Beating Mean Girls At Their Own Game, With Grace
February 1, 2014 2:59 PM   Subscribe

How do you tactfully put a mean girl in her place without stooping to her level? Especially when she's your own cousin.

I have a female cousin who is several years my elder. She's never wished me well- except when we were quite young and she could assert some level of dominance over me (knowing more about life, lecturing me, showing me new things etc. I was a bit of a tomboy then and she was far more girly. Today I am all woman and take pride in caring for myself properly and put effort into my appearance and choice of clothing. And as soon as I blossomed, she turned into the Wicked Witch of the West).

As soon as I blossomed and became a young woman, she took every opportunity she could to knock me down or attack me. She makes strategic comments to me at family functions when no one else is around that are just downright childish. Everyone thinks she's a saint. I just sit there and smile when someone mentions how sweet she is and hold my tongue.

I know 'it' probably has to do with the fact that her little cousin seems threatening to her now. I understand that it's petty. She goes stiff when she sees me. I can see it, I can feel it. I try to ignore her and enjoy myself when we're at the same function, but sure enough every time we're in close proximity she pops up out of nowhere to insult me and then trots off, and I'm left standing there with this nasty cloud of her absurd I'm-trying-to-dominate-you flatulence floating around me. It's just so unpleasant.

Her jabs at me are really starting to get on my nerves and I feel like the next time she does it I'm going to make a scene. I'd rather have more grace than that. But the truth is I just want to go off on her for being so childish. I don't need to shout at her and ask her what her deal is, because it's so blatantly obvious to me. I know what her problem is. But I really want to tell her that her behavior is awful and that she needs to grow up. There is no competition going on. I wish her well. I'm not playing her game.

I've always been concerned about her well-being. I adored her when we were children. As adults I've always been supportive and in her corner. While I very well could have made a mistake at some point and mistreated her throughout the years, we never spent enough time together for that to happen, and quite frankly I'm just not a combative or snarky person so I don't ever feel the need to create drama and never have. There is absolutely no reason for her to be treating me this way, other than jealousy or competitiveness. She's buddy-buddy with another female cousin of ours who is someone she can dominate and who is far less attractive than she is. It just makes sense that she clings to this particular cousin who she was never close with until she decided to make me enemy numero uno. I just think the whole thing is petty and sick and I have to let her know. I will burst the next time she approaches me at a family event and makes one of her nasty remarks.

I'm not skilled in mean-girl tactical moves, I don't play these games. I don't know how to deflect cattiness. It just bothers me, and I'm sure I give my attackers (there haven't been many, but the ones I've had have all been female and all around my age) the satisfaction of knowing their jabs bother me because I wear it on my face. I turn away or answer to it as if I wasn't just insulted. I pretend their comments were innocent and make a fool of myself for not throwing it in their faces, right back at them in some tactful way. I'm done doing that. I'm not going to be her or any other crazy girl's whipping girl anymore. I'm not going to apologize for threatening these rare but awful creatures from the abyss with my appearance or my aura or whatever damn superficial thing it is that makes these women behave this way.

How do you guys handle people who are trying to compete with you, when all you want to do is have a good time, enjoy yourself, and be engaged in whatever activity is going on? How do you stand up for yourself without stooping to a petty attacker's level? How do you not let them make you feel uncomfortable? Sometimes I think life would be a lot easier if I were just a shark- a mean girl, or a borderline sociopath. At least then I'd know how to match one with their own BS. But I'm just not. I'm sensitive and I'm a 'nice girl.' I have no right-back-at-you tactics. I come across as easy prey for insecure women who want to compete because they know I'm not going to get nasty with them so they'll always win if they get nasty. I'm tired of being that girl. I'm far from weak. I'm just dumbfounded when someone attacks me like that. It just sort of blows my mind and makes me raise a brow and think what the hell, WHY?
posted by OneHermit to Human Relations (54 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
How do you stand up for yourself without stooping to a petty attacker's level?

You don't. You say you're not playing her game, and I applaud you for not playing her game. But her game is to needle you into blowing up and making a scene that will make you look bad in front of your family. Do that and you lose.

How do you not let them make you feel uncomfortable?

There's no way to feel comfortable with someone insulting and belittling you. However, if you keep up what you've been doing, you're beating her at her own game -- or, rather, you're undercutting her entirely by refusing to play her stupid game.

It will always be uncomfortable. But discomfort is much easier to bear when it's mixed half-and-half with victory.
posted by escabeche at 3:05 PM on February 1, 2014 [10 favorites]

This seems pretty low-stakes. Can you LOL at her? I mean literally. It's a passive-aggressive yet fairly reasonable approach to flustering people who think they have some way to get under your skin, when in fact they have nothing if you don't take the bait.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 3:10 PM on February 1, 2014 [20 favorites]

Yeah, I would just guffaw and say something like "aw, that's nice, dear" or "aw you're so cute" in the sweetest way you could possibly address a 5 year old.

Maybe not "guffaw"... But definitely smile.
posted by ancient star at 3:15 PM on February 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

You don't have to be mean. Just be super dismissive, and she'll lose a lot of incentive to keep doing this. If she jumps in and says something mean, don't look at her. Just raise an eyebrow, smile, point to her and laugh, as if a child ran in and made a bunch of farting sounds. Go right back to whatever you were doing before she showed up.

Alternatively, just look right through her as she's talking, maybe making the "dog with the head cocked to one side" expression.

The basic pattern is: Make it a hassle for her to get acknowledgement for her dig.
posted by ignignokt at 3:21 PM on February 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Agree, just laugh, say something like "oh bless your heart," and then walk away and get on with having a good time, doing your thing, and engaging in whatever activity is going on. Nothing drives people like that crazier than knowing that their opinions are insignificant. Living well really is the best revenge.
posted by rpfields at 3:22 PM on February 1, 2014 [12 favorites]

Can you provide some more specific examples that you'd need a response to?

At the root, mean girls like that are usually insecure and anxious.

In general, if she makes a mean remark you should just act like it makes no sense: look confused, squint your nose a little and look quizzical. Sort of like you are really surprised and can't believe she just said that. If she ever says mean things about others, shut her down lightly by disagreeing.

As someone she is threatened by, you're in a position of power - the alpha, if you will. That means that at some level she probably wants your approval. Compliment her often, in private and in public - her style and taste, her knack for always knowing the right thing to say (ha!), how smart she is - whatever. Kill her with kindness.
posted by amaire at 3:24 PM on February 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Take some time to reflect on the phrase "A man sees in the world what is in his own heart."
posted by samthemander at 3:28 PM on February 1, 2014 [35 favorites]

"cousin, it makes me laugh when you say these things about me. envy is unbecoming. i will teach you my tricks if you change your attitude."
posted by bruce at 3:28 PM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

The thing that really truly works is to genuinely care about her and do what you can to set aside her discomfort with you. Laughing at her does not do that and is a "mean girl" tactic itself. Such a response will just deepen the problems you have with her. You do it by realizing she feels threatened or something. And you bend over backwards to help her stop feeling threatened by you.

This is not a "tactic" or "strategy." This is not for the faint of heart. I think this is what the bible means when it says "love thine enemy." It is an approach with an eye on the long haul, not the short. And it may not work because no matter how nice you are to her, you are not the only person in the equation. She can still continue to just be a jerk. It does happen. Once you understand and accept that, it gets easier.

You have no obligation whatsoever to help her set aside her crap, which likely came from elsewhere. But if she is part of your life and you run into her frequently, then helping her set it aside is the path out of this mess.

It isn't easy to do. It doesn't happen quickly. She will probably assume this is some new manipulative tactic on your part. She will probably assume that if you are being genuinely nice, you are her bitch. You have to side-step that as well. Letting her be abusive is not a path out either.
posted by Michele in California at 3:30 PM on February 1, 2014 [26 favorites]

If she only does this when you are alone with her then never be alone with her. If you are alone and see her approaching make a beeline for another person.
posted by obol at 3:35 PM on February 1, 2014 [8 favorites]

When she says something hurtful, say, "Wow, that was really hurtful. Why would you say something like that to me? I thought we were family, and should love and support one another."

Seriously, if you're not going to address the fact that her behavior is hurtful, she can deny all she wants that she's doing it on purpose.
posted by xingcat at 3:35 PM on February 1, 2014 [12 favorites]

This probably isn't your style but maybe when no one is looking just say 'hey, cousin...' Wait for her to look and then flip her the bird with a big old shit eating grin.
posted by ian1977 at 3:36 PM on February 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: @samthemander, no, you are not onto something with that remark. I am not a jealously natured person like she is. I celebrate the success, beauty, and accomplishments of my friends and family members and neither trigger some kind of petty primal desire to compete. I've always known that there is enough of everything for everybody. That is, there is enough success, attention, and enough of all of the things we crave as flawed beings, for everyone. There's enough to go around. There's no need to feel threatened by other people. I've always known this.
posted by OneHermit at 3:38 PM on February 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

How do you guys handle people who are trying to compete with you, when all you want to do is have a good time, enjoy yourself, and be engaged in whatever activity is going on?

Them: Hey "It's Never Lurgi": Hateful thing. Annoying remark. Biting comment

Me: Uh-huh. Hmmm? What?

Them: Hateful thing. Annoying remark. Biting comment

Me: Hatful thing? What's a hatful thing?

Them: Hateful! Hateful!. You are just an XYZ and you probably ABC as well, you DEF.

Me: Wow, you seem to have me figured out. Is there any more beer?

Them: You drink a lot, don't you?

Me: Hey, I appreciate you looking out for me. Want me to get you one while I'm up?

(I should point out that this is how the super-cool imaginary version of me handles things. The real me is not this smooth).
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 3:39 PM on February 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

I think you have to honestly say to yourself "I understand where she is coming from so I know it's not about me and I don't hold it against her". Seriously. Who gives a shit what she says. You have to really not care in a zen way. How to do this? Just assume that her jabs are based out of envy or insecurity or whatever and just let it go. Or maybe say "hey, that's kind of hurtful" to her next time. But just in a factual way, zero emotion. "Or, really, I didn't think I was that stupid but hey" etc. You cannot get riled up, absolutely not. I would avoid her too, which is annoying in itself but really, why bother be around someone like that?
posted by bquarters at 3:39 PM on February 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is a complicated problem because a part of you wants to fight back and part of you wants to be 'better than that'. I have two ways that I address a problem like this, one is the 'what would Jesus do' model (except maybe, Pete Seeger or who ever your moral hero is), this celebrates and grows the tolerant kind part of you and may rub off on mean cousin.
The second way is to come at her hard and make it unpleasant for her to be mean to you or even to be around you. This celebrates the bitch in you and grows the angry mean part. I got really good at the mean method before I grew up and switched to the kind way. Think of it like a physical attack. If your cousin slapped you every time you saw her and made you feel scared and like a victim, would it make you a bad person to give her a good punch to the head to put and end to it? I don't think so, but it might not make you feel as good as you'd hope. Have you ever just said to her ' I used to admire and look up to you but you just seem so mean and angry now, what happened?'
If that doesn't work I would go the route of just ignoring her, instead of looking through her though, keep staring at a point on her face as if you see something there.
posted by InkaLomax at 3:46 PM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I do not think you should say "Wow, that was really hurtful. Why would you say something like that to me? I thought we were family, and should love and support one another."

She is trying to hurt you so in that scenario you are egging her on since she will feel she can hurt you.

I think you should avoid her and then if you are in contact where she says something mean, just laugh and be like "LOL what"
posted by seesom at 3:48 PM on February 1, 2014

I celebrate the success, beauty, and accomplishments of my friends and family members and neither trigger some kind of petty primal desire to compete. I've always known that there is enough of everything for everybody. That is, there is enough success, attention, and enough of all of the things we crave as flawed beings, for everyone. There's enough to go around. There's no need to feel threatened by other people. I've always known this.

Congratulations. You answered your own question and now your problems with your cousin are over.

You win.
posted by hal_c_on at 3:55 PM on February 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

Her: "Mean remark."

You: ... (looking right at her, so she knows you heard her)

Her: "Another mean remark about how you're not saying anything."

You: ... (no expression on your face, or a slightly bored or faintly amused one)

Her: (eventually) "Oh, forget it." (walks away)

She's looking for a reaction. Any reaction. If you don't give it to her, she has nothing to feed on.
posted by Etrigan at 3:57 PM on February 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think the way you handle it and have fun is by having faith that you'll be able to handle what's thrown at you. I learned a lot by reading The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense, and I've made it my task to get better at handling these sorts of encounters in the last few years.

In your situation, I would ask her to repeat herself and see if she has the guts to do it, and then continue working the conversation with the goal of getting her to either make her feelings 100% explicit or to back down from them.

The fact that she's seeking you out in private and the way you describe yourself as timid mean it's pretty certain that this works for her because she sees you as a safe target. So don't let her off the hook.

I would continue to press her, for example, by following up with something like, "I really hope this wasn't your intention, but that comment sounded like you were insulting the way my dress looks. Is that what you were trying to convey or am I misinterpreting things?" Even if she makes an escape, find her and follow up.
posted by alphanerd at 3:59 PM on February 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm just dumbfounded when someone attacks me like that. It just sort of blows my mind and makes me raise a brow and think what the hell, WHY?

Use that. Raise a brow, and say "Why do you say that?"

Repeat as necessary.
posted by RainyJay at 4:00 PM on February 1, 2014 [8 favorites]

So this is not a family member, but there is someone in my life who is really, really unpleasant. Queen of the Mean Girls, and never misses and opportunity to get a dig in.

I can minimize contact with her, but not eliminate it altogether. When I have to be around her, I try to put my virtual anthropologist hat on, and observe her with the kind of engaged interest combined with clinical detachment that I would imagine an anthropologist employing when observing a different culture. I smile. I take nothing she says personally.

Then I get in the car and mr. ambrosia and I cheerfully post-mortem all the hateful things she said.
posted by ambrosia at 4:01 PM on February 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

On the basis that I myself destroyed a friendship by accident by relentlessly, and in hindsight - cruelly, teasing my dearest friend out of a mistaken idea of appropriate affectionate behaviour (I blame you, family of origin), below are some of the things I would suggest saying, with grace and compassion (and the beautiful smiling seriousness of the Dalai Lama), when your cuz stuffs up. In the past, I would have done it with tongue firmly in cheek, and a hint of intellectual passive aggressiveness. Now I recommend you only say the things you really mean. I do not suggest that you ask questions that invite her to be self-reflective - her behaviour and maturity is not your responsibility, but you can model good behaviour for her.

* Why do you say that?
* I don't really understand what you mean.
* Are you okay, you seem tense or upset. Do you want to talk about anything?
* Have I said something to offend/upset you?

Further, for yourself, to an extent, you can choose your reaction to someone's bad behavior. A therapist I once had told me to imagine a glass pane between myself and those who were verbally attacking me. The words hit the pane and slide down to the floor, not impacting on me. I find now that if a client were to verbally abuse me (and it happened in the last year), I can see that it's not about me, it's actually all about them, their stress, their inability to focus on the cause of their problem, and an appropriate solution, a bit like the frustration of a child who is unable to communicate properly. I believe, from the way your question is written (eg "I just sit there and smile when someone mentions how sweet she is and hold my tongue."), that with practice, you are completely capable of loving your cousin and accepting her poor social skills as one of her human flaws, while no longer accepting that her opinions have any relevance to who you are or how you see yourself as a person.

Or in preview, what Michele in California said more eloquently and precisely.
posted by b33j at 4:03 PM on February 1, 2014 [7 favorites]

The thing that really truly works is to genuinely care about her and do what you can to set aside her discomfort with you. Laughing at her does not do that and is a "mean girl" tactic itself. Such a response will just deepen the problems you have with her. You do it by realizing she feels threatened or something.

This, a thousand times. Trying to put her in her place, by definition, IS playing her game; it also can never be a permanent solution, as it will only deepen her resentment of you. All you will do is prolong the dynamic.

Disrupting the dynamic that has developed between you means taking your insight about her and using it as the basis for compassion for her. This, I believe, is what samthemander meant by "A man sees in the world what is in his own heart" -- namely, that your cousin is probably viewing you as a threat because, in her heart, she believes that the world is some sort of zero-sum game, that she believes your positive qualities somehow diminish hers. This is a mindset of someone living in fear and anger, and she is lashing out as a way of trying to displace the pain that she feels.

Of course it sucks to be on the receiving end of this sort of treatment -- it's painful and discombobulating and downright unfair. Ultimately, you can't alleviate her pain (that would be something only she could do herself), but if you can keep in mind that she is operating from a place of pain, then maybe it can help you in those frustrating moments to choose to take the high road -- not just because you want to think of yourself as a good person, but because in your heart you don't want your cousin to be any more miserable than she is.

(on preview, listen to b33j, too.)
posted by scody at 4:06 PM on February 1, 2014 [9 favorites]

It sounds to me like you have been doing the right thing all along. However, I understand it is not satisfying because nothing has changed; the hurtful behavior on her part continues. Also, it is not satisfying because when someone else behaves in a hurtful way towards us there is usually an instinct that wants to hurt them back.

But negative energy begets negative energy. The satisfaction you might enjoy from attacking her back would be short lived.

The one thing I suggest that you can add to what you’ve already been doing is to experiment with a bit of what xingcat suggested, which is to provide her with honest feedback. For example, something like, “When you say things like that, I feel hurt.” And then be quiet, and allow her to react as she will.

This is a technique called “I messages”. The point is not to attack her, or to characterize her behavior in a negative way, but to simply provide feedback about how her action made you feel. It requires some courage, because it involves expressing some vulnerability to someone who wants to hurt you. However, really, what harm could come of it? The worst thing is that she continues in the manner. And, possibly, part of her might be impacted in an unexpected way. I’ve seen it happen.

However, my suggestion is that you continue to avoid stooping to her level.

I’m sorry you have to deal with this, but really, really, she is in a lot of pain, and the lesson for you from this challenge is to stay in the light, so to speak.
posted by elf27 at 4:09 PM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well, usually I advise humor, fake humor mostly, but in your case I think you should just be sympathetic. Seems to me it would work better for you, based on what you've written here. Next time she says something ugly, give her a soft pat on the shoulder, look deeply into her eyes, and say very sympathetically "it will be ok." And then "Do you need a hug?" Or maybe "Can I get you anything to make you feel better?" "I'm sorry you're feeling so out of sorts today." Come up with more like this. Practice them in the mirror beforehand. Make sure you have NO trace of sarcasm or bitterness in your delivery. Nothing on your face except genuine concern for her well-being. Continue to deliver these lines every single time she says something ugly.

Channel your own feelings for the person you want her to be. The person you wish she was. At the very least, you will embarrass her into acting more polite towards you. At best, the two of you might be able to work through whatever issues she has.

If none of that happens, at least you'll improve your reputation in your family, coming off as a sincere and caring person.
posted by raisingsand at 4:26 PM on February 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

I don’t know if this’ll help, but on the off-chance: some years ago, I was shopping with a woman thirty years my senior, a family “friend” (not really, but explaining the connection would take ages. She was visiting, a rare occurrence). I’d admired a dress. This woman said, in a skilled smack-down of both my taste and appearance: “Oh, not for you, even a pretty girl couldn’t pull it off”. (fwiw: I’m not a movie star, but I believe other people who’ve said I’m cute.)

My response: a) [?!?] b) “Did you actually just say that? I just want to be clear that you said, ‘not for you, even a pretty girl couldn’t pull it off’. Your implication is that I am not a pretty ‘girl’. That’s what you’re saying?”

Meanie: “I only meant that [some bullshit, can’t remember; mostly she trailed off into nonsense, delivered with a haughty posture, still]

Me: “Right. You know what, I’m ready to leave, now.”

No chance I changed her opinion of me, or her behaviour with others, but I felt good about letting her know I’d caught on.

Now this is super passive-aggressive and it happened almost accidentally. A few days later, I was wearing a V-neck sweater. She commented that I looked better in crewnecks. I found myself saying, “Well, there’s nothing I hate to look at more than a short neck, and I like how a V-neck sort of lengthens the line”. Her eyes widened and she practically screamed, “You don’t have a short neck!” I don’t really care about necks, but I do know that mine is average and hers really isn’t. First and last time I’ve done something that awful, but it was pretty sweet, I gotta say.

Probably, the first example might be a better one for you. Just call her on her shit and try to prevent issues by avoiding her in the first place. I wouldn’t involve an audience; that just complicates things and could bite you in the end.
posted by cotton dress sock at 4:27 PM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

What kinds of things does she say to you? Can you give examples?
posted by bunderful at 4:33 PM on February 1, 2014

You don't put her in her place. You just carry on being your own quietly wonderful self. Gradually phase her out on your life until she ends up on the periphery and you only vaguely rremember her as being a Mean Girl you once thought a bit about. She doesn't add value to your life and you are not responsible for her actions.

(She may or may not eventually realise that her unhappiness is all down to her and the only person who can change her is herself - you cannot make her see that. Hopefully she will grow into her own skin one day and you will get a chance to reconnect)
posted by kariebookish at 4:39 PM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is pretty much what "Bless your heart" is made for.
posted by juniperesque at 4:45 PM on February 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Imagine you're both improv actors. Her instruction is to say something mean to you. You get to play the "yes, and" game and play along. It's really quite fun, and it makes you re-cast what she's saying to what it really is - something she just made up to say to you for effect, rather than something you should take at face value.

Bonus: if you start to enjoy the game, you won't be able to help the amused smile you get when she initiates, which will be infuriating for her.
posted by ctmf at 4:58 PM on February 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yeah, this is like tic-tac-toe or global thermonuclear war, the only winning move is not to play.

However, you have a couple different options for how to avoid playing. There's the cut direct (straight-up ignoring or looking through her), there's patronizing avoidance ("Oh, bless your heart,") there's naked sincerity ("Why would you say such hurtful things?"). But my very favorite is making her explain to you that she's playing a game, and what the rules are. When she says something awful -- I'll use cotton dress sock's example above, let me write it out:

MG: "Oh, honey, no, not for you. Not even a pretty girl could pull that off."
OH: "Excuse me?"
MG: "I said no, not for you, not even a pretty girl could pull that off."
OH: "I don't get it."
MG: "What?"
OH: "I don't get what you mean."
MG: "I mean even someone who was way prettier than you couldn't make that work."
OH: "I don't get it."

etc. Eventually, they have to either drop it or else say explicitly "I'm trying to tell you that you're ugly and have terrible taste," at which point you can say "Ok, well, all right then!" and she will look like the idiot. Either way, this will rapidly become very annoying for her and she'll stop it.
posted by KathrynT at 5:20 PM on February 1, 2014 [14 favorites]

" How do you not let them make you feel uncomfortable? "
By not feeling uncomfortable. She's an asshole. Avoid her, don't engage, don't be alone with her, and when she says something distasteful, look at her like she just farted. Suppress a smile, and keep your conversation going. If you don't react, she doesn't get the response she wanted, and thus you're no fun to poke with her verbal sticks.
And if you do lose your patience and snap at her, so what? Your "nice girl" badge doesn't get taken away.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:25 PM on February 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

"Cousin, I am sorry you are in pain and have picked me to lash out at - please let me know if you want to talk about it or I can help you get help." If she starts on it again then always have to go somewhere, even if to the bathroom or get a glass of water.
posted by meepmeow at 5:52 PM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have an older female relative who is a bit like this, and I just play completely dumb, smiling like an idiot and taking everything at complete face value. Like this:

MG: "Oh, honey, no, not for you. Not even a pretty girl could pull that off."
Me: [beaming] "Why thank you!"

And then I walk away, giggling internally at the mad look at her face that she did not succeed in getting under my skin. The thing is, you have to practice your dopey sincere smile and tone so it doesn't come off as sarcastic.

It also helps that I am a bit hard of hearing and kind of dopey naturally, and sometimes genuinely do not hear or process the entire thing of what someone said, and I always assume the best so I put on that dopey smile and say what I hope is appropriate. There have been times when my husband has heard the whole thing and says, "I can't believe X said blahblah to you" and I'm like "she did?!? I didn't even realize!"
posted by sutel at 5:54 PM on February 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

"You're better than that."

Be positive, build her up, let her see that you adored her, and still would like to, yet her comments are letting her down and pouring cold water on someone who looked up to her.
posted by anonymisc at 6:06 PM on February 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

React as if she's a stranger spouting complete gibberish at you ("Um, okay.") Then go about your business.
posted by bunji at 6:19 PM on February 1, 2014

Ignoring her will drive her crazy and gives her nothing to feed off. The best revenge is living well.
posted by arcticseal at 6:46 PM on February 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Ignore for the most part, faint smile on your face. Everytime she says something mean, just smile, and look away. Be your own bubbly awesome self, perhaps even more so, whenever she's around. Kill with kindness, and behave above reproach every single time. Nothing is more likely to either stop her, or frustrate her.
posted by shazzam! at 7:48 PM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

How do you tactfully put a mean girl in her place without stooping to her level

Putting someone in their place is a vindictive thing to do. If you do that, you stoop to her level by definition.

If you care about her remarks, that's probably your insecurities talking. Figure out what insecurities she's capitalizing on and work on yourself. You gain nothing by taking something away from her.
posted by bricoleur at 8:43 PM on February 1, 2014

Best answer: I know you probably won't believe this....but there is nothing, absolutely nothing, more effective against this type of person than withering silence. Please promise to try it next time she says something passive agressive/rude to you! Just stare at her and say nothing. Then watch her really become befuddled. She'll say something else...just continue to look at her as if she is a bug. I can tell you, I have done this a couple of times and it is the best! They become completely undone by it.
posted by naplesyellow at 8:55 PM on February 1, 2014 [8 favorites]

Sorry for being anecdote-heavy, above and below; I find it hard to think about this subject in general terms. Thinking some more – there’s a woman in my social group who does seem threatened by me. (I lost a bunch of weight a while ago, and was ‘too skinny’, according to her; she’s made odd remarks indicating [unjustified] jealousy, after a couple of glasses of wine, though her partner is friendly with me in a completely normal way and I have zero intentions towards him other than polite conversation.)

With this person, who’s clearly insecure rather than straight-up mean, I’ve managed the interaction itself by being extra nice, and by addressing her words at face value, with logical responses, while ignoring her keyed-up body language and underlying aggression.

This works in the moment inasmuch as she doesn’t have a leg to stand on -- she's got the self-awareness to know she'd embarrass herself by carrying on. I find these exchanges difficult, though, in that it takes discipline not to respond to the feelings that are rather obviously expressed. Keeping a bit of physical distance helps. (This woman has been right up in, as in mere inches from my face, ostensibly about e.g. my views on a given film). But also, her insecurity is palpable and easy to recognize, and this recognition quells any knee-jerk responses.

Other times, I’ve tried to connect with her around her interests. Sometimes I can pull her into a reasonable interaction and she is even pleasant (when her partner’s not around, for instance, she's a lot more chilled out), but there's still a baseline level of antagonism we can't seem to budge.

So with her, I do my best and let it go. Like at a party, I’ll talk to her for a bit, and then move on to other people. It’s uncomfortable to know someone dislikes you, especially when it seems irrational to you, but there’s only so much you can do. And frankly there's just not enough time to worry too much about it.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:09 PM on February 1, 2014

Look bored possibly yawn, or glance at your watch or phone, wander off distractedly to talk to someone else. Do not engage, do not make a scene. Any sort of reaction or comment from you is what she is looking for. Do not give it to her.
posted by wwax at 9:32 PM on February 1, 2014

All of the above have pretty much nailed it. There is nothing you can actually say to make her stop. Any time you try and engage her will just add fuel to the fire.

What I can tell you is that every time she says something hurtful it's actually kind of a twisted complement. She sees you as competition. Somebody who is taking the attention away from her. Everything she says about you is a reflection of how she feels about herself. When she says something nasty it's because she feels threatened. If she didn't see you this way she'd keep playing the sweet older cousin who has to take care of poor pathetic you game.

In my experience people like this thrive on the drama. You cannot "win", you can only refuse to play the game.
posted by TooFewShoes at 11:27 PM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would not give mean cousin the satisfaction of knowing that her childish behavior affected me, especially not that it hurt me! That is what she is trying to do. Let her fail. I like the advice up-thread to laugh at her. Maybe add "You say the sweetest things", and walk away.
posted by Cranberry at 12:19 AM on February 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ignore her completely, remove her from your life, there is no 'playing her game' - there is no game. She's a bitch, move on.
posted by mattoxic at 5:10 AM on February 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'd call her out with the truth. Show her you know where she's really coming from, then disengage.
She says mean thing. "I'm sorry you feel so threatened by me."
"There's no need for you to be jealous of me. This isn't a competition."
"It's sad to see you reduced to being so petty. I used to look up to you."
Then walk away.
posted by catatethebird at 7:22 AM on February 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have a female cousin who is several years my elder.

When are seeing her in the context of family events, there's an extra layer of pressure -- people you have to see again are watching and judging, and could potentially be commenting on your interactions for some time to come, so a low-key response, while less satisfying than a scene, may be the better part of valor.

Provide a context that defines your interaction so it frames it for your cousin and any onlookers:

Mean Cousin: Mean thing.
OneHermit: (With raised eyebrow) Excuse me?
Mean Cousin: Rephrase of mean thing.
OneHermit: Huh. I'm sorry to see you embarrassing yourself. [Change of subject.]
Mean Cousin: Pushback, a different mean thing.
OneHermit: Bless your heart. [Change of subject.]

Intonation, skeptical/vaguely pitying expression, stock nonconfrontational phrases, change of subject -- these are basic tools to use in standing up for yourself without sinking to her level.
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:21 AM on February 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

This thread is hard to read. You are getting so many different answers!
What it boils down to for me is this:
1. You've been ignoring her behavior for years, and that's not working for you.
2. You're at a breaking point.

So I think that any response at all will be an improvement for you, just as a matter of taking charge of your own self and not letting her drive the interaction.

Best of luck to you. You're doing good.
posted by SLC Mom at 10:33 AM on February 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hey, I grew up among a lot of mean girls (girls' school), and have, at times, even been one, myself. Luckily, I grew out of it. Some never do. Also, I have a mean girl cousin. Here's a tactic for dealing with mean girls:

Approach them with the best, and most loving, intentions you can muster. You say you're already doing this, but it's clear you're starting to veer from that path -- Mean Cousin is trying to nudge you away from it, trying to uncover your inner mean girl, to reassure herself that you're the same. She's trying to calm her own insecurities. Don't let her.

Loving Kindness meditation really helped me master this. You can find guided meditations online.

Barring that, LOLing will disorient her. But it will make her meaner in the long run, because it will raise the stakes and create more of a challenge.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 3:32 PM on February 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have encountered one actively malignant Mean Girl in my life, at my first workplace. I was completely bewildered by her behavior as I felt I'd never been anything other than nice to her — and she was considerably older and more experienced than me in our field, which added to the hurt.

I wondered, like you did, if I should fight back by being just as mean as she is, or if I should just shut up and take it, or if I should Kill Her With Kindness.

Eventually, I settled on option three.

She still likely hates my guts and I occasionally see her socially, but over the past three years, the "kill her with kindness" approach has worked exceedingly well. (Unlike in your case, I will say, everyone in my social circle is very much in agreement on her status as Raging Hell Beast).

I smile sweetly when I see her on the street. I compliment her work. I don't rag on her when she's not around. I've given her nothing to work with.

And what's great about giving her nothing to work with? She looks like the petty Mean Girl she is in mixed social situations when she tries to direct a jab at me, in the rare event that I allow myself to be within vocal range of her.

It's at a point now where even she seems to have learned that insulting me to my face while hanging around with other people will earn nothing more than a "oh that's nice honey" smile from me and the mute confusion of everyone else.

I won.

So yes, this is another voice in favor of the High Road.
posted by cheberet at 8:04 PM on February 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

My go to is to cut the person off with a "no" when they start speaking. Most people are surprised and it usually shuts them down.

Mean girl: "oh hey cousin I -"
You "No."
Mean girl: "what, I -"
You. "No." And then walk away.

It's kinda like "that won't be possible" but there is a bit of an F-you and dismissive tone all built in.

Also useful with door to door salespeople (open door, see clipboards/missionaries, "no", close door, return to life).
posted by saradarlin at 11:52 PM on February 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

When I was a kid, my mom taught me that kids say mean things because they have something lacking in their lives so they try to look better than others by picking on them and getting attention from it. I didn't get picked on much, but when I did, it was obvious that my mom was right. I was picked on by a really really short guy, a girl who's family was incestuous, and a girl whose parents were having some home issues. So basically, their lives suck and they (mistakenly) coped by putting others down. Sounds like this cousin for whatever reason lack self confidence so gets it from doing these mean girl things.

Whenever she says something, just try saying "I feel sorry for you." if ignoring hasn't worked.
posted by WeekendJen at 8:53 AM on February 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with others in the thread above, and feel this is a perfect opportunity for tactical deployment of LOLs and "Bless your heart."
posted by brand-gnu at 9:18 AM on February 4, 2014

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