How can we create an environment of psychological safety? Most of the time, people do not take action when they witness bullying, especially when women are involved. What are the common factors of bullying? What is a frenemy? Find out in this episode with guest Amber Tichenor. Discover how society forged these negative actions. Learn how to deal with social challenges at school and the workplace to create a better and safe environment.
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She Bullies & Frenemies With Amber Tichenor
In this episode, my guest and I are going to discuss something that I have never delved into quite like this before. I have maybe skimmed the surface about this topic of female rivalry through a few experiences that I have had. As a woman, I certainly felt moments of feeling like I was in competition with other women or feeling unsupported or judged. A lot of people, regardless of their gender, will experience bullying or not feel like they fit in. If they identify with a specific gender, they either feel closer or farther away from other people like them. That can lead to feelings of isolation.
I was drawn to this topic of female rivalry because I have noticed that I tend to get nervous around other women, especially in professional settings. Part of my experience in my career, especially when I was working in film production, is I was one of the very few women in film production at film school. When I went, there weren’t a lot of women in that field. That’s probably changed, hopefully. For a long time, women didn’t feel they could thrive or were interested. The evolution of social media and video creation has certainly resonated with a lot of women.
The business side of it can feel daunting. Even though we have come such a long way with embracing different genders and even non-binary, we still have a lot of work to do to dismantle the patriarchy, misogyny, and these issues that have influenced how a lot of people feel with their careers in the workplace.
This is a good starting place for us, Amber. Do you feel female rivalry is influenced by this fear that there’s not enough room because women may have felt they have to fight so hard to be taken seriously that they feel threatened by other women because maybe that makes them feel there’s not enough room for us both?
You are right on with it. That’s part of it that there’s that feeling of not enough room at the top. There are several influencing factors. Society tends to make fun of female rivalry. It’s lighthearted. It’s something to make fun of. It’s a catfight and women being dramatic. It’s much more serious than that because it can have huge altering effects. If it escalates, it’s a form of bullying behavior. Society influences it. The room at the top might be how you are raised.
When I first dove into researching this topic, there were no foundational theories to relate to about it, so I had to go back to theories of aggression. If you look at young boys and girls, boys are taught that it’s okay to rough house, tumble and belt it out. Girls were taught to be pretty, look nice, sit on the couch, be still, and don’t make waves. It’s a combination. Boys usually have a more overt or direct way of aggression, while girls are traditionally more indirect. That stems from social intelligence that starts around 8 or 9 in girls. There are a lot of influencing factors for this type of behavior.How we feel about ourselves is based on our relationships with other women. Click To Tweet
It’s fascinating, especially that part about people making light of it. It’s almost becoming a form of entertainment. On television, we see a lot of women being pitted against each other, probably more so than men. The media portrays men as aggressive. They battle and tough up but it’s almost taken seriously.
My perception off the top of my head with women is that it’s seen as this funny thing, frivolous, superficial and like, “You will get over it.” I’m sure so much of your work is rooted in its long-lasting effects of it. I was thinking about this time when I was at a job. For context, I hadn’t worked in a traditional job for years since I left my last official job before I started freelancing and working for myself.
Many years before that time, when I was working in the film industry, I had this job at a production office that I was excited about. It was a great company. I had a pretty substantial role there. One day, this woman got upset with me over what I perceived to be a small thing. Clearly, for her, it was not small. I have the maturity now to look back and honor the fact that she was upset by it. At that moment, I wasn’t quite at that place mentally but I felt so deeply attacked. She pitted a number of other women against me. At this point, I was many years out of college. Feeling like an adult, she was older than me and turned that job into the worst scenario.
The next day or later that day, I don’t remember the timing exactly but there was a moment when it was lunchtime, and everyone was sitting at a table. I felt completely ostracized. You hear these cliché stories of high school with kids going through the stuff. You don’t think that you would go through it as an adult. I even turned to another woman that was higher up at the company for help. She didn’t help me. The woman that caused the issue found out that I went and accused me of tattle tailing and was angry at me for reporting her.
I felt completely alone and had to deal with this type of bullying. It was all women. I don’t think there was a single man involved. There were men at the company but none of them even tried to help. I felt like nobody came to my defense or my aid. I didn’t have any tools to deal with it. I still think about that sometimes to this day, even though it doesn’t have any connection to me. I don’t work in that business, and I don’t know those people anymore but the trauma, that long-lasting psychological impact of feeling bullied and ganged up on by other women, was rough.
It’s an awful feeling. You coined it with one word, feeling alone. When women are experiencing this type of behavior, they lose their voice. They feel alone. Often, you can turn to somebody, and you are shut down. That makes you wilt further. It would be interesting to know if the men truly saw what was occurring. It’s like the ostrich with the head in the sand. Sometimes I don’t think it’s purposeful.
Men traditionally don’t act that way but sometimes, there are certain people that don’t want to rock the boat. They just continue with the status quo but that woman could have handled it in so many different ways. She could have pulled you aside. You could have talked about it rather than going to other people. It makes me think by the story you are relaying that she probably was threatened by you to a degree. You are younger than she is. When you are coming in, for some reason, she was threatened or uncomfortable. That was her out to put you in the negative spot, which is not right at all.
That’s why society is making fun of this. You see the reality shows, and you are right. It’s often more women than men. I can’t even think of a situation where men are pivoting against each other but with females, it’s all the time. It’s not something to be made fun of. I have collected hundreds of interviews. When women tell me that they don’t have female friends, will never work for another woman or will never work on a team of all women ever again, that’s tragic.
We are half of the population. It’s telling that there is something more to this behavior. I call it the elephant in the boardroom. It’s toxic behavior. When you encounter it, I don’t care what age you are, so often we put it in that little bundle of, “It happens in high school or grade school.” It’s ongoing. I have seen it with women in their 60s. It occurs all the time at any age. We are so much better together. It doesn’t have to be that way.
It’s interesting to reflect on it and think about why that happens. I also have to take responsibility for my role in this when I have been on the other side because I had a history of being a little bit gossipy. It was a couple of years ago now. I remember there was one turning point where I thought this was not serving me or others to gossip. I had to reign it in. It’s something you have to practice. I decided I was going to work on not gossiping.
The fact that it has been so many years, and I still feel like I have worked to do, shows how hard it is to stop because we get these feel-good emotions when we do things like gossiping. I read how that often is because we are trying to get closer to other people. There’s something about commiserating that we like to do socially. It’s like, “This person doesn’t like that person either. Let’s talk about how we don’t like this other person.” It’s so tempting. It feels so good. When we are raised in that, it becomes so commonplace.
We don’t see anything wrong with it but I had to reign myself in because it was only that temporary hit. This feels good for a few seconds or minutes, and then there’s that crash afterward when you finish gossiping where you might feel guilty. The worst that happens is if somebody finds out that you are gossiping because that also has a long-lasting impact. Part of the wake-up call for me is, “Do I want to be someone who is not trusted? Do I want to be someone who has a reputation for gossiping about others?” I don’t want to be.Beauty is what you can do for others. Click To Tweet
I was only gossiping under the idea that it was between me and somebody else as if nobody would ever hear. We have also all been on the receiving end of hearing about gossip that wasn’t intended for us to know about. If I have known about other people gossiping about me, then I’m sure people know that I have gossiped about them.
That’s a self-check, and hats off to you for recognizing it. I have done the same because it doesn’t feel good to be on the receiving end. It makes you feel icky right after you are doing it too because what’s the purpose? Women who like themselves like other women. That’s the crux of what I feel. You rarely see somebody that doesn’t like themselves not like other women.
It’s always like what you said when you take that first step and do a self-check. I call it your inner she-bully. That little voice chatting back here and saying, “You are not good enough,” deal with her first or him or whatever you call that individual because the chances are that’s influencing how you are treating other people.
The second part is to do a check of your surroundings. How are you contributing to the behavior? Are there cultural things? Are there other influences? Did you grow up differently than this individual? If somebody is truly out to get you and they are a mean girl or a mean person, the chances are that might be an innate behavior in them. There’s also on off chance to be mindful of how you could be a trigger to that person. Take it from there. Look inward.
The third thing is you have no control over somebody else’s behavior towards you. What you always have control over is your own behavior. That’s how you can keep yourself in check and learn to understand. It’s hard to deal with this behavior. It completely sucks. If you have been on the receiving end, I have. It’s awful. It can shrink you for lack of a better word. You remember how you were saying some of these things happened to you years ago but they still feel fresh. It’s because it’s that emotional trauma. You can take that as a lesson and know how you don’t want to treat other people because you know what it feels like to be on the receiving end.
I love what you said about, “Women who like themselves like other women,” because I thought, “I recognize that. I often feel threatened by other women, the result of trauma and fear that I developed mistrust.” I have even felt that with people who have feminine qualities. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a gender issue. It could be somebody who’s very feminine that often feels a little bit uncomfortable. I look for an opportunity to connect with them. If I’m meeting a new woman, I am on high alert in the beginning.
It will take seconds sometimes for me to ease in. With you, Amber, you showed up, and I immediately felt at ease with you. We talked for a little bit. I was like, “Great.” A lot of times, you can tell it. This is an important part of it, too, even through emails. I remember feeling good when I emailed you. I felt good when I saw your photo. There are certain signals. Even somebody’s body language, voice, and words that they use are also important to remember because we convey so much about ourselves to other people that may seem very subtle.
There are certain qualities about women and feminine people that I immediately tense up around. First of all, if a woman looks like she spent a lot of time on her appearance, for me, that’s a trigger. It’s probably related to what you were saying. I’m still working through a lot of feelings that I have around beauty and all the societal pressure that women have.
For most of my life, I felt uncomfortable around women who spend a lot of time on their appearance because I see that as a sign that I need to spend more time on my appearance or maybe you found that comparison of, “Do I look as pretty as she does? Does she like the way that I look? Does she think that I’m weaker than her?” That comes up for me a lot. I’m curious about that. In my head, I’m afraid if a woman doesn’t like the way I look that she perceives me as weak. What do you think about that?
That’s a huge statement. I haven’t thought of it like that directly but I can relate to that too. There are days I get up and put my hat on and don’t get ready. Those are great days too. I am such a type-A person that I get up, make my bed, and get ready. My shower is how I get energized. I don’t judge other people by how they look but I know there are people that do. If you flip it, there are women that are threatened if somebody is totally put together that they feel less, not enough or an appearance changes who you are inside.
I don’t think that’s true but for a lot of people, personal appearance is their first and foremost. As you said, we connected instantly when we started talking. Even in email, there was positive energy like a correspondent. Your appearance, I don’t know if it’s as energy as your first perception of what that is. Same thing if you look at a website where it’s messy and not all put together. You go to it and are like, “I don’t want to deal with that because it seems like it’s hard to maneuver.” People take appearance as the first value. Is it always correct? Absolutely not, but there’s a lot of weight that’s placed on that, unfortunately.
The appearance and energy side of it is interesting too because I agree. When I’m around a woman, if I feel uncomfortable around the way she looks, it’s usually a reflection of my discomfort with myself. I have also noticed the opposite. There are moments, and I’m not proud to say it. Similar to the gossiping where I might see a woman and go, “I feel prettier than her.” It’s a power thing. The reason I’m not proud is because I don’t want to live my life in comparison. That’s probably one of the biggest parts of your work the rivalry side of it. The comparison is a big part of the rivalry. Is that true?When you're being stomped down, you lose your voice. Click To Tweet
There are so many facets of it. It’s rivalry, competition, and comparison. Women judge other women based on perception. How we feel about ourselves is based on our relationships with other women, our mothers, sisters, colleagues, friends, and people we don’t know but see in the media. Unfortunately, it’s true. Everything you said, I can relate to. I have been there and done that as well. It’s a daily thing. It’s that she bully-talking to you, and should we be doing that? No, but it’s normal. It’s accepting each other.
First and foremost, it’s accepting yourself. If you are feeling good about yourself, I find I’m less compelled to compare myself with other people. It’s always going to be there too, a little bit like anything. It’s a daily thing you are working on or a weekly thing. If you are constantly comparing, it squishes you down.
You feel less than because you don’t ever feel like you’re good enough. When you stop the comparison or the judging game, you are happier in your own skin, “I’m not perfect. I have flaws. Lay it all out there. This is who I am, and I love me for who I am. There are always things to work on but I’m not perfect and neither are you. No one is.”
It’s so important to look at the power dynamics too. Why I feel uncomfortable around the appearance of other women is like going back to that weakness. I was raised and heard messaging like this from other women, whether it was my mother. This other woman that I was close to growing up, I remember when I was around the beginning of my college experience, she said something. I don’t remember her exact words but it was this idea of like, “It’s a good thing that you are pretty. That will work to your advantage.”
I remember at the time feeling uncomfortable with that statement because I did not want to be defined by my appearance. Beauty is so simultaneously universal. Beauty is always in the eye of the beholder. It’s interesting when someone points out your appearance because it’s very relative. Beauty to the societal viewpoints of it tends to be fleeting.
I’m concerned about emphasizing my appearance, given it’s constantly going to change and fluctuate as I age and go through different things in life. It’s not a permanent thing. Why would I define myself and power around that? That’s also tying into my feelings about other women who spend a lot of time on their appearance because I don’t want to live in a world where that’s so emphasized.
There are all different ways to define beauty. There’s the superficial beauty. There’s the beauty that is only skin deep but beauty is what you can do for others, how you can help people, and what is your passion, message, and purpose. There are so many other things that aren’t superficial, which is why when I look at female rivalry, it’s like, “Why should we be competing about looks?” There’s positive competition. It’s good to have some. It can make you better and do better. It can make you more purposeful.
When it escalates to where it’s not, that’s when it turns into a rivalry. You cut yourself off from other people because you are fearful that they may be better than you, you are judging them or, “I’m not good enough, so I don’t feel strong enough to associate with you,” type of thing. It’s sad. I look at the female groups I have, either my close family, friends, different networking groups, working women, whatever.
These women are amazing. I feel high after being around them because what we can do together is so great. They make me a better person. That’s a beautiful thing if you can be with somebody, they are outside of their box, and they know that they are helping you. It comes back around because if you have a tribe, circle or people that you are uplifting and making better, they, in turn, will do the same for you.
It’s this idea that the rising tide lifts all ships’ mentality. I wonder if, in your research, you have come across reasons behind rivalry in general aside from the gender issue. Why do rivalries exist? Is that something that you have studied? It’s such a human tendency historically. We have war and battles. It’s usually related to power. It makes me uncomfortable because, deep down, I would rather things be peaceful but I don’t know enough and haven’t researched it. Are there benefits to rivalry? Why are they so persistent? Why is so much of our society built around competition?
You bring up a good point. I don’t know that I have ever studied the benefits of a rivalry. I have in terms of friendly competition because that can motivate you to be better. When I started doing my research, there wasn’t just a female rivalry definition. What I found that it stems from is power, the need for control. Almost always, it stems out of insecurity about yourself or not liking yourself, not feeling like you fit in. You put on a shell or armor to act or be something, or someone you are not. It could very well be an environment in which you are raised.
Maybe you grew up with women. I’m not excluding men but I have only studied women. This could be the same for men. You grew up in an environment where there was always competition and that one up. Maybe you grew up in an environment where you were never enough. It’s a psychologically unsafe environment, so you always have to prove yourself. There are many different facets to it but it’s in an environment where you don’t feel good about yourself or don’t feel safe. You are always striving to be more than or searching for what it is that makes you happy. As a result, other people or things get in the way of that.You may not be BFFs with everybody, but you can always be kind. Click To Tweet
It makes so much sense because you keep coming around to the self-esteem side of things and the insecurity. It’s interesting to reflect upon because when I think about myself, I can see how they have fueled some of this. I am grateful that you pointed that out when I gave the example of that woman at the workplace who, in my perception of it, bullied me because I didn’t think about her as a human being. I was thinking about her as a villain. I have a tendency in those situations, and that’s a normal human reaction. You perceive yourself as a victim, and they are the villain. You can’t understand why they would do something because you are too busy focusing on your own hurt.
It’s true. I sometimes call the other woman the vicious vixen because it feels that way. Trust me. I have been on the receiving end of this. I had lightly had it occur before I had done my research, little exclusions, the queen bee or different personas of this female rivalry figure. I’ve got my degree, and my background is in Organizational Psychology. For my dissertation, I had to write on something that was occurring in the working environment. I saw this happening, and nobody was talking about it. That’s when I dove into interviewing these women that told me these crazy stories.
Fast forward, I’ve gotten my PhD. I’m still collecting stories because I’m realizing it just doesn’t happen at work. It happens amongst women. I’m in a working situation, and I am knee-deep in a rivalry situation. I didn’t see it. It probably lasted for six months. I was shocked. My mom said to me, “I hate to see how you are doubting yourself all because of this other woman.” If I were the cartoon character, I would have had one of those light bulbs on top of my head. I’m like, “If it’s happening to me and I have studied it.” I lost my voice, and I didn’t know how to talk about it. I’ve got several years under my belt of doing this research.
What’s it doing to women who don’t have any idea about it? It’s because it can wear you down. It’s happening anywhere. For example, if it’s occurring at work, it just doesn’t stay at work. You bring it home with you. It was impacting my family life and other friendships. I became depressed. It does impact your self-esteem. It’s so hard to talk about it or voice it when you are in it because often, the behaviors are so intangible and passive-aggressive that you will doubt yourself and think, “She didn’t do that to me. Why would she do that to me? I have never done anything to her.”
Chances are you have not done anything to her at all. In your situation, she could have talked about you, and you could have resolved it but it sounded like that was the out for her to take in, so you were in her path at the wrong time. It wouldn’t have been you. It might have been somebody else but she saw a chance to take you out, and she did. It packs a big punch. I won’t often have women talk about it until much later because when you are in it, it’s so hard to voice. Unless you have documented it, it’s hard to see a theme and the pattern because it’s gray.
It’s fascinating the more you talk about it and look at all the nuances. One question that comes up is, “What do you do in that situation?” Let’s say I could have gone back in time to that moment. There’s trauma involved, I remember exactly where I was standing. I remember where she was. I could go back in my brain to that moment. In a way, it might even be therapeutic to think like, “If I can go back in time and handle things differently, what would you recommend?”
Let’s say that situation was happening now in my life. It’s that exact same thing, I’m at work, and a minor issue happens. The woman confronts me with anger and pits everybody against me. I then feel uncomfortable in the workplace. What do you recommend in a situation like that? You can’t control that other person. You can only control your perception of it and what you do. You are dependent on other people in a workplace scenario like that because you are working together. You are part of a team.
It’s not like I could have gone in there and ignored everybody. I had to be around them. I had to deal with the way that they were looking and talking to me. I had to interact and communicate with them. The only other option would be to quit. At the time, that was a reasonable thing for me to do. How do you handle that situation?
It’s hard to see it. It sounds like you felt and saw it. I would say document it, notes to yourself, and a trusted confidant, somebody you can share, even if it’s writing notes or an email to yourself, or if there is another person. Often these are such passive-aggressive behaviors and intangible. After a while, a pattern will be produced. You will see it and think, “I’m not crazy. I didn’t imagine that. This is truly something that happened.” Sometimes it’s very hard to talk to the other woman, especially if you are younger and newer in the workforce and she’s somebody senior to you. That’s so intimidating, especially if that person has control over your promotional path or your salary.
You can talk to her, maybe offsite like, “Let’s go have a coffee. Can we take a little walk?” I had to deal with this with the individual I was dealing with. I said, “I feel like our communication could be better. What can I do?” I put it back on me. Is that always the right thing, especially if you haven’t done anything wrong? No, but it helps start the conversation and makes her less on the offense. Try that.
If it’s occurring at work or even in a social situation, bring somebody with you to talk about it. I did that before, and she completely denied it. When I brought up the communication, she said, “There’s no problem, Amber.” The next day, she went off on me. I can’t express enough how to document. I have had some women take it to HR or someone in senior management, which you mentioned you did, and they weren’t believed.
Especially if you are newer in the working environment and are dealing with senior people, it’s very hard because that will shut you down even more if you are not being received or if they think you are not telling the truth. I have had other situations where HR or other senior leadership are afraid to deal with the perpetrator because of the wrath of what she might exhibit.Cutting cords is situational. Click To Tweet
One thing you do not do is record the conversations. If you do, know the state you are in for recording information because there are laws against that. That varies state by state. I know somebody that got fired for recording the conversation. The proof was there but it was illegal. Document to have the proof reveal itself.
It’s so complicated because there’s the emotional reaction to it. When you are sharing all this, it sounds so logical. I remember that day when it first happened to me. I felt taken aback. It was the first time I had ever gone through that. One of the only times in my life I haven’t, to my memory, experienced that much. Thank goodness. When I went to the higher up, I was crying. I remember that feeling of the whole world getting dark and intense. It’s that experience I have had a few times in my life when something felt traumatizing.
It was the survival mode that your body started to go into and shut down. You can’t think as well. Unfortunately, where I was, this woman worked in the same area. There was nowhere for me to go. She sat across from me. I would be like, “Get up and go. Excuse yourself.” I was in a management role at that point. I was responsible for other people. I don’t know if there was an option for me to get up and go. I remember sitting at my desk feeling a lot of shame because other women witnessed it and didn’t come to my defense. I felt I had done something wrong.
I was so confused because I didn’t know I had done something wrong. All of that feels very clear and obvious to me now. I should acknowledge the fact that we are all doing the best that we can. I didn’t know any better. I didn’t have the tools. I didn’t have support. All I could do was handle it the best I knew how.
If I were to go back and give myself a message, I would say that it was okay. I didn’t do anything wrong because I didn’t intentionally do anything wrong. I didn’t know how to handle it, even if what I did hurt this woman. She was on the defense. Clearly, something I did bothered her. Maybe it had been building up. To your point, Amber, what if she had felt rivalry for a while? What if she had felt threatened by me for a while? I was completely unaware of it until that moment.
It sounds like that’s the case. There are so many things. What you said, I can relate to. I feel them. I have women talk about shame so much because they are ashamed that they didn’t do anything and didn’t speak out about themselves. When you are being squished and stomped down, you lose your voice. That’s the biggest thing with this behavior. Often when I talk to groups, I will have ten questions at the beginning of a session. I’m like, “Raise your hand if you have experienced this. Raise your other hand. Stand up.” By the end of it, most people are standing up in the audience. It’s because they have experienced all the different nuances of this behavior.
I did a talk to teenage girls, and the look on the mom’s faces on the perimeter of the circle, they were shocked that their daughters had experienced all this. It’s because you said you felt shame and there are bystanders. There are people not doing anything. There are people not sticking up, even if they see it. They are shaming that like, “Why wouldn’t you come to my rescue?” This is not talked about. People don’t know how to deal with it.
Even though your situation may have been years ago, I don’t think we have made much progress. Sure, we are starting to. With different things going on in the working environment, there’s more talk of psychological safety and how to instill that in the working environment. When you are ostracized or set apart from the group, it’s hard to have your voice. It’s hard to speak up about it, especially if she is a perceived powerful woman. It’s hard to go up against that.
There’s one other thing I forgot to mention and another way to call it out if it’s happening. Humor also works. It’s like, “Whitney, I know you didn’t mean to call me out. That made me feel bad.” It’s using that humor. You have to be quick on your toes. I’m so good with later thinking, “Why didn’t I say that? Why didn’t I do this?” It doesn’t come to you until later but it’s a very difficult situation to be in.
It’s nice to talk about it even after all these years ago. I don’t even remember what year that was. It’s one of those examples of how things can sit with us. I’m still sorting through it all these years later. I’m still processing it. That’s one of the major reasons that we need to be so aware and present to this, whether we are experiencing it or somebody else’s.
Maybe a reader now has a daughter that’s going through that or somebody else who’s taking the gender out of the equation, could be going through rivalry, and you might need to be there as a support system. That’s another question I have for you. If somebody in your life comes to you and is going through a rivalry, what is some advice or support that we can offer to others to help guide them through this?
Listening is huge. If somebody is able to talk about this, that’s a huge first step. As you said, you are still processing something that happened years ago. I remember in fifth grade. A girl was mean to me. When I think about that, I could put myself exactly where I was in my kitchen, feeling all the feels. When things happen to you psychologically, that pain lasts longer than if you broke a bone. That hurts but the psychological pain stays with you longer. Listen and show this person that you are there for support. It depends on what the situation is.Society tends to make fun of female rivalry. Click To Tweet
Help them have other outlets to deal with it. Maybe they need to end up changing their job. Maybe it’s a social group they need to get out of. Maybe it’s helping the person build their confidence up to confront but then you also have to look at it. If somebody is treating you that way, is it worth a confrontation? Are they worth your time or energy to even go down that path? They are not somebody that truly supports and is an advocate for you. In a working environment, it’s building trust.
It’s showing everybody that you can talk about things. You can have the trust to know that you can be vulnerable, and everybody can bring to the table who they are as individuals. When you are talking about psychological safety, it’s the act of being able to be vulnerable, being able to be who you are 100%, and being accepted for who you are.
Having that support system of someone to go to is so helpful too. I don’t recall who was in my life at the time that I was going through all that at work. It ties into what we were talking about at the beginning of not dismissing it as something small. Perhaps because of my age, gender, and the situation, people would say, “Don’t worry about it.” Looking back in hindsight, I should have worried about it because it had a lasting effect on me. That’s not something that you can get over and ignore. This advice that makes me so irritated is when someone says, “Develop a thick skin. You are too sensitive.”
To me, the more I learn about mental health, the more that is one of the worst things that you could say to people because everybody is on the spectrum on how they handle hard situations. Someone like me is incredibly sensitive, and I can’t change that. To tell me, “Get over it. Develop a thick skin. Don’t be so upset about it,” is useless. It’s destructive because it puts me into a further place of shame of thinking, “I wish I wasn’t so sensitive. I wish I could get over it. I have thin skin. I’m not strong enough.” To your point, it diminishes who you are even more in the midst of a challenging situation.
I can’t stand, “Get over it. You need to get thicker skin.” That hurts. That’s more harmful than good. You feel it. No one can help what they feel. It’s true emotion. You have to hug that emotion to understand and deal with it, whether or not it’s a positive or negative emotion. It’s there. It happened. To get over it, you have to accept it or dwell in it for a little bit to feel it. There are ways to get over it. I’m an advocate of therapy and talking but when you are in this type of situation and lose your voice, it’s hard to talk about it.
In any social situation like a work situation, you can create inclusion. It’s going back to being vulnerable and being who you are. When you are inclusive to anybody, are you going to be BFFs with everybody? No, but you can always be kind, include, and get to know each other as real people at work. Take the time to get to know each other who your coworker is, so it’s not just somebody sitting next to you.
That begins to foster trust. Once you know people for who they are, “You have three dogs and a cat. I know you are going on a road trip to see the national park soon.” These personal attributes, that’s a real person. You’re just not a name to me anymore. It’s engaging with authenticity. It’s all of these things like you hear these keywords but these are true things that are real to let you get to know people as people. When you are more vulnerable, you’re more inclined to be there fully, be more productive, and be yourself totally, and vice versa.
When you touched upon the word BFF, it reminded me of something I wanted to ask. Your book is called Behind Frenemy Lines. I would love to know how you define frenemy. What is that?
I was doing research about frenemy, and my mom goes, “Is that a real word? I never heard of it.” I’m like, “That is a real word.” The father of psychology, Sigmund Freud, used that term to describe himself. He has a love and an enemy, a friend and an enemy. It’s a combination of the two. It’s a love-hate relationship. It’s the act of both.
That’s so interesting because when I think of frenemy, I associate it with someone you pretend is your friend but you don’t like deep down. Is that part of the definition too?
It’s somebody that you might feel like you’re walking on eggshells. If you’re all sitting at the table and get up, you might think, “What are they saying about me?” It’s all these cliché things that you hear. If you’re feeling those feels, that’s not a true friend. I have a lot of women say, “We’ve known each other since our kids were little. I’ve known her since college.” History is great, but friendships, just as other types of relationships, evolve.
If you feel that you aren’t fully yourself around this individual, you’re walking on eggshells, or you never know if this person is going to erupt or what they’re going to do or talk about you, is it worth the relationship? Is it worth the angst, anxiety, shame, and everything you feel and the energy to have a relationship with this person? It’s hard to do, but sometimes you have to cut the cord because a frenemy is not traditionally a real friend.Know how you don't want to treat other people because you know what it feels like to be on the receiving end. Click To Tweet
I love your tips on cutting the cord because one person came to mind. We all probably have one. This was years ago. This one woman who I was friends with and still think about from time to time because I never addressed why I started distancing myself from her. I felt bad about that, but I didn’t feel safe addressing it with her. It was easier for me to slowly let her slip away. We weren’t super close, so it wasn’t a big transition. She would invite me to things, and I would say no. I would stop inviting her to things that I was doing. I just stopped including her and checking in with her. My heart felt bad about that because I didn’t want anyone to feel dismissed.
The reason I did that is because so many things started adding up. I felt incredibly resentful. I also had experienced all these little paper cuts, little moments that didn’t feel good. I noticed other people saying similar things. This was one of those examples where I felt like I wanted to gossip because we had so many mutual friends. I learned through them that she was doing strange things to them too. I thought, “This woman feels toxic.” It was hard to let her go because I was drawn to her for many years because she does have a good heart. She’s not a bad person, but she was doing things that did not feel good to me. She was doing things professionally to me and my friends that weren’t quite right.
I didn’t want that in my life. I’m curious. What are some ways to let people go? It seems obvious that you might want to have a conversation, but with her, I felt unsafe doing that because I didn’t know how to explain to her why I no longer wanted her in my life. I was also afraid that she would pit other people against me. Maybe that was part of the trauma of some of my past situations. I was a little nervous that she would be a little revengeful or something.
How do you let go of somebody when you don’t even feel comfortable enough expressing that? Is it okay to ghost them as they say now? Is it okay to slowly let it fade away? Is that a proper way to handle it for lack of a better way of asking? Is there a better way to handle it so that you can cut the ties more? It’s even hard to verbalize my question, but I’m sure you know what I mean.
I’m sitting here by my notes because I’m like, “You brought up so many.” For one, I love the word paper cuts. I don’t know why I had never thought of it in that term. That’s such an appropriate description. That gave me the chills. My first thought is you always 100% have to listen to your gut. Your gut never lies. Cutting the cord is situational. I don’t think there is a black and white answer. I don’t think there’s one thing that does it all. It depends on the person and your history, everything. I’ve done both.
Before, I went to have a hard conversation with somebody because it was a professional and a friendship. I value her deeply. I love her as a friend, but I was frustrated. I know myself. I’m very direct. If I don’t bring it up, I don’t want it to turn resentful because that’s not fair to her and to me. I want to bring it up. She’s ghosted me, and we’re done. I’m baffled and shocked by it. It bothers me, I think about it, and I’m perplexed by the behavior, but I have to keep going back. This is something I’ve learned like, “I only have control over my action. I don’t have control over her response or action.” It’s hard.
Another situation is it depends on bringing it up to somebody. The chances are that’s a difficult conversation. Is somebody going to be receptive to you saying, “We can’t be friends anymore?” No. Chances are probably not. They’re going to get defensive, and it could get ugly, but I’m a firm believer too. You have to set the boundaries that are right for you.
If it’s slowly letting go, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that because their perception is their reality. They may never see things the way you see it. For instance, I told you about when I thought I was professionally and socially being a good friend by bringing this up. It was not well received at all. I didn’t go with it. I wasn’t pointing fingers. I was saying, “I feel this.” You never know how somebody is going to respond or react. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with slowly edging and doing less things together.
The thing is, you can always go back and do more. Maybe that was a moment in time, and it ebbs and flows like a roller coaster or whatever. Sometimes, somebody is toxic. True colors come through, and you have to snip that. It’s hard, but in the long run, do you feel better or worse? It’s your inner gut or that voice, and it talks to you for a reason. I’m a firm believer that it’s usually spot on with what it’s telling you.
That’s comforting to know. It’s easy to second guess yourself because I’ve also been on the receiving end of being ghosted by several friends. Some I repaired the friendships with years later. Some I never did and never heard from that person again. Those are hard. They’re almost as bad as romantic breakups. It’s tough. I’ve had so many of these various experiences with friends. If I wrote them all down, it would be a surprise. It could be someone I’ve barely known or known for years, and we stopped talking. To your point, it’s nice to know that there’s no one size fits all approach to it. It’s very healing to know that it’s okay, no matter how you do it.
If you’re following your heart and the experience is authentic to you, that’s the right answer versus trying to research it and find out what’s the best way to let go of a friend or cut a tie with a friend. I love your answer. Sometimes we yearn for step-by-step instructions to do hard things, but there are so many nuances in these hard moments in our life that nobody could possibly guide us through them. That might not be very comforting in a way I think it is because it gives you permission to do it however best suits you.
You also brought up a great point, and it made me think of two things. The first thing is, and I’ve learned through another friendship, how I communicate is vastly different from how you communicate. You might be on a different wave, and that may not work. That’s frustrating, but you can’t change somebody’s communication style.Don't judge other people by how they look. Click To Tweet
When somebody goes, maybe they’re not ready to hear what I have to say, or they see it totally different. That’s a whole another topic. The other point is we talk so much in our society about relationships as romantic relationships. You break up with this or that person, this is what you do, and this is how you do it. It’s so hard to talk about friendship breakups. You don’t hear that talked about as much. It’s just as hard, if not harder at times, especially if you go back to your BFF. That’s probably changed over the years, depending on the phase and stage you are in your life.
We don’t talk about friendship breakups. It’s a taboo topic, and that’s sad. It’s okay to date friends. You put a lot of effort into your romantic partner, and you date your partner. Why can’t you date friends to see if they’re a good fit, networking groups, or different things? Get your date on. That’s how you know if you’re a good fit. Breaking up with somebody is hard, but it doesn’t mean you’re always going to be at that same level forever. Does it mean you have ill will or wish them badly? Not at all. You can say, “This chapter might be coming to an end. I love you. I care about you from afar. It’s just hard to be close to you right now.”
I love the idea of dating friends. Can you also date coworkers? I suppose you can. Can you do a trial at a job and see if you get along with the people there? That’s all equally important too, if you’re going to go into an office. Even through my consulting work that I do now, I get to make my own schedule and work rules, but my work is still about other people. People hire me to work with them. Just because they’re paying me doesn’t mean that they’re a good fit as a boss, client, or colleague in some cases.
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of wonderful people, but there have been times. There was this one guy. It was for a brand sponsorship that I did a few years ago. The product I was promoting was great, but he was challenging. I remember I have to finish this project, so I don’t have to talk to this guy anymore. Even at the time, I had an assistant, “I can’t read any of his emails. I need you to do all the correspondence. I will answer questions for you, but I need a mediator.”
That’s worth touching upon, too, in a lot of work environments. Having someone in between you and another person is so valuable. You might not always be able to get it. That’s the trick, but if you have the option to have someone mediate or someone in between you and another person, it is a game-changer.
That’s something that I’ve certainly learned and gives me clarity. It’s taking the time to get to know people before I go into a long-term partnership. Given my work, I have the ability that if I don’t work well with somebody, I can get out of it quickly. Is there a way to do that if you are signing up for a job, you need the money, and that’s the only job you can have? What do you do in a situation where you don’t get along with a coworker?It's a rivalry. Women judge other women based on perception. Click To Tweet
That’s situational. That is harder to vet than it is to vet an organization. In dating an organization, look at the social media they have out there. Look at what their mission and vision statement is. As a whole, are these philosophies resonate with you? Are their ethics the same? It takes a little bit of time, but usually, that stuff is pretty transparent, especially if they are a little bit bigger organization.
In one-on-one, that would be harder to know. Go on your LinkedIn and see, “Do we have connections? Maybe Sally knows somebody, but I could talk to them and see what their perception was working for that environment.” Do as much of the research as you can. When you’re interviewing, people put on their best behavior. I hope that’s not the case as much anymore that real people are shining through because they want people to stay. It’s expensive to go through the interview process and hire.
You don’t want to do it and have somebody want to leave, so you want it to be a good fit on both ends. Go with your gut. If you’re interviewing with somebody you know you’re going to have to work closely with, granted they’re probably wearing their Sunday best during the interview, so you might not see the everyday clothes, but go with your gut because it’s worth it. I saw some posts, and I might be going to get this wrong, but the girl said, “The ethics weren’t a fit. The money was a huge paycheck, but I turned it down because I knew I could not work in that organization. I would be selling myself.”
There are different little ways you can go about it. If it starts to happen and you are feeling angsty with somebody, talk with them one-on-one. I agree that anytime you can get it, it’s harder but have somebody in there, even if it’s not a mediator, to listen to the conversations. It would be interesting enough if the behavior is the same or if it changes when there’s somebody else around.
I love the idea of slowing down and taking the time to do your research. It’s the key because we can get drawn into the opportunity, the money, and what it might mean for our future. Some people may be able to tough out these situations. When you’re talking about the circumstantial side of it, it depends on who you are.
Maybe you have thick skin, you’re not as sensitive, and you can handle these tough things or block them out it. Amber, do you know about that Apple TV+ show called Severance? That’s on the air now where it’s about employees who get operations so that they are completely different. They don’t remember their personal lives when they’re at work and out of work. Do you know about this show?Friendships just as other types of relationships evolve. Click To Tweet
I’ve heard the name, but I don’t know what that was.
I hope I didn’t spoil it, but it’s in the trailer and the description. I’ve watched a little bit of it. It’s an interestingly done show with a great cast. The concept is so fascinating because I haven’t gotten to the point of the show where they explain why and how they do this. It’s a bit of an experiment, but it’s an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or people who got operations so they wouldn’t remember people they broke up with. There’s this human desire to kind of cut away our emotions.
One thing I’ve learned from you, Amber, is that it’s okay to feel those emotions, do your best to work through them, and determine if the people that you’re with personally and/or professionally are not a good fit for your life. That’s okay. You can use the things you teach to work through them or move past them and transition into a better situation. I would love to know. How do you do that with clients? If someone’s reading this episode and wants to learn more, you have your wonderful book, Behind Frenemy Lines. What else do you do that can support people through these tough times?
I have a newsletter that I send out with blogs and tips and tricks about this behavior. I give a lot of talks and workshops. I’ve done book clubs too. If there are groups out there that want a good, juicy book club, this has been a fun one to talk about. In a book club setting, I’ve done that virtually too. I’m available for one-on-one if somebody is knee-deep in this type of behavior. I also am leaning more toward organizational work. It’s very prevalent in organizations. I’m always happy to talk to somebody about this because I know how devastating the behavior can be.
You brought up a good point. That show, Severance, is fascinating to me. In the research, what I’ve learned was this sucks when you’re in it. It can have all the feels and its nasty behavior. What I’ve hugely learned from most of the women I’ve interviewed or talked about this topic with is that you know who you do not want to be, so you rise and overcome. It’s in that where you win. That’s how we become better together. Taking a negative situation, will it be a positive one? No, but you could turn it into what you don’t want to be. You can mentor, especially as you grow and develop.
Maybe you’re leading a team, an organization, a group, or a management position. You can showcase the behaviors of positivity versus the negative behaviors and instill a psychologically safe environment where you’re actively communicating. You have bystander training. You’re promoting self-awareness. It’s all of these things that help everybody be better together. As you can tell, it’s a topic I’m hugely passionate about because we have work to do in social and organizational settings to overcome it. I believe we’ll get there.
Thanks to people like you. We have a better chance of doing that successfully. I’m so grateful that you took the time to share these things and guide people through tough situations that may not get acknowledged nearly enough. I love your Instagram too. You have so many great points on there and even bring up the taboo subject matters on a platform like Instagram, where you can easily fall into the comparison trap, having reminders from someone like you that you’re not alone, and here are ways to work through it. Getting perspective is so wonderful. Thank you for doing this work, Amber. I can’t wait to continue following the evolution of everything you learn and teach along the way.
Thank you. I appreciate you having me as a guest on your show. This has been a great topic. I’m thankful to be here.
For the reader, if you would like to get a copy of Amber’s book, go over at Wellevatr.com. Thank you for reading. Thanks too, Amber, for being here. I’ll be back with another episode.
- Amber Tichenor
- Behind Frenemy Lines
About Amber Tichenor
Amber Tichenor has a Ph.D. in I/O Psychology and is the founder of To Be, Coaching + Consulting®. A thought leader on the topic of women’s rivalry, Amber has 20+ years’ experience as an Organizational Change Strategy and Leadership consultant where she helped guide businesses through transformational change.
Her book, “Behind Frenemy Lines: Rising Above Female Rivalry To Be Unstoppable Together,” published by Morgan James Publishing, is on sale now. Amber is deeply passionate about addressing the phenomenon of rivalry between women. She consults with organizations and offers speaking engagements and workshops on the importance of the phenomenon, the challenges and behaviors it presents, along with coping and recovery steps. Amber’s goal is to promote collaboration over competition, to empower women to find their voice, leave the rivalry behind, and team up with a community of like-minded women who support each other to be unstoppable together.
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