Many of us are familiar with teen bullying. If you didn’t see Mean Girls with Lindsay Lohan, you probably heard about it. Girls being mean to girls – backstabbing, back-talking and sabotaging. Pretty depressing, but pretty true. Where does this come from and does it go away as we get older or actually get worse?

I had my own experience of girl bullying in the 6th grade. I had recently broken up with a boy in my class who I had “gone out with” for a few weeks. One day an 8th grade girl who wore lots of dark eye-make up and was a lot bigger, older, and tougher than I came up to me in the school hallway with a very nasty look and said, “I call you out.” For those unfamiliar with the term it means, “Let’s fight.” I was stunned. Why me? She snarled, “You broke up with my best friend’s little brother. He’s like a little brother to me. You just don’t do that.”

Since then I’ve encountered off and on the wrath of other female bullies. Most recently, in a place I would have never imagined…on the phone with a wedding dress designer! I envisioned that looking for a wedding dress was going to be an experience of delight and feminine ooohhing and ahhhing. Instead, when I told the designer what I wanted, I got a surprisingly hostile response: “Strapless dresses are for girls. Why don’t you grow up and be a woman! Do you want to be pulling up your dress the whole night? Do you want to be all cinched up like a girl?!” While she may have had a couple of valid points, her delivery was aggressive and extremely unprofessional. I felt totally bullied!

So what was going on here? Why would one woman treat another woman like this?

My husband once did a documentary on girl bullies called “Mean Girls: mind games.” Working on this project he learned that there are certain patterns of behavior adopted by girl bullies. They learn what works to hold power over other girls and they typically stick with that behavior throughout their lives.

Some believe that the root cause is that women are taught to fight one another for attention at an early age. “We are competing with our sisters for dad’s attention, or for our brother’s attention,” says Michelle Cirocco, of Televerde, a company based in Phoenix that employs female prison inmates. In her position, she has seen a lot of bullies! “And then we go on in school and we’re competing for our teachers’ attention. We’re competing to be on the sports team or the cheer squad,” she says.

And then what happens after high school?

Let’s look at the workplace…

“Women feel they have to be aggressive to be promoted,” says Laura Steck, president of the Growth and Leadership Center in Sunnyvale, CA. That makes sense when you look at stats that show women make up 51% of our nation’s population, but only 3% of corporate CEOs are women.

Couple this with the recent research that shows women must work twice as hard as men in the workplace to achieve the same level of recognition and prove that they can lead. It’s no wonder that instead of showcasing each other's work and abilities, women are competing in a do-or-die way.

So how can we can we break this seemingly endless bully cycle?

I know that whenever I find myself bad-mouthing another woman (or even just thinking it), I realize that in some way I am also bad-mouthing myself. I am stepping into the vicious cycle of sabotaging not only this other woman, but ALL women.

This is not to say that when a woman is hostile toward me I still don’t have my knee-jerk reaction of, “What a bitch.” However, I find that if I step back and take a moment to get some clarity on why that woman might be acting in that particular way, this usually helps me muster up some compassion and instead of biting back, I step outside of the game. Instead of meeting hostility with hostility, I actually open my heart to them. I start to see that their pain is some of my own pain.

This isn’t exactly what happened in the 6th grade, but had that older girl and I both understood our connection with one another, perhaps it could have.

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