Content Warning: Please be advised, this post mentions topics including bullying, scapegoating, or other potentially trauma-inducing behaviors which may be triggering to the reader. If you, or someone close to you, is experiencing bullying or abuse, please contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Free private support is available 24/7. Please also see Crisis Line Lifeline: Call or text SMS 988. Crisis Line info also noted at the bottom of this post.
Over a decade ago, I wrote something after a hard experience with toxic gossip. Mean spirited gossip is everywhere these days–in the workplace, as well as in social circles, social media, and sports activities. Recently, I tidied my old post up a bit and added the following link regarding bullying, (not at all inclusive). The topic of bullying is getting much needed attention—gossip & relational aggression are aspects of bullying, especially among adult women.
I love ending the day with a quiet, meditative ride on my Arabian mare. A few steps into our ride one evening, we stopped abruptly. A snake was in our path. Thinking it nearly dead, I dismounted and gingerly picked up the snake with a pitchfork. The snake began writhing around the prongs of the pitchfork, its little forked tongue flicking in and out.
I had been thinking about gossip.
Speaking with a forked tongue. The snake in the grass.
Perhaps I need to define what I mean by gossip. I do not mean remarking upon how lovely a friend looked today or expressing legitimate concern in a kind, helpful way.
Rather, I am talking about the hurtful words we say behind someone’s back. Negative stories about others which are repeated, then blown out of proportion. Confidences broken. Judgments proclaimed. Critical opinions spouted. The snarky comments, the rolled eyes. The stirring of the pot. Shaming and blaming the target, who is often made a scapegoat. Outright maliciousness.
There are some who claim that gossip is harmless and that talking about others creates a connection between the gossipers and reinforces socially appropriate behavior.
I disagree. Gossip is not benign. Gossip is bullying.
We all know that someone who talks badly about someone to us, will also gossip about us behind our backs. When we are honest with ourselves, we admit we do not feel “clean” after a session of gossip.
Gossip lends a false “intimacy”, what Brene Brown calls “common enemy intimacy” in her excellent video presentation. Talking badly about others is not genuine connection or authenticity.
We do not respect a person who gossips, even as we participate in gossip ourselves, even if only by listening.
We excuse gossiping by telling ourselves the target doesn’t know about it, so they won’t be hurt. But the truth is, the person eventually understands the vibe is off. Someone slips and says something. The victim feels the cold shoulder, the sudden silence as they enter a room. They hear the newly critical tone of voice, observe the lack of eye contact, perceive the dismissiveness, the lack of empathy. The target always eventually knows.
Gossip often creates a triangle, with the purveyor of the malicious gossip in the position of power.
Being the target of gossip is painful and very often traumatic.
Gossip is a way to avoid our own uncomfortable feelings of shame and unworthiness, by projecting them onto the person we malign.
We get caught up in gossip when we are insecure, when we are steeped in shame, when we seek control.
Gossip is a way to gain power over others.
Gossip is relational aggression, in other words, bullying.
Gossip can be a vicious and intentional means to damage or destroy someone.
We all desire a safe, non-judgmental friend who respects our confidences. When we become that person, we will attract others to us.
We earn respect and cultivate deep friendships when we become known as a person who shuns gossip and maintains discretion and confidentiality–as Brene Brown discusses so eloquently in her talk, “The Anatomy of Trust”.
I have stepped back from women who engage in gossip. I don’t want to be around people who badmouth others, and am much happier in gossip-free environments.
I realize how easy it is to get caught up, or to “vent” when angry or frustrated. I think there is a learning curve–First, one must cultivate self-awareness, and then engage in habit change. We all have more work to do to banish gossip from our lives.
How do we stop gossip? Especially when criticizing others may be a strong element of a social environment?
Here are some steps we can take to stop gossiping:
• Begin by setting our intention to stop participating in gossip.
• Be direct. State we are not comfortable with the conversation. Silence is participation.
• Change the subject. Erect a “Wall of Pleasant”. Sometimes this works, but often, the gossiper is intent on venting her opinion.
• Offer a voice of support and compassion for the target of the gossip. Often, the victim of gossip is in a vulnerable place in her life, and the gossipers are piling on and bullying.
• Walk away. Find something positive and peaceful to do.
• Avoid those who habitually engage in gossip. Sometimes that means stepping back from friends who live in a social culture of gossip. Make new friends who share our values.
• Look within at our own motivation for engaging in gossip. Ask ourselves the hard, uncomfortable questions:
• What are our real motives for repeating the gossip?
* Do we bond with others by creating “common enemy intimacy”?
• Are we feeling insecure?
• Are we holding onto resentment?
• Has our self care taken a back seat? Do we need to say “No” more often?
• Are we addicted to approval? Trying to belong?
• Are we driven by envy or an addiction to power and control?
• Are we participating in bullying, even unwittingly?
• Is there something darker and perhaps unconscious at play?
• Are we generating a false sense of self esteem by going one up and sitting in judgement of another person? Our toxic culture sadly encourages this.
• Are we trying to avoid experiencing shame?
• Are we shifting our own shame and our belief in our own unworthiness onto someone else?
• Are we gossiping about someone who has hurt us to even the score? It’s easy to get caught with this one, if we are not especially mindful.
• Embrace our own intrinsic Self Worth–our birthright because we are human beings. Believe we are enough–because we are.
* Cultivate and maintain healthy boundaries.
• Most importantly, cultivate empathy and compassion–beginning with ourselves. Cultivate and practice Mindful Self Compassion.
• And then, practice empathy & compassion towards others.
I know I feel better about myself—and my self respect gets a huge boost—when I choose to travel the high road and avoid gossip—and those who participate in it.
* If you are the target of malicious gossip, scapegoating, bullying, or other abusive behaviors, please reach out now to safe people in your life for support. Please also seriously consider contacting a therapist for additional support. The effects of toxic gossip and bullying can be deeply traumatic. If you are depressed or feel you may be a danger to yourself, please call for help immediately, via a crisis line or 911. Here is a US based Crisis Line Lifeline: Call or text SMS 988. There are others.
A few links:
Jason Cooper, writing on Medium, discusses behaviors which tell you much about who someone is. From the article: “Probably one of the biggest indicators of whether or not somebody is spreading a toxic or a wholesome type of energy lies in how they talk about other people behind their backs”. He goes on to discuss Brene Brown's “common enemy intimacy”.
Great article from workplace perspective—to the point! How to Stop Gossip–Galen Emanuele.
Scapegoating: “Scapegoats can often unite people in their disapproval and this collusion may present the illusion of unity amongst the other members, but that unity is often fragile and insincere and founded on abuse, neglect, and cruelty.”
Scapegoating in the Workplace: “Scapegoating often exists in a workplace environment with an unhealthy culture. The culture is usually established by leadership, and if leadership doesn't put an end to scapegoating then they are most likely allowing it and even encouraging it.”
Brene Brown, “The Anatomy of Trust“.
Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness, her new book which I have just ordered based on the strength of the video above, and will review after reading.
Of related interest—
Bullying in Equestrian Sports.
Bullying & Nursing.
Please refer to Disclaimer page for full Disclaimer. Additional Disclaimer: This information does not constitute medical, legal, or psychiatric advice, but is for general information only.