The Frenemy – How to navigate your mindset and emotional state around adult bullies.

As I begin to write this I already have a feeling in my chest that makes me feel like a 15 year old girl. It’s a fear that still now, after all these years, has me grappling for breath and worrying if somewhere down the line I will take a proverbial beating for this.

If you have ever been the victim (hate that word) of bullying then I am really sorry that happened to you. Those of us who have experienced this can feel triggered by what seems like the simplest things, it can be a trauma we are healing from for a very long time.

When I was growing up I had a really simple system of making sense of how the world works people where either good or bad. You were a bully or you were bullied. There are behaviours that are responsible for our feelings that are our fault because someone else created them, never looking at our responsibility to deny acceptance and the willingness to take them on. I had a great childhood but my education on emotional intelligence came from an inner interest due to being a highly emotional or “sensitive” person. I believe that emotional intelligence is so rare that when I find people who are willing to talk about it, really and truly, they often are people who have overcome, suffered, and endured great emotional pain. Emotional intelligence becoming the gift left behind by the hurt.

I want to tell you that as you grow you realise that bullies were all just deeply emotionally hurt people who passed on their pain to survive themselves or that, they grow out of it. Although that may be true for some, there are a whole host of “unaware” people who do not ever self-regulate why they behave the way they do, nor do they care how it affects others. There are some that don’t grow out of anything; they can however adapt it to become more subtle and more socially acceptable. The truth is that there is neither “good guy” nor “bad guy” it’s a sweeping scale of behaviour and we are all on it…somewhere. Even you.

The frenemy is a term I have been using since around 2009, it perfectly embodies what it is trying to communicate in its name and it allows for you to sprinkle some comedy joy on something that is actually quite horrifying. We have all heard “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” and you don’t need to watch Peaky Blinders to understand social coercion, faked connection and compliance and resistance ebb and flow. It’s a balance of mutual positive understanding and support or it is a business collaboration (whether you are in business or not!) where one person is gaining from the relationship over the other, A little bit like when the witches on Hocus Pocus sucked the life out of their almost willing naive victim. A frenemy will have you thanking them for coming and removing your soul and leave you confused as to why you’re suddenly sad and hollow. Maybe this is where Vampire lore originated from? Who knows!

You need only to look at those who teach about narcissistic behaviours to:

1. Identify some awful behaviours you will at some point in your life have also displayed. It’s okay, you are a flawed human and we all make mistakes – it’s what you continue to do once you know better that counts.

2. To recognise that it’s not just Narcissists who use these behaviours in attempts to manipulate compliance.

The act of infiltrating your trust centre like a M16 professional spy is just stage one of the many levels of rollercoaster drama and tactics that a frenemy may use. These skills are put to use to ultimately seize any benefits they can extract and subtly control the relationship so you are left hanging and available for this practice all over again, when it suits them next time. There are many examples of this and as I explained earlier, it’s a slider scale, not a yes or no answer.

This piece is not intended to give you the tools you need to identify a bully or frenemy in your life. It is likely you have seen the red flags, felt the gut instinct, winced at a tone, comment or exchange, and know in your heart of hearts (although you don’t want to believe it) that there is someone in your life you “let in” and perhaps should not have. This article is to bring light to you so you can reflect on your inner emotional intelligence so that you can navigate through these murky waters with more self-compassion and confidence if you do come across them.

The frenemy is particularly comfortable in a working environment and this is because even those of us who have created massive boundaries for our personal relationships allow a more open approach due to the need to collaborate, network, co-host or work directly together with others. In my industry frenemies are often confused for social climbers but that isn’t the case either. Social climbers are often open to genuine relationships it’s just that the motivation to make them is fuelled by a business or financial need. Many social climbers have found the errors in their ways early on and opted for actual connection and friendship after all. In the digital business/coaching world there is an undertone of reputation. (cue Taylor Swift album, if you haven’t listened to it – you should its a must) “My reputation has never been worse so you must like me for me” is a tshirt I could gift each of my business besties – because at some point or another we are subjected to the fear, the threat or the reality of nasty behaviour online. What it would do to harm us, our relationships with our audiences, our sense of self and ultimately also our income. Equally they all can tell of a time someone has tried to befriend them for their own social or financial gain. Often times there are also tales of the other side of the coin when someone was genuinely being friendly, wanted to be friends “outside of work” or “for real” and that they have missed out, miss identified or pushed away due to being unable to identify a real friend. Simply because they can no longer tell who to trust. This makes me really sad but I totally get it.

Some of the positives you can find in a real genuine relationship is by looking at behaviour. Are they thoughtful? Do they care when you are upset? Do they do extra to let you know that you mean something to them? Do they have to be asked to support you? Do they ever surprise you in ways that benefit you in a positive way? Do they secretly cheerlead you as well as publicly? These are all really positive traits in someone who will stand the test of time.

Some of the negatives you can find when identifying a frenemy is by looking at their behaviour. How do they react to difficult situations? Does their gossip about you get back to you? Do you find yourself asking “is that about me?” on their latest mean Facebook rant? …red flag, red flag, red flag. This behaviour isn’t always trolling, it can be gossip, stonewalling, emotional withholding, passive-aggressive behaviour, affection restoration, rumour sharing and more. It’s harmful and it causes real-life pain. Rumours sometimes being comical – I have really enjoyed the lies I have heard about myself lately.

When I was growing up I was bullied horrendously. Even as I type that I have the urge to under-validate that feeling with a hearty “others were bullied worse than you” which they were, but my pain was the same regardless. In fact the more I explore this I have always made myself a walking bullseye for those who would seek to put me down and make me feel bad. One of the more interesting behaviours I have previously identified in myself is the never-ending pursuit to convert a bully into a friend. Like the empath who perpetually attracts the broken soul over and over again in every lifetime, I have a habit of looking for the Loudest, Meanist, Excluding, overly confident person with a bad attitude, I can find in the room, and then I want to be their friend. This, I discovered is a trauma response. I like to call it the “Regina George paradox” lovingly paying homage to the “mean girls” the main character. I am drawn to their behaviour like a moth to a flame, I don’t want to be hurt again so I will make an effort to get to know this person and be a positive person in their life. It’s a nice idea until you realise you aren’t looking for a friend you are looking for a guard dog. Inevitably you create the cycle you hate for yourself by bringing the guard dog into your home with hopes they will never turn on you and bite you.

Which, they . always . do … eventually.

Apparently, this is a very common behaviour, I am not special – those who feel under threat or want to shut out bullies get themselves a bully to protect them. Like Yin and Yang, you look for something that compliments what you don’t already have in yourself. This feeling alone made me look at my husband – he is a very strong character, a protector and when pushed isn’t backward about coming forwards. Although not a bully, he does display all of the characteristics for someone who wants to be safe and taken care of would look for in fulfilling an area they don’t naturally have themselves. One of the things I have always loved about him is that he would protect me under any threat, he makes me feel safe!

Through the many journeys of this learning in your emotional centre the most important one is that you do have the power to choose your response / behaviour.

You solely have the chance to evaluate situations and change them to suit your needs. You do not need to go sit in the victim box, you can move away from that box but more importantly inside yourself you can shift your mindset to embrace the complexity of human emotion.

Here’s some areas to consider before going to grab another pink shirt for Wednesday.

1.    You triggered them – something you did meant something to them in a negative way. This is not about you, you’re just the catalyst not the cause. The cause is personal to them and could be buried so deep in their psyche that even they don’t know what it is.

2.    You cannot control other people’s opinions of you, nor should you try. You have to find a way to be okay not knowing their side of the story and not giving weight to untruths and mixed narratives others have whipped up as their own personal coping mechanisms.

3.    You can’t change the people around you but you can change the people around you. When you can reduce interaction, remove yourself from the toxic circles; politely moonwalk away from situations that don’t belong to you.

4.    Recognise the pain – Where it comes from isn’t your problem but acknowledge that the person who is hurting you is hurting too. It’s not your circus or monkeys but it is sad for them, empathy not pity will help you steer your thoughts and emotions back to baseline.

5.    Nothing is hurt by kindness as long as its genuine and not toxic positivity lead. Kill them with kindness actually means be true to your energy and be kind to them even when they are not kind to themselves.

6.    Be grateful – it hurts, it burns, it makes you reframe who people are, what they mean and it’s sad. There is always a learning in the sadness and that is valuable to you.

7.    Don’t mirror behaviour – it can be easy to jump to your powerful place and tear them down like Eamon and FrankeeBN but in all seriousness all it does is prolong the distraction from the things that matter.

8.    Try not to judge ever but especially don’t make judgments on someone else’s experience you heard third hand from the department gossip queen. Evaluate how someone treats you and adjust your involvement accordingly.

9.    Be gracious, you know it’s about you, you know it’s to hurt you; your right ear is burning from the sheer spite that surrounds your name and allow it to happen. It takes a lot to do this but its worth it. You are not beholden to someone else’s agenda or narrative.

10.    Check your behaviour – have you even done these things to another? It’s important to not just look outwardly but inwardly for a solution where there are less frenemies and more genuine positive connections and relationships. If we all made a pact to be better then it would significantly reduce the problem!

When it comes to friendships and often female ones too there is almost the resounding undertone of us being pitched against each other for so long that we cannot get that out of our subconscious. Tearing others down to elevate your status doesn’t make you better or bigger or more successful. All it does is openly display red flags to those who have suffered at the hands of social covert espionage and stunts genuine fulfilling friendships and relationships.

I hope where ever you are on the scale, that you can make better choices to feed the right wolf and make time for the flourishing friendships and fill your life with Joy and laughter. Collaboration over competition isn’t a scream over a microphone, it happens in the quiet behind the scenes in the “I refuse to be a part of that’s and the “I am going to ignore and continue on my own path” and the “no actually you are wrong about her”. Be true to you and do no harm to others whilst doing so. Boundaries are fine when they come with respect for others when establishing them.

Summary of Terms:

Trolling – a troll is a person who posts inflammatory, insincere, digressive [1], extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog), with the intent of provoking readers into displaying emotional responses [2], or manipulating their perception. (source Wikapedia)
Gossip – conversation or reports about other people’s private lives that might be unkind, disapproving, or not true: (source Cambridge dictionary)
Stonewalling – to stop a discussion from developing by refusing to answer questions or by talking in such a way that you prevent other people from giving their opinions: (source Cambridge dictionary)
Emotional withholding – to cease to behave in a friendly or affectionate manner in order to punish someone to coerce them into subtle social compliance to your wants. (source The Mend Project)
Passive aggressive behavior – is a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them. There’s a disconnect between what a passive–aggressive person says and what he or she does. (source Mayo Clinic)
Affection restored – to allow the friendly or affectionate manner to return when you have complied with their wants in order to reward you for compliance and suck you back in. (source The Mend Project)
Rumour – a currently circulating story or report of uncertain or doubtful truth. (Source Oxford Languages)

Dawn Baxter on beach at sunrise

Written by Dawn Baxter for Thrive Global — First published June 14 2021

The content in this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal, tax, investment, financial, medical or other advice. Always seek the advice of a licensed professional regarding any questions you may have.

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