Criticism among women can be more damaging than you think.
“I know that my husband’s sisters criticize me. I can see the contempt on their faces. When we have family get-togethers, they avoid talking to me. I feel like a failure when they’re around.”
What woman has not felt like a object of criticism by other women at some point during her life? And who has not had a conversation where another woman is the subject of rumors and gossip, or made fun of for her hair, body shape, or clothing choices? Psychological abuse of women by other women has been given the name wollying. It is the combination of two words — woman + bullying— and, as a concept, it has been studied for 20 years.
If there’s anything that characterizes the female sex, it’s intuition, and it’s not very likely to fail when a woman feels like she’s the victim of humiliating treatment by one or more other women. And this aggression, regardless of the level of intensity, has a negative effect on the person who receives it — and also on the perpetrator.
In addition, there is an age at which this form of abuse is frequently devastating for women: adolescence and early adulthood. According to studies carried out by Tracy Vaillancourt at the University of Ottowa in Canada, adolescents — who are surrounded by the competitiveness and criticism that are typical of that age — can be exposed to psychological harassment and abuse that can have a permanent negative effect on their self-esteem.
Let’s get a better understanding of wollying, with a few questions and answers from psychologist Pedro Martínez, Therapy Director of Neurosalus, which is a center that helps people with psychological problems.
How can we avoid letting ourselves be dragged into disparaging another woman if we find ourselves in that kind of conversation?
[By] defending her and making our own opinions and values heard. We can criticize behavior, but not people, and much less in an insulting manner. If we find ourselves in a situation in which another person is being disparaged, we have to set limits, being clear about where the red lines are regarding opinions and judgments.
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We live in a society in which we all contribute to hurting other people’s reputations, often without even realizing that we are invading their lives with surprising impunity and complicity. Slandering and criticizing is more easily accepted than defending their rights. It’s not acceptable for us to excuse ourselves by saying “that’s the way our society is, and everyone has to look out for themselves.” If we don’t realize that our individual well-being depends on the common good, sooner or later we will be the ones to suffer. Let us also be courageous, denouncing — not permitting — this harassment and psychological abuse.
What can we do if we are suffering from this kind of harassment?
Above all, and as soon as possible, ask for help. One woman on her own can neither tackle nor resolve a situation that requires everyone’s support and cooperation.
My advice is that, if we are in the initial stages of being bullied, we should not hesitate to mobilize those around us immediately. Our first reaction to bullying is often self-punishment: the victim tends to justify the bully’s comments, reproaching herself and hiding from others. If, at this initial phase, the woman being bullied doesn’t react by talking to friends and family, she will isolate herself, possibly harboring feelings of insecurity and defenselessness, which become more difficult to deal with as time passes.
If a woman has been harassed for a while, I recommend courage and determination: courage, to let other people know about her level of psychological malaise; and determination, to fight against this kind of situation, showing her “torturer” that she is not afraid of her, and affirming — both to herself and to the bully — her own value and dignity. Let us not forget that bullies feed on their victims’ insecurity and lack of confidence.
What effects does wollying have on women who experience it?
Wollying follows the pattern of psychological abuse and harassment. Therefore, we can expect women who suffer it to develop all the symptoms typical of this kind of situation: emotional imbalance, low self-esteem; poor self-image; and feelings of insecurity, defenselessness, fear, rejection, solitude, and of being misunderstood …
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This experience, if prolonged, causes a permanent state of alert that is characteristic of episodes of post-traumatic stress, and increases the risk of creating specific phobias, generalized anxiety, and even eating and personality disorders.
What effects can it have on women who criticize or bully others?
On the other side of the equation, bullies use their conduct to protect themselves from the same damage they cause: criticism, discrediting, rejection … This usually creates obsessive behavior directed towards controlling details of their lives that they consider indispensable for maintaining their dominant status with respect to their peers, and which tend to underlie their criticisms: taking care of their image, a disproportionate interest in being attractive both to men and to other women, or an obsession with being the best mother and wife, or the best professional …
Constant exposure to these kinds of demands can lead to psychopathological conditions that have as their common denominator stress, anxiety, and an obsession with certain aspects of their personal image and social competency.
How can prayer help us if we are victims of, or if we are participating in, wollying another woman?
Psychologists know that for people of faith, prayer can work as a sort of “mental strengthening exercise” and can make positive contributions to controlling anxiety and depression, developing empathy, and improving cognitive and intellectual functioning. Also, prayer can help lessen the effects of stress.
For people in the kinds of bullying situations that we are discussing, besides communication and asking for help, both from their close circle of friends and family and from specialized professionals, it can be very helpful to seek in prayer a moment of internal psychological peace, which is very important for building the confidence and strength needed to confront such episodes.
Psychologist Pedro Martínez is the Therapy Director of Neurosalus.
This article was originally published in the Spanish Edition of Aleteia.