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Still Haunted by the Mean Girls?

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I came across a post over at BNET the other day that suggests that our high school selves sometimes come back to undermine us when it comes to our careers. According to business writer Jeff Haden, our professional lives are "like high school with money" in terms of the way we interact with colleagues. But what might have led to acceptance by the mean girls back in the day can actually be disastrous out in the business world.

He points out that the survival skills we learned when we were fifteen sometimes stick with us until we're thirty -- or beyond -- and they rarely end well. You can guess the ones: Looking to the wrong folks for advice; doing what everyone else is doing because, well, everyone else is doing it; making decisions based on the "shoulds"; and caring far too much about what other people think. All these patterns, he writes, can be roadblocks when it comes to building a professional life.

It makes sense. For many of us, life took an abrupt, unforgettable turn once adolescence reared its awkward head. Maybe we were one of the cool kids. Maybe we were irretrievably dorky. Didn't matter. Whether we were beauty or brains, prom queen or wallflower, picked first or last for volleyball or had our ass routinely kicked by Algebra II, we were filled with self doubt. Self-definition came in the form of how someone treated us at lunch or whether the phone rang that night. Deep inside, or maybe not even so deep, we were all just a little bit miserable because of, or in spite of, how we thought others perceived us.

It's hard to get over four years of living like that.

Given how difficult high school is for girls, especially, and how deep and lingering the scars can be, it also makes sense to ask how much of our insecure adolescent selves stays with women in particular into adulthood. How much is that vulnerable 15-year-old still whispering in your ear, making you second guess your decisions and nudging you to act now according to patterns etched then? Are we still looking for approval from erstwhile best friends? Is there a part of us that still wants to please the arbiters of ninth grade taste -- or show them up? Hello there, mean girls! Take a look at me now!

Sure, men suffer socially in high school -- and as adults -- but here's where it's different for women: We're either hard-wired or socialized or both to please. (Nature or nurture, who cares?) Which is why we listened to what we thought was being whispered about us near the lockers after class -- and sometimes still do. Even as adults, we tend, more than men, to see ourselves as we think others do and judge ourselves accordingly. We ask ourselves: Do we measure up? Do we fit in?

I have to wonder if this is one more reason why career decisions are so loaded for women, especially those just starting out, trying to figure out what they actually want to do. If I choose to be a social worker or a trader or an interior designer, what will that say about me? What will they think?

And could a lingering fear of the mean girls be why some women who've already chosen a profession and advanced in it find themselves longing for something more, something better, something else? Why some of us have such a hard time figuring out what we want?

When we're at work, does this lingering desire to fit in cause us to take a coworker's reactions to our ideas more seriously than our male colleagues would? Are we more self-conscious as a result, continually looking over our shoulders to make sure that hushed conversation in the corner isn't about us? Are we more inclined than men to avoid speaking up altogether rather than risk rejection?

Good questions, right? But meanwhile, even as I type this, I hear a tragic little ninth grader -- the one with the bad hair and the big glasses -- whispering in my ear: What will (choose one) think?

To which the only grown-up answer is: Who cares. Because while we may assume we're being judged, more often than not, the only one who's doing the judging is our high school self.