Mean Girls: From Bullying to Self-Reflection & Change

Not many women of my generation can boast a Lindsay Lohan portrayal in a major motion picture. To be clear, my non-existent twin and I never tried to reunite my parents and I’ve never had the pleasure of cosmically changing places with my mother. 

But I was a Mean Girl.

The idyllic town near Columbus, Ohio, where I spent my formative years, is referred to as “The Bubble.” Affectionately named for its ability to remain immune to issues plaguing the rest of the United States, “The Bubble” was both a blessing and a curse. My hometown isn’t one of those newly chartered suburbs infested with McMansions and overrun with superficial conversations littered with false humility. No. Where I grew up, wealth wasn’t flaunted, it was understood. Success wasn’t a goal, it was a destiny. The only true strife that invaded “The Bubble” was when someone, whether an outsider or a rebellious child, thumbed his or her nose at these simple social contracts. There was no room for error. 

And I might as well have been named Error. 

In the third grade, I transferred from public school to a private, all-girls school because I clearly wasn’t already insulated enough and needed a protective uniform skirt and knee-high socks. I settled in immediately, permanently nestled at the bottom of my class and was held back to repeat third grade. Over the next few years, my consistency was truly remarkable as I maintained my class rank of 52, grateful that no one else transferred in to push me down to 53. 

That was about the only number I focused on, however, as my math grades remained quite low and when it came time to read out loud in English class, I tried to mimic my more well-adjusted classmates and quickly recite passages. Except when they did it, they sounded like Shakespeare actresses, and I fumbled over my words and sounded more like one of Shakespeare’s drunken fools. By this time, it wasn’t even my success, or lack thereof, that concerned me. In my mind, I knew I was intelligent and had the nature and nurture necessary for achievement. It was the laughter from my classmates, the placating clichés from other parents and the exasperation of my own that left me feeling poor. Satisfaction should have been my wealth currency, but I was beginning to show signs of abject poverty.  

As I entered middle school, I did what any self-conscious, but self-respecting pre-teen would do. I imprisoned my insecurity behind walls relying on bricks composed of malicious insults, deflecting rumors about my peers and faked ambivalence. If someone committed an unforgivable act like a misplaced chuckle in the classroom or a misinterpreted glance in the hallway, I would convene the Unicorn (my school mascot) UN and immediately begin building a coalition against the offending party. 

Once, I singled out a classmate named Jennifer. I don’t remember all of her crimes against humanity, but I do know that she wore a pair of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans that I found particularly offensive. I spent seconds branding a new secret society named the “I Hate Jennifer Club.” Loyal members were required to wear specified bracelets to show the world their collective displeasure for Ms. Vanderbilt’s designs and Jennifer herself. If club members didn’t follow MY rules, punishment was handled swiftly (by me of course) with further ridicule and public shaming. 

One of my eye-opening moments was a party at a club member’s house on an area river. It was the typical gathering of that age and at the time I was delighted by the fact that nearly all attendees were wearing our club bracelets. All except Jennifer, of course, who also attended the party. We gathered on the dock and while I don’t recall the substance of those conversations, I do distinctly remember my graceful nosedive into the stagnant river and the hearty and cathartic laughter as I broke the surface. 

I emerged from that river feeling like the Emperor with no clothes. Or at least thoroughly saturated ones. It occurred to me at that moment that none of my classmates actually liked me. They were frightened they would be the next name to grace my jewelry. It was a crushing realization, but while I was out of the water, I was into bullying way too deeply to take a healthy breath. 

As if things weren’t bad enough, my parents received a letter from my Headmaster that very same year. I won’t bore you with the entire contents, but hearing your mother and father recite the following phrases will shake your own personal bubble to its foundation. 

“One has to only meet Lisa and talk with her to know she is both bright and inquisitive…what then is missing? Quite frankly we don’t know.” 

“Whatever the reason, we are all hopeful the maturity she gains over the summer will enable her to recognize the disastrous effect that her present patterns have over her own academic development.”

“Lisa must face reality and reality requires noticeable improvement in academic effort and achievement if Lisa is to continue at this school.” 

So that happened. But it only caused me to double-down on my attacks against my wholly undeserving classmates. I didn’t see any way out of the academic and social pit I had dug for myself other than to stand on the shoulders of my peers as I sought escape. But I am proud to say that it finally caught up with me. I was called into the principal’s office for a particularly vicious verbal attack.

Sitting in that confined and suffocating space, I was forced to confront my latest victim and listen to her plainly list all of my shortcomings. I was mean. I was hateful. I was manipulative. Each description, while accurate, was a crushing blow and I couldn’t wait to retaliate. But when the principal finally addressed me and asked why I had selected this particular person, I was stupefied. I couldn’t think of one thing. Not. One. Thing. 

While I wasn’t blissfully ignorant of the rationale for my actions, in that moment it was inescapable that it was ME I didn’t like. As with most bullies across generation, across region and across gender, I was misplacing my frustration and self-loathing. My three-day suspension was one of the most soul-baring and soul-saving periods of my life. While she refrained from crafting any bracelets, my mother basically gave me the Jennifer treatment for the duration of my punishment. The only thing that made it worse was that I knew I deserved every second of it.

I thought the humiliation of being kicked out of school for three days would suffocate me. And of course, when I returned to school, I was greeted by exactly what I deserved. For the first time, everyone was pointing at me and laughing with gleeful abandon. But surprisingly, I was actually relieved and grateful for my extended timeout. Exposing myself for who I was meant no more popularity contest, no more personal attacks. I could start over without worrying about social strata or seriously lacking self-esteem. I learned joy came from being honest, vulnerable, and exposed. And that included loving myself, flaws and all. I didn’t have to compare myself to anyone else. I could be me. And that was enough. 

I would love to say I turned my life around on the spot. Unfortunately, our lives are rarely that easy. It took years of self-reflection and self-actualization to fully acknowledge my bullying tendencies. But I truly believe that despite my detours into the travel industry, higher education and non-profit fundraising, that suspension was the tipping point that dumped me into my true calling as a Relationship Coach. My atonement manifests itself in committing my life to empowering my clients, the readers of my book Big Girl Pants and each and every audience I address. 

I am still friends with the girls I bullied during my formative years. In fact, while I was writing this, I took a mental health break to call Jennifer. We laughed and reminisced and I professed my belated appreciation for her wardrobe. The unfortunate reality is that I’m not unique. Whether in an all-girls school in the 1970s, the offices of a Fortune 500 company or the streets of any city in the world, when we are feeling afraid, insecure and satisfaction-poor, our self-preservation tendencies channel our inner honey badger, and we lash out with razor sharp claws in the direction of anyone unfortunate enough to be within striking distance.

This Darwinian reflex is powerful and pervasive, but what if we use our powers for good? What if we channel this energy into honest introspection and creating what our souls crave instead of ridiculing what we fear? What if we work toward developing authenticity in our professional lives and in our most critical personal relationships? What if we didn’t chase arbitrary metrics of success and instead focused on meaningful, personal wealth like the satisfaction that I so desperately craved growing up? Answering these questions for myself has been my roadmap and my north star as I reinvented myself here in my fifth decade and as I continue my self-induced rehab from being a Mean Girl. 

One of my favorite colloquialisms, which I will paraphrase to reflect my silver-screen self and bullying past, is “What Lindsay says about Jennifer says infinitely more about Lindsay than it does about Jennifer.” 

I wonder if THAT would fit on a bracelet. 

Lisa Panos

Lisa Panos is a Certified Life Coach and Author who helps people stop struggling and start thriving in their personal and professional relationships. Trained by Dr. Martha Beck (aka, Oprah’s Life Coach), Lisa helps her clients create new, healthy relationships, mend those that are broken, or say goodbye to ones that no longer serve them. She combines highly effective coaching tactics with an explosive arsenal of personal experience that swiftly moves people out of dysfunction and into a place of deep inner strength.

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