Mormon Mean Girls

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?

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17 Responses

  1. ShimeiG says:

    Don’t forget the hierarchy that exists among Mormon women because we are excluded from priesthood power, yet some women get special access via spouses or parents who have the most “priesthood keys.” I have witnessed such women gossiping about or hinting about knowing insider information gleaned from their spouses/parents, or shunning/pitying/being condescendingly sweet to other members, which also reflects their “insider” knowledge. Even as a relief society president I was ranked a bit lower than the bishop’s wife and daughters in this regard. Talk about “squad goals.” But the kingdom of God should’t even have exclusionary “squads.” Other non-religious service organizations I’ve belonged to were much more egalitarian and handled confidential information in healthier ways, without just one alpha-male and his pack of females at the top. Mormonism’s way of handling this is a draconian model at best and doesn’t make sense.

  2. Rita says:

    A woman in my ward was being a “mean girl” toward me in lots of little ways – she unfriended me on Facebook, she made passive aggressive comments about me, she wouldn’t acknowledge me or even make eye contact with me in public – but the straw that broke the camel’s back was when one of her children matter-of-factly told me during Primary one week that his mom hated me. That was messing with my ability to serve in my calling. So I confronted her about it all and said that there must be some misunderstanding since I had never done anything mean to her. She gaslighted me – acted like she didn’t know what I was talking about – but after I persisted, she acknowledged that she had been going through depression. I asked her to please tell her children that she did NOT hate me since I had to teach them each week in Primary, and I reminded her that the kind of behavior that she had been exhibiting tends to drive people away from the Church. I haven’t had any more incidents with her, but I also don’t see her much since I’m in the Primary.

  3. April says:

    Rita,, you were beautifully assertive and communicative!! And generous in modeling for the Mean Girl what it looks like to engage in honest, vulnerable communication. Her poor kids! It must have been so confusing to hear a parent trash talking their primary teacher. They are lucky to have such a compassionate and generous teacher willing to engage in tough emotional labor.

  4. violadiva says:

    I am so glad for this piece and the amazing thought resources you’ve put into laying it all out like this.
    I can easily recognize times when I’ve been on the receiving end of relational aggression, but reading this also makes me more aware of when I’m on the other side, the one doling out the meanness. I now have two ideas for how to help myself heal from when it was done to me, and goals for how to avoid doing it to others. Thank you. ❤️

  5. LMA says:

    This is so well-written. I really loved the way you integrated your clinical experience and the scientific research on this. Thank you for sharing your expertise (insert many heart emojis).

  6. Sarah Lynn says:

    In a way I am lucky being a single adoptive mom, because I’ve always been on the outside of every ward and clueless about the cliques, gossip, bullying, power plays, etc. I have heard that both wards I was part of for a long time had a lot of this going on amongst the mothers and families, but being single and the mother of just one special needs kiddo, I was generally excluded anyhow, so I escaped the drama. But some of the stories I heard from the moms and families who were part of these inclusive circles was hair raising. It sounded like middle school all over again.

    • April Carlson says:

      Where have you found safe and supportive connection? Being a single adoptive mom is some serious labor and love in action (from a former adoption worker). And from the confidence in your voice I am guessing you have found a few quality people for connection? I hope!

  7. Allyall says:

    This caused me to reflect on when it has happened to me and how much it hurt. I feel like an outsider now at church usually but have decided to just keep to myself mostly. The social part of church is so hard. I keep trying, but rejection sucks.

  8. Spunky says:

    Thank you so much for this. The church in all forms, including Mormon feminist groups can be this way. Reading your words makes me feel less hurt and more empowered. I needed to read this. Thank you again.

    • April Carlson says:

      Because I think of MoFem spaces as “my people” the relational aggression I have received from MoFems and relatives has hurt the most.

  9. Allemande Left says:

    A few weeks ago in RS class our RSP stood up and said something to this effect “I shouldn’t have to say this but I’m going to anyway. There is too much negative talk perpetuated from sisters in our ward toward other sisters in our ward. The Bishop is telling me things he is hearing! Sisters we are not in Junior High! So JUST STOP IT!
    Please, just stop it now” and then she left the room for a few minutes!
    It was beautiful and the discussion that followed was good. She owned her calling and did what she had to do!

    • April Carlson says:

      This conversation needs to happen in every ward and how wonderful to have an RSP breaking the silence and calling for kinder behavior!

  10. Carmina says:

    This article speaks a deep truth that I think we’ve all felt and been hurt by. I think we’ve all been the victims of Mormon Mean Girls at least once in our lives.

    Here are my questions:

    1) Should the Church Handbook of Instructions put parameters in place on how to deal with this at the Nursery/Primary/YW/YM level? Obviously, you can’t do anything about grown adults, but something needs to be done to make clear that mean girl behavior (and mean guys, too) isn’t okay. Maybe the real change can start with the children and youth, and hopefully they’ll use that and grow up to be kinder, more compassionate adults. Thoughts?

    2) Should mission presidents receive instruction on how to handle this type of behavior amongst missionaries? I had a friend mention that she saw this behavior while serving a mission and that it got nasty.

    3) Anyone know why guys tend to fall for/get married to the Mormon Mean Girl? I’ve seen that happen too many times to count and it never ceases to boggle my mind. I don’t hope to offend anyone with this particular question – I am genuinely curious.

  11. 'Liza B. says:

    I think relational aggression is particularly difficult if you are an active Mormon because you are absolutely stuck in your assigned ward. If you are going to be obedient and righteous, you attend your assigned ward and do everything you can to make it work. This means trying to be friends with and fit in with other women who may not want to include you when it’s time for non-church activities like water skiing, backyard BBQ or manicure night. When you are at a church activity and try to socialize with the people who are part of these smaller cliques, you end up listening while they talk about the fun things they do together that you aren’t invited to. They seem to have no clue how rude and exclusive this behavior is.

  12. Cha says:

    Sad to say, but the most mean Mormon girl experiences I’ve ever had were at YW Girls Camp—as a leader from other leaders, and from other leaders to girls. It was horrible.

  13. Molly says:

    I’m never sure how to feel about this subject. I spent a decade in a ward where I was noticeably different circumstances than most women. I found out that most of the women were discussing how I was sinning to warrant those circumstances.I mostly found this out because their kids repeated the speculation back to me. (I was in primary.) I wasn’t so much hurt as I was annoyed and wished they’d get hobbies.

    In the following years, I found out that many of these women complained about the meanness and gossiping in that ward. Some of the meanest ones left the church specifically for this reason. I did not leave over meanness but because of the mind-boggling lack of self-awareness. (I want that in my religious/spiritual life.)

    To this day, I don’t friend them on Facebook or keep in touch. I know this has only made things worse because it makes me “stuck up” and “unfriendly.” I don’t care. Nope. Not today. I’ll have a polite conversation at the store but let’s leave it there.

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