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The Psychology of Mean Girl Cliques

Personal essayist, blogger, traveler, artist and proud mother of two.

Rather than deal with the matter at hand in a direct manner, some women opt to backstab, gossip, and stereotype.

Rather than deal with the matter at hand in a direct manner, some women opt to backstab, gossip, and stereotype.

Often glorified by Hollywood teen flicks as buxom blonde cheerios sporting swanky hot cars and hunky quarterback boyfriends, the mean girls of real life do not always epitomize the stereotypical glam of their onscreen counterparts. Nevertheless, they exude the same kind of mean energy and boastful confidence when grooving collectively. They thrive in packs and almost always never go it alone as there is strength in numbers.

My brush with nasty sororities began in prep where a trio of golden-haired cherubic little girls ousted me from their playgroup for my refusal to exchange my brand-new Barbie doll with an older, worn-out version. My nth encounter was with the neighborhood gossips, an association of seafarer wives whose spiteful stares could chill any unsuspecting passerby to the bone. Clearly, mean girls are not just the stuff of Hollywood high school corridor legends or schoolyard politics. They abound in all ages, places, and races—be it in the media, the corporate setup of work, and last but not the least, the four corners of PTA meetings.

What Is Relational Aggression?

True to movie depictions of the all-girl social club reputed for their nastiness, real-life mean girls thrive on adoration, power, and exclusivity. Entry into their sacred circle would be akin to conquering the Great Wall of China and, for some, winning the lottery. What really sets them apart from all other cliques of society is the complicated nature of their friendships. On the surface, you see a group of like-minded females enjoying the perks of camaraderie and belonging. But, underneath that protective armor of sisterhood are clockworks of unspoken angst, covert jealousy, and competition. Psychologists call this relational aggression.

Defined by various researchers and experts as aggression intended to cause harm through damage in one’s relationship or social standing, relational aggression is a covert form of bullying more common among women, but not totally unknown to men. As opposed to the fisticuffs and brawn of boys and men who are prone to physical confrontation, girls and women, as quieter creatures, resort to passive-aggressive behavior when dealing with their offenders. Rather than deal with the matter at hand in a direct manner, women opt to backstab, gossip, stereotype, make fun of, and single out their target through rumors, isolation, or by totally excluding the person from the group as way of retribution. These behaviors are commonplace in the complex female world. I have witnessed the love-hate relationships of sisters, frenemies competing for the spotlight, the ditching of one best bud for another, spilling of secrets, sabotaging and other self-serving deceptive acts.

Women of all walks are drawn together into a posse by their very need for constant reinforcement.

Women of all walks are drawn together into a posse by their very need for constant reinforcement.

The Roots of Aggression

Insecurity breeds hostility and contempt. That is the name of the game of relational aggression. Often enough when a woman suffers from a strong sense of inadequacy, she clings to the very things that make her feel good with a certain fierceness and possessive passion. Threatened, she turns to devious avenues to defend her place in the social food chain.

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Regardless of age, women of all walks are drawn together into a posse by their very need for constant reinforcement. As they thrive on the security of membership, they soon learn of the incredible power that acting on something together promotes. Mean girls are defined by their collective strength. They attack as a pack. Perched high on the pedestals of solidarity, popularity, and influence, these women develop an insatiable need for control, and in the process, lose the ability to be compassionate towards the people outside their social group. It is when they find reward in their subtle acts of aggression that the meanness persists. However, as they continue to live up to their untouchable reputation outside their circle, they also grapple with power and politics within. In every mean girl clique standing tall among them is the leader of the pack. While she sets the rules of the game, the others follow without question out of fear of being ostracized or excluded from the group.

The Negative Effects

Carrie, a 31-year-old sales agent, suddenly found herself practically out in the cold after a falling out with one of her friends who was incidentally a fellow book club organizer and PTA member. After turning down her friend’s request a couple of times, Carrie became the target of jokes and sarcasms within their social circle until the feeling of loneliness and isolation finally compelled her to move on from the group and start anew.

Relational aggression cultivates depression, the feeling of shame, self-doubt, and ultimately low self-esteem in its victims. In young adults, many cases of RA have led to suicide and the numbers have increased with cyber bullying as a rising onset. Experts agree that relational aggression is as equally harmful as physical aggression and should therefore be deemed an important social issue. When unaddressed in childhood, the negative consequences of relational aggression can persist into adulthood—poor social skills, constant feeling of inadequacy, low educational performance, and therefore low income jobs. However, no one is totally safe from the venoms of prejudice and envy in any place or situation. You could have been a popular straight A student in high school and yet the laughingstock of many lunchtime conversations in your current place of work.

The author in her early school years

The author in her early school years

How to Stand Up to Relational Aggression

When you are suddenly ignored, consistently left out of social activities and conversations while becoming the target of nasty jokes and the subject of vicious gossips perpetrated by the very people who know you well, you may very well be at the receiving end of relational aggression. Dealing with the nasty pack in school, neighborhood, or in the workplace on your own is hard enough as it is, but there are several rules that can be applied to help you deal with this form of bullying effectively. And, here they are:

  • Do not fight fire with fire. Resorting to manipulation, rumor-mongering, and backstabbing to get back at your offender will just further ignite the flares of aggression rather than put out the flames completely.
  • Maintain professionalism in the face of provocation. The insults they throw at you reflect who they are. Hence, what comes out of your mouth in retaliation is also a reflection of who you are. Continue to produce high-quality work and use these aggravations as your fuel to strive for the best.
  • Hold your head high. Do not let your attackers see how terribly their actions have affected you. Remain confident despite the name-callings and insults.
  • Deal with the matter at hand without physically fighting back. Be prepared for the verbal attacks and have a witty comeback. Avoid being emotional and keep an even tone as you talk back.
  • Open up about your problems to loved ones and people you can trust. Keeping your problems to yourself will only add up to more anxieties and lead you into depression.
  • Move on and make other friends. If you belong to a group where you are constantly turned into a whipping boy, well, you deserve better. Move out and cultivate close friendships with one or two new people. Choose friends who can provide you with some healthy dose of support.
  • Practice compassion. Understanding how cliques work helps you realize why some people can be so mean. It also lets you see them as human beings with emotions and backstories that explain why they are.


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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