How a childhood memory of mean girls can follow you into adulthood
Once you’ve survived the wrath of mean girls, you see everything differently.
Somehow, I’d made it all the way to third grade wholly unaware of social structure, popularity, cliques, and the concept that somebody could prefer one human being over another. I loved school, singing, dancing, and “writing screenplays” on MS Word 2000 on my dad’s giant clunky Dell PC. I was the loudest giggler and best speller in class, and I had a crush on Nathan, star of the local youth soccer league. The Coastal Florida youth soccer scene was a big deal, and since Nathan was the king of it, I wanted him to like me. That meant I had to be a big deal in my own right, too. For little boys in my elementary school, superiority was achieved through athletics. For little girls, it was achieved through popularity.
At some irreversible point in the school year, a social queen was established: Rose. She and her four best friends had been deemed The Popular Girls of our third grade class, and social factions were now integral parts of our lives. I’m still uncertain if this was a gradual change, or if 8 years old is merely the age when the human brain decides to accept this stark vision of group dynamics. Rose was pretty and wore expensive clothes, plus she had an older sister who was the most popular girl in her grade—I guess the logic just added up.
I stopped being proud of my invincible spelling skills and stopped giggling loudly. I thought less and less about Nathan and more and more about fighting my way into Rose’s cutthroat clique. My Lisa Frank notebook pages were no longer filled with “Nathan” surrounded by scribbled hearts—but with lists of the food I ate each day and their corresponding calories. Word had gotten around that Rose only wanted skinny girls in her friend group, like my twin sister, who was now part of that crowd.
After I fawned over Rose’s outfit at school one day, she asked me to come to her sleepover that Friday night. My sister was already going, so I said yes. Was I…popular?! Unbeknownst to me, I had been invited with another girl named Erin so that Rose and company could play a game: See how mean they could be to us before we gave up and asked to go home.
That sleepover actually changed how I viewed myself and the world for a long time to come.
(Before we continue, for those concerned, yes, I have been in therapy for years dealing with this anxiety.)
We went swimming in Rose’s pool that night, and as we got out to rinse off, she herded the rest of the girls into her bathroom and locked Erin and me out. Rose ordered us to stay outside, remove our bathing suits, and use the outside shower. We had no idea what to do other than take Rose’s orders, so we shook in the cold—naked and crying. While we showered, the girls snuck out of Rose’s bathroom and stole our dry clothes.
I tearfully scurried up to Rose’s parents after putting my freezing cold bathing suit back on—they were both in the backyard—and told them how their daughter had been treating us. Her mother merely responded, “You girls have to be nice to each other,” and continued relaxing in her poolside lounge chair, uninterested in my crying.
I thought things were getting better when we all ran for blocks after an ice cream truck outside, but that’s when the other girls (including my sister) ran off and hid in neighborhood bushes so that Erin and I couldn’t find them. It started raining, and after what felt like hours searching for them (at least to my 8-year-old self), we dejectedly walked barefoot back to Rose’s home. I sobbed to her mom and asked for the phone so that I could call my parents and leave. She handed me the receiver without disciplining the other girls, who had finally returned. When my mom answered, she tearfully told me that she and my dad could not pick me up since they were staying several hours away that night for my mom’s job. They’d counted on this sleepover so that they could leave town. I was essentially stranded in a place where a bully ran wild because her parents didn’t care. Erin and I both cried all night, desperate to go home, ignoring Rose’s threats to “make things even worse” if we complained to her parents again.
Rose forced Erin and me to sleep on the basement’s hard tile floor with no pillows or blankets while the rest of the girls had plenty of room on beds and couches. I watched large, black carpenter ants crawl up and down wooden shelves, and once Erin fell asleep, the girls ran to the kitchen to get honey to put in Erin’s hair. I was too scared to stop them and lay there, quietly crying. Did ant friends treat each other like this? I wondered. Can I just become an ant?
When my dad arrived at Rose’s door the next morning, I ran into his arms and bawled—barely able to stand up, having never felt such relief in my tiny 8-year-old life. I felt so safe with him, like those mean girls couldn’t hurt me anymore. I clung to his arm while we walked out to the car with my sister (who, by the way, I’ve never spoken with about this night).
When I walked into school on Monday, I felt a kind of sadness, dread, and fear that I’d never experienced before that sleepover. I struggled to tell a classmate what had happened. When I saw the calorie-counting notes in my Lisa Frank notebook, I ripped them out and shredded them with my little hands. I thought about being in the pool as the girls ridiculed me, ducking under the water and crying—a very rare and special expression of pain that I will never forget. You can’t catch your tears, and no one can see that they ever existed once your head pops back up to the surface.
I honestly believe that my ensuing years of low self-esteem can be attributed to a seed being planted in my mind at that girl’s house that night. I entered each new subsequent friendship with wavering confidence, wondering if and when they would turn on me or decide they wanted a cooler friend. I sobbed in the passenger seat on the way to birthday parties of my actual, true friends because I feared what they would do to me as soon as I got dropped off. I gained weight as I moved onto middle school and high school, related to the unhealthy body image I started developing in elementary school. I kept to myself at school events, remaining isolated so as to avoid rejection by preventing any new friendships from forming
This anxiety—some kind of social paranoia—remains in my adult 26-year-old life, gaining particular traction in my post-grad years.
Just last week, a friend of mine—we’ve been friends for years—didn’t reply to my text asking when we should hang out. We hadn’t seen each other in person for five months, so when a day and a half went by with no reply but she’d watched my newest Instagram story, I spiraled: Oh my God. She’s dumping me. She’s trying to pull away. She’s secretly hated me this whole time. She saw my texts and ignored them because she doesn’t want to see me. Has she only pretended to be my friend? I stayed in bed for hours after work and cried. Finally, I took deep breaths and texted her again to ask what was wrong. Understandably, she was taken aback. She was offended that I didn’t trust her, and upset that I, her close friend, would assume the worst about her.
Because my anxiety causes me to wonder if my friends do in fact still like me, I panic and a self-fulfilling prophecy is triggered. My worst fears come true: Friends pull away for real, not just in my head, because who wants to be friends with somebody who requires this much emotional effort, upkeep, and soothing? Who wants to be friends with me when I don’t take any of your words at face value, instead always waiting for the other shoe to drop? Trust me, I get it.
I’m still learning how to explain to people—even those closest to me—that it is not personal. As therapy has shown me, I was 8 years old at a girls’ sleepover on a Friday afternoon in gorgeous Florida weather when I consciously decided that I couldn’t trust anybody anymore. When I came to terms with the reality that a group of girls didn’t only not like me—they actively wanted me to feel a deep sadness and loneliness. I just will not trust people now; I think of how they are indeed very capable of hurting me. I am trying to protect myself by assuming it will happen again.
But I’m also trying to get better. Therapy helps. I’m trying to not let these traumas hold me back for good. I still don’t know how to love without the overpowering fear of getting hurt. For now, I will take each day, text, and party as it comes—practicing all the deep breathing and meditating I need to rationally handle each one. And I’m definitely calling my parents tonight.