Jenny Dalton’s Of Butterflies and Bullies: Nostalgia, frenemies and confidence
Jenny Dalton was born in 1970 and grew up in Indianapolis, IN. She earned a B.A. in English Literature and History from Indiana University-Bloomington and since graduation, she has earned post-graduate certificates in several fields of interest. She is curious and often transforms her life in various ways. Jenny has always loved writing and published articles and poetry in numerous venues. Of Butterflies and Bullies is her first novel, which took her 10 years to finish. Then, it sat in a hard drive for a decade more.
It’s based on her real-life experience being bullied by other girls who she thought were her closest friends and how she used journal writing to connect to her own power, deep inside, to feel better. Today, she lives in Mendocino County, CA with her beloved. She’s an entrepreneur, facilitates groups and coaches individuals towards powerful change. She teaches and practices yoga; she mentors young women and helps support the education of girls in Haiti. She travels the world. And, she loves her life, and promises you it gets better every year. You can learn more about her at: www.kitchentableconsulting.com or www.butterfliesbullies.com or www.loveinactioncoaching.com
Why did you set this book back in the 1980s? Is it based on your own life? Would middle-graders and adults relate to it today? Who’s the main audience for your book?
I set the book in the 80s because it is based on my own experience being bullied in the 5th grade, which was in 1979–1980. I wanted to capture the feelings associated with this painful experience. The story is based on real events, but I did fictionalize the characters and situations, so setting it in the 80s helped me get back to the people and the time when the pain and confusion was so raw. I wanted to achieve an emotional realness that girls and women who have experienced bullying can identify with so that they don’t feel alone.
I’ve received a lot of feedback from young readers that they relate to the feelings, especially the pain of being bullied, losing a friend, and the confusion over fitting in or not wanting to fit in. Adult women readers have told me that it is a nostalgic read that helped them reconnect to their own experiences and process their own feelings in deeper ways. This was my goal, to create relatable feelings. My main audience are girls and women who have felt the hurt of that first heartbreak of losing a best friend to the whims of girl groups.
Have things changed socially for middle schoolers/teens/young women since the 1980s? Is bullying among girls more of an issue now or was it always an issue?
Oh, it’s always been an issue. I’m involved with an organization called the Kind Campaign. They do school assemblies on bullying across the U.S. and from my understanding girl bullying and girl aggression is even more prevalent now because of the anonymous power of social media and increased pressures from media in general. Girls think they can just say anything and not face consequences. And, there is so much pressure to look and act certain ways, as there has always been. One statistic showed that girls today see up to 30,000 images a day, each with the ability to influence behavior and thinking. That’s a lot of messages pulling you in different directions — a lot of information to process.
One thing that has changed since the 80s is that there are so many more supportive organizations for girls that were not around when I was young. This is one reason why I wrote the book. I felt very alone and did think I was the only one to have this experience. I wrote it so that no girl had to feel alone, that it was only her.
What would you tell a young girl who’s being bullied at school, or who’s afraid she’s going to be bullied or ignored/left out? How about a girl who’s bullying others?
To the girl who is being bullied: you are not at fault, it’s not about you and you are not alone. Talk to someone you trust. Your feelings are totally valid. It’s so important to talk about it. I’d even encourage her to ask her school to do a Kind Campaign assembly. They are very healing (and offered at no charge). I’d also encourage her to get counseling. Being bullied can have lasting effects on your self-esteem and it’s important to get support to recognize your inner strength and appreciate your unique self-expression, no matter what others say about you. Inner strength is crucial and needs to be developed in a supportive environment.
Typically a girl becomes a bully because she is jealous or feels a loss of power that she wants to reassert. It’s important for the bullied girl to tell her to stop. And, also important for peers to ask her to stop too. As an adult speaking with a bully, I’d make sure to let her know about the damage bullying does emotionally to the girl being bullied, and the long-term effects, and also ask her why she feels she needs to behave as she is. She probably needs to talk about something that is hurting her. We can talk about it. Empathy on both sides is super important. Sparking empathy with the bully is key. She needs to feel the impact of her actions. And, she needs to be heard too, she needs to be offered help to transfer her feelings of wanting to hurt others to something more productive and fulfilling.
What’s the difference between bullying and having leadership ability/being an empowered woman? I remember the campaign a couple years back to get people to stop calling girls ‘bossy’ and thought it could use some nuance. Do you think some girls/women are bullies without realizing it? How does all of this relate to feminism and ‘girl power?’
Great question. I developed a leadership framework for middle schoolers called the Sisterz to Sisterz Alliance and the key to it is mutual support. Mutual support looks like encouragement, it feels like safety, and it feels like a place where you can be yourself without being judged. Mutual support feels like freedom to be perfectly imperfect and you give that back to others. If that supportive feeling isn’t present in a “girl boss” situation and you feel you are being bullied into doing something that you don’t want to do, that’s a valid feeling. You are likely hanging out with a bully. Whereas if a girl you know is leading a group toward a mutual goal, and it feels like your unique contribution is appreciated, that’s closer to leadership. Maybe she has a harsh style that rubs you wrong way. That’s something you can both work through. But if she is stubborn about her need for power or control, she might be a bully. I can totally relate to this because I am a big sister and I bring that big sister energy to my leadership style sometimes. I don’t always realize it because it’s an innate part of who I am. I’ve bossed around and probably bullied my siblings since I can remember. But it’s not something I do intentionally. I have to catch it and recognize when my bossiness goes too far.
Feminism and girl power have evolving definitions and I think every girl/woman/female-identifying person needs to come to the definition that works best for them. There are a lot of great thinkers out there to learn from. The intersections between feminism and leadership can shift as our ideas and cultures shift. For me, I’ve learned a few main lessons: 1) Let’s not re-create the male dominated models of leadership by employing top-down leadership, dominance and hierarchy. Let’s lead through collaboration, mutual listening and support. I ask myself: “How can we facilitate collaborative structures?” 2) I’ve also learned in friendships, work situations and especially in girl groups to be kind and release judgement. It’s effective in any situation. How can I be radically kind to another, to myself? I think this is leadership. It doesn’t mean you let others walk all over you. You can be kind and assertive. You can be kind and take charge. You can be kind and allow others to express themselves while also holding a vision for a shared outcome and express that. You can be kind and tell someone you don’t appreciate how they are treating you. This is that mutual support. It comes from empathy.
As a culture, we are dealing with a lot of shared trauma. The greatest healing we can bring is first to ourselves, via self-love, and to others by understanding that their responses are often involuntary and are conditioned by so many interwoven factors from homelife, capitalism, religion, school, culture, etc. Nothing is black and white. Nuance is everywhere. So, we need to be conscious of that and lead from there. And, P.S., yes, girls and women should run the world, using our own values and structures, not by stepping into the stereotypically agressive masculine structures that define much of our capitalist society.
How can you tell when you’re being bullied? Sometimes it’s really obvious, but what can you do when you just have a vague sense that people don’t like you or you don’t fit in and you aren’t sure why?
I try to address this in my book, those subtle feelings — which is why I advocate for learning to listen to your inner voice. Journaling, writing down your own thoughts, feelings and observations, is a great tool for this. It brings you that objectivity you need to evaluate circumstances and situations.
Firstly though, if you feel you are being bullied, you probably are. Your feelings are totally valid and you should listen to them. And, what you do about it is dependent on the situation and how invested you are in the relationship and making it work. There is a great resource on Frenemies on Wikipedia that I love. It defines all the different types of frenemies and helps you understand how you might interpret a certain friend and her actions. A bully can be very similar to frenemy or she might not be someone you would consider a friend. Regardless of the relationship type, it’s super important for you to talk about your feelings with someone you trust. This is number one. You need to have someone to share your experience with and ideally this person can give you some constructive advice. I’ve found that for me growing a thick skin and trying not to care what other people think is important; this is a releasing of judgement on myself and others. But that is so hard to accomplish in our comparison culture. We are hard wired to want to fit in. I am desperate to be liked. But not everyone will like me, or you. It’s important to recognize that the only person you should focus on pleasing is yourself. I don’t mean that selfishly, but self-lovingly.
What would you tell the parents of a girl who’s getting bullied? Should your daughter stick it out and learn to develop inner resilience or should you move her to a safer environment where she’s better able to learn? How do you know what to do?
Another great question, with a lot of complexity involved. I only have my personal experience to go on and I’m not a trained psychologist. However, the first thing I’d say is talk to her. Make sure she is heard and feels heard and validated. A lot of the next steps depend on the type of person she is. You will know what to do if you know your child and can adapt to her changing needs. I was and am a super sensitive person and I took my experience to heart and had a very hard time dealing with it. It took decades. I still work on it. At the time of the most severe bullying, my parents were busy, lacked resources and didn’t really have the bandwidth to deal with my problems. So I had to stick it out and develop my inner resilience. I had no choice. If the parents are attuned to their child and have the time to dive into this situation, they should, and work with her to come up with the best solutions for her. I’ve heard from some girls who changed schools, quit teams, left groups, and felt better but there’s also something to be gained from sticking it out and developing that inner strength. You’re going to need it in life.
You can order Jenny Dalton’s Of Butterflies and Bullies here.