The Mormon Mean Girls won’t quit. Lonely, betrayed, and isolated women keep showing up to my Utah based maternal mental health practice bereft over their toxic interactions with rejecting and unkind Mormon women. The behavior sounds like teenagers of bullying Mean Girls fame. But the actors are adults. Why is this happening to grown up women? Does it happen outside of Mormon culture? Curiosity soon had me observing signs of Mean Girls at work in all my communities.
A review of research literature on the topic revealed that relational aggression does persist into adulthood and is not the exclusive domain of women or specific to Mormons. Relational aggression uses threat and injury to our deeply human need for connection to overpower and harm the targeted victim. It is violence of words, eye-rolls, neglect, exclusion and gestures that inflicts invisible injuries. It can be as simple as the front section of seats at the school assembly taped off with a sign that reads, “Reserved for PTA Moms Only.” It might be the friends in the meal prep group all being called to the Young Women’s presidency together. Or the neighbors that water ski together on the weekend but never extend an invite to one neighbor family.
Exclusion and rejection are the most common threads in these experiences where everyone (family, friends, neighbors, and/or ward members) get together for a shared purpose. The target is secretly excluded or not invited. Later the target learns of the missed event from others. The knowledge may be dropped accidentally or the target might be directly informed of their exclusion by an in-group member, “So and so is uncomfortable around you” or “We thought since your son came home from his mission you might not want to be celebrating.” Pictures are posted to social media, again without any regard to how the target will feel when they realize they are excluded. The message delivered to the excluded individual is “You don’t belong. You don’t matter. We don’t want you.”
Other weapons of relational aggression include rumors, gossip, concern trolling, dismissal, undermining, doxing or online pile-ons. It looks like hierarchies where power and influence are hoarded by an elite in-group. It looks like a group that belongs and others that are cruelly informed they do not belong. A target that chats with the spouse of a neighbor across the hedge while gardening is whispered about as a husband stealer. Judgements about the spouse or children of an individual might be used as a reason to insult a target or gossip about them. A group gets together at a work place, on a play date, or online and they bond over their collective superiority in comparison to the wrongness of the target. Often the violence is driven by a group member that acts as a go between, filtering negative stories to the group leader to justify the unleashing of relational aggression. Instigators might reach out with their rumors to those outside of the group to inflict greater harm on the target. They aim for losses such as a release from a church calling, termination of employment, broken relationships, and ruined reputation.
Why do adults engage in these adolescent antics? The bullying behavior of relational aggression is fueled by feelings of inferiority and powerlessness in humans regardless of age. It doesn’t just happen to Mormons. It is common in work places, particularly in occupations that lack power within a hierarchy, such as nursing.
Mormons are especially prone to relational aggression because of the hierarchy of priesthood power and how that power is expressed. A hierarchy of leaders determine worthiness and belonging through subjective judgement or discernment. A criminal can be called as a leader. The best human can serve in beta callings for a lifetime. The lack of transparency around who receives or is released from a calling breeds opportunity for rumor and judgment. The secrecy of a disciplinary council or simply the assignment of ministering teachers create conditions for exclusion. In the absence of transparency it is easy for an influencer to create prejudice about a target with rumor and conjecture.
Humans are wired for connection. Being received by a community with empathy and love creates safety, well-being and heals emotional injury. It is what Jesus taught as he referred to the Church as a body (we are all interdependent connected parts of a whole) and as he counseled us to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The intentional severing of connection has devastating consequences as evidenced in the many clients paying for mental health services to treat the emotional injuries of relational aggression.
When we are at our most stressed, moving through life transitions such as marriage, parenthood, new employment, losing our faith, death of a loved one –we are at greatest risk of being triggered by shame into a mental health crisis. This is when we need connection most. When we need our voice to be heard. When we need to be received with empathy.
Shame researcher Brene Brown describes secrecy, silence and judgement as the petri dish that allows shame to grow and thrive. She identifies scarcity culture as a multiplier that exacerbates these conditions. Relational aggression feeds shame with the othering message that a target does not belong. On the receiving end of relational aggression we are isolated, rejected, and other. There is something wrong with us that causes our people to reject and harm us when we need them to survive.
What can we do as adults when we are targeted by relational aggression? We must reclaim connection using our voice and moving into responsive action.
Speak: When it is safe to do so, speak up. Connect to safe people outside of the community where you are a target and name what is being done to you. Describe the impact it is having on you. Discuss it with a therapist. Connect with support groups in person or online to validate what you are experiencing and to remind you what it is like to be received with kindness and respect. Interrupt the secrecy of the aggressors and you will begin to find relief from the shame of being targeted.
If the relational aggression is coming from family or other permanent people in your life rehearse with a therapist or friend how to tell them that they are hurting you. Practice saying no to interactions that will hurt you. Experiment with boundaries to keep you safe in the future.
Move: Trauma is nastiest when we feel fear and we are trapped. It is 100% human and normal to feel fear at being rejected from a group that we believe we need to survive. Being trapped escalates the fear to trauma. Some clients have moved their children to different schools to escape a toxic PTA or chose to forgo callings to attend a different ward. In a workplace case of relational aggression, documenting the acts creating a hostile work environment may allow you to find relief through a responsive manager or a human resources department.
If you are experiencing relational aggression in a physical community, moving to a new home in another ward/school district/neighborhood may not be a viable option. You have every reason to feel trapped! If you cannot physically remove yourself from the harm is it possible to identify the needs you are trying to get met through connection to the aggressors? What resource are they hoarding as you experience scarcity? Can you get what you need from someone else and emotionally move to a safer source? What other communities or connections might you nurture to eventually transition those needs to empathetic people? If you cannot easily remove yourself from the reach of the threat are there boundaries you can set to reduce the harm being done to you?
Finally, we can improve all the communities we engage in for connection by doing the hardest thing and minding our own tendencies towards relational aggression. Where do you feel you have the least power? When do you feel the most insecure? These are the spaces to ask, “Lord is it I?” And to notice when we are judging others as our means of connection. To notice when we are being the information broker spreading news and stories that do not belong to us. To be on the lookout for our own tendency towards secrecy, silence and judgement and to note when it is hardest for us to express empathy. It is never too late to reject relational aggression and begin to cultivate authentic connections built on empathy and vulnerability.
When have you been on the receiving end of relational aggression? What did you do about it? How did you survive?