Confessions of Relational Aggression and Aggressing

So, I’ve written before about relational aggression.  In fact, my many many absences have to do with a long dissertation that touches on the subject (despite my honorable intentions of taking a strengths-based lens).  As I research existing lit, conduct my own research, and write I’m forced to confront my own demons of being aggressed and aggressing (wordpress doesn’t think those are words, but I assure you, they are).  It sucks. No one wants to admit these things.  I hate ever admitting to being a victim, but I’m increasingly realizing that it is a universal truth of American girl culture.  Aggressing, on the other hand, gives a sense of power that not everyone gets to feel, I did and I now look back and I still don’t get it.

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Being a victim:
Throughout most of my life I’ve been a complete geek.  I like robots and space.  I read a lot of books and watch a lot of documentaries.  Since childhood I’ve had a fascination with UFO’s, conspiracy theories, dystopian novels, and futurism.  In my adulthood, I’ve been able to accept channel these things into my own personal and functional oddities and found an awesome boyfriend with similar ideas of fun.

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Unfortunately, at ages 10-15, this level of adaptation had not quite developed.  In 5th grade I remember first being hurt by jabs at reading War of the Worlds and Animal Farm.  I was poked fun at for being chubby.  At the time, I was also very tomboy-ish.  I resented femininity because I saw so few female role models.  All of this was perfect fodder for girl bullies.  By middle school I was isolated, teased, and torn apart.  I tried to change myself and my likes, not to make friends, but simply to stop the teasing.  I had a few close friends, and they were fantastic allies.  But they couldn’t stop the negative feelings or messages that were thrown at me every day.

I don’t know how I got past this, to be honest.  The best way I can describe it, is becoming so numb that I decided they couldn’t hurt me.  I developed a very hard shell.  But I also became resentful.  I had trouble separating bitterness from confidence, because only by being bitter and resentful was I able to stand tall in regards to who I was and feel confident. I was able to be me, and I thought that bitterness had to come with who I was, because they developed together.  I was a girl, who like sci-fi, punk music, and who disliked seafood and all people.  It just was what it was.

This probably fed into my victimizing others.

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In addition to feeling bitter and dislike the people around me, I was also a generally unhappy person around and after this time, for million reasons.  In reflection, I see that my hurting other people was a combination of who I thought I was, what I thought I was supposed to do, personal anger, and boredom.  When you don’t have much else going on, sometimes you just start doing things to make life exciting, or what you think will be exciting.   Yes, I took part in spreading rumors.  And what was worse, I did it to people who I said I liked.  They were never the people closest to me, my best friends were safe and I defended them like they were made of pure gold.  But I did stir the pot in regards to people around me and with no real reason or motivation behind it.  Sometimes, perhaps it was because they did something that made me feel insecure or because I had a particularly rough day in other areas of life.  So, for all of this crap I did, I feel sorry.  It made me feel stronger as a person and, apparently, was the only place I felt could do that, or the easiest place.

So, this ended, honestly, only because I stopped going to school full time.  I started taking college classes half-days, which allowed me some perspective.  I also started working, one, then two jobs during high school.  I developed some really really great friendships, including the dude who eventually became boyfriend and my few very close friends.  I was in therapy for like 3 years.  I worked on myself and developed some of those adaptive skills I talked about.  I accepted who I was, I let myself feel happy, learned to let all the other shit that other people did to me go.  And overall, I said fuck it.  I’m proud of who I am.  I said it, but it still took a few years to accept and embody it.

I don’t think relational aggression magically stops when you leave high school.  I undoubtedly have engaged in it since, maybe even without knowing.  But, at least with less malice.  I don’t want to.  As I do my research, it is so hard to acknowledge and accept what research and theory tells us: that relational aggression and relational competition is ingrained in our socialization.  We are taught that all good and bad, power and weakness, come from relationships.  That women seek out groups for protection and strength and avoidance.  All that I can really do is recognize the negatives of this and actively work to stop them.   And the worst part, is I honestly think of myself as a more direct and assertive person.  I honestly want to think of myself as confrontational and more likely to punch someone than spread rumors, but I guess I’m still trying to claw my way out of what I was socialized into.

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Thoughts on relational aggression

As I work on my dissertation, a question comes to mind.

First, my dissertation topic: Pre-adolescent and adolescent girls’ peer relationships from a developmental perspective.

Now, the question:  Are these girls, in their relationships living up to messages absorbed in the media rather than being who they really are in their relationships?

Now, background for my question:…

But first:  I’ve only just started data collection, so none of this reflects any of my data, only what I have seen in my painfully extensive lit review.

Ok, back to the point.

As I read through and write up the existing research, I continually find studies on relational aggression, clique behavior, throw away friendships, group dominance, girl hate, etc.  All of these terrible stereotypes of girls’ behavior.  This is not only in the research journals and scholarly works, but is in every form of media, news, movies, music, on and on.  I see this behavior on occasion when I talk to the girls I work with, but for the most part, it is not a huge part of their relationship narratives.  They value their friendships, but they also fear losing them.  The fear, in my experience, is what spurs the aggression.  Now, I have seen research that says it comes from boredom or jealousy and I completely see that as well.  But I believe their is something to the idea that girls fear losing their friends.

I remain unabashed in my love/need for Gossip Girl.

But here is my real question: how much of this behavior is coming from the messages they receive that this is what they are supposed to be like?

Research was done years ago, but is regularly repeated (like good research to make sure it’s still relevant and the work was done honestly), that showed the effects of setting negative expectations.  In the research, a classroom of boys and girls were given a math test.  In one group, the class was told that, in general, girls performed worse in math across the board, so to not feel bad if they do poorly or struggle on this test.  In the control group, they were told nothing.  Well, surprise, surprise, the girls in the first group performed worse on the test.  They absorbed the message they were given and lived up to it.  Now, if you are wondering, another set of research was done where boys performed similarly on a writing test.  The takeaway message:  people live up to the message they are given.  People want to feel normal, when we tell them what is normal, they do it.  This might be especially relevant for adolescents who are desperately searching for an identity, want to be accepted, and work very hard to be both unique and “normal.”  Can we apply this to the relationally aggressive behavior?

I hope you enjoyed this preview of my dissertation. 🙂