion for bullies. I think it comes from two needs: first, to reconcile the cognitive dissonance triggered by such horrifically cruel behaviors, and second, to relieve the fear (terror) and discomfort that come when we feel stuck having to share the planet with monsters. Rephrasing "monsters" as "people with monstrous behavior" takes some of their power over our emotions away...and further rephrasing it as "hurt children in grown-up bodies acting out their previously experienced pain" further diminishes the terror, because it makes them seem closer to what we understand to be "human."

    There's a Buddhist story I love that came up during our Covenant Group session on forgiveness last month that I think applies. "A pair of monks were journeying through the mountains and encountered a woman trying to cross a river. Even though their religion forebade any physical contact between a monk and a woman, the older man invited her to climb onto his back, and he carried her safely to the far shore. The monks then continued their silent journey, although the younger was obviously upset and struggling. Finally, as they approached the monastery that evening, the younger monk burst out: 'How could you have let that woman touch you??' The older replied, 'I left her at the river. Why are you still carrying her?'"

    I believe that reframing a bully as a wounded child can help victims and witnesses "release them at the river," so we're not stuck carrying the trauma and terror as intensely as we otherwise would. But this can easily go too far.

    The danger is, as you said, when we begin to believe the self-comforting rephrasings so much that we forget to protect ourselves and/or the bully's victim(s). If there's anything I learned in my years as a happy hippie, it's that neither fear-based, conservative withdrawal into personal bunkers OR love-based, blissful trusting of all beings (to the point of having zero boundaries) will bring peace to us or the world. We have to balance protection with compassion, and when we do lower our boundaries, do so consciously and with support -- ideally as part of a larger approach (i.e. the nonviolent civil rights movements of Gandhi and Mandela and King that deliberately exposed courageous activists to brutality in an effort to raise awareness of the bullying for what it was and create true, lasting, widespread behavioral transformation).

    And when we can do that, we can manifest a more beautiful, safe and love-based world -- the kind that creates fewer and fewer victims every year. But both the love AND the vigilance must never cease.

  4. Sorry, Ria. I can't agree that reframing bullies does anything to stop their behavior. You wrote we should see them as '"hurt children in grown-up bodies acting out their previously experienced pain" further diminishes the terror, because it makes them seem closer to what we understand to be '"human."' Very often, that simply isn't true. It might give you the reassurance you need that we can control bullies or their behavior by understanding them and offering them compassion, but that can be the wrong thing to do as well. I can't afford idealism when it comes to dealing with bullies. Stopping the behavior has to come before understanding their inner hurt children -- which may or may not exist in the first place. I'll say again, it's dangerous to assume that bullies are in pain. Often they are enjoying every minute of their victim's pain, and they have nothing but contempt for people who try to tame them with compassion.