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Why Do Cliques Form? What Can We Do About Them?

Artwork by Khalid Mokhtarzada

This article addresses the questions of why cliques form and how to deal with them. This is a complicated social problem that can be faced at any age and in any setting.

Dear Doctor Life Advice,

I work with a group of women who are very cliquish. The majority of these women are in their fifties and sixties. Why are some women so prone to excluding other women from their clique? Worse, they seem to delight in doing so. Do women ever grow out of this junior high mentality and if they don’t, what are some of the reasons to explain such mean and immature behavior among even senior citizen-age women?



Dear Cliqued-Off,

I think cliques are formed when a group of people with low self confidence who feel socially inferior and insecure find each other in a similar setting.  Once the group is formed, each member uses the strength of the group to help himself/herself feel superior to others. As you have noted in your question, cliques span all ages, and although you’ve noticed them in women, cliques also span both sexes.

As humans, we are social creatures. From birth, we seek the comfort of belonging to a group. In our early years, the first group we belonged to was our immediate family. Our parents and caretakers provided us with our first set of values and thoughts. The ones who were mostly involved in the process of raising us- whether they were our parents, our grandparents, nannies, or school teachers- played a significant role in our understanding of ourselves, and the formation of our self-esteems. I believe the feelings of self-value and self-esteem that we formed in our childhood play a significant role in the rest of our lives.

As children grow, they begin to get a sense of their own individuality, and their social circles grow.The variety of social groups formed in adolescent years is endless. The kids join groups with similar beliefs, value systems, interests, talents, etc. Most of the groups formed are healthy and help the growing child “individuate;” meaning the child begins to define his or her own individual self. This, of course, depends on the amount of self-esteem and security the child developed in his or her earlier years at home.

Some of the groups that form, however, are of a more unhealthy nature. Gangs, bully groups, and kids that begin to do drugs together are some examples of unhealthy groups. Cliques, in my opinion, are also pathological, although they are not as bad the other groups just mentioned.  The pathology comes from the fact that the group is formed based on a lack of the sense of individuality.  Therefore, in order to belong to the clique, you must let go of your personality traits that clash with the group, and in essence  you must give up who you are. The TV show South Park, although many find it offensive, addresses social issues such as this in a genius and witty manner.  It has an interesting episode detailing one of the main characters’ attempts to join a “non-conformist” clique. He is told that it is really easy to join the clique. All he has to do is to dress like them, act like them, listen to the kind of music they listen to, and to reject all “conformists!”

Of course, you can imagine that if you give into this mind-set during your adolescent years, then you will end up never forming a solid sense of yourself, and yes, you may continue to seek out and join cliques for the rest of your life.

Based on my own personal experiences and what I hear from my patients, workplace cliques are as common as those in junior high. Children with low self-esteems usually grow into adults with low self-esteems. The clique, once you join it, allows you to collectively criticize everyone outside the group, and therefore make yourself superior to those outsiders. I myself have had experience with cliques that I am going to share.

When I was in medical school, we were encouraged to see our classmates as our family, and to all work and do fun things together as a cohesive unit.  Regardless, a group of students decided they were too cool for the rest of the class, and they formed what they called “The List.” This was an exclusive list and they began to invite individual students to events, rather than the whole class. Sometimes, some people find themselves in a clique inadvertently. Although I was not in this clique, some other non-cliquish people did end up in this exclusive group, and were horrified at how the group made fun of and put down other students in our class. That clique dissolved quickly as the students began asking not be be part of that group. “The list” was short-lived, but other smaller cliques formed throughout the years and some outsiders suffered from their damaging talks and behaviors.

I myself have inadvertently found myself in cliques. I was once part of a group where we found it incredibly difficult to get others to join. We could not explain this phenomenon and even joked that we may be too “cliquey” for others. Little did I know, we were exactly that. I found out when I did something individual that did not “click with the clique” and found myself brutally and rapidly kicked out. It happened so fast that my head was spinning for a long time and I could not even fathom what had happened. That’s when I remembered our “cliquey” jokes and began to understand the truth in them. Being a psychiatrist, of course, I analyzed the situation for months, and realized that everyone in the clique had one thing in common: all of them had experienced some level of abandonment by their fathers. Fortunately for me, my father is a wonderful man who is still an integral part of my life. Naturally, it was only a  matter of time before my individuality would clash with the clique and I’m grateful that it did. Analyzing the situation, however, has given me a tool for finding understanding for the clique instead of hatred and scorn. Although I don’t miss being part of that clique – or any other one for that matter- I have found tremendous compassion for them. In short, they need help.

In my work, I’ve seen patients who have been severely hurt by cliques.  Some in junior high and high school, and some later in life at work. Some of my patients had to change schools, quit their jobs and move to other lines of work, or even retire as a result of the scorn and hatred directed towards them by cliques. The problem in every case is that the clique’s sole purpose of existence is to provide its members with means to feel superior to others. If a person comes along that challenges this dogma by simply not appearing inferior or compliant, then that person may be subjected to all forms of damage by the clique. I’ve seen cliques go on campaigns to discredit a single individual by spreading gossip and lies about them, and unfortunately, I’ve seen them succeed.

If you find yourself inadvertently as a member of a clique, get out as fast as you can but try not to step on any toes while you do so. If you find yourself the main target of a clique’s destructive campaign, then take measures to protect yourself. In severe cases, I’ve even recommended to my patients to leave their schools, their jobs, their social circles, or even their church and to find less toxic environments to live and strive in. In your case, I am hoping this clique is just a group of bitter old women whose spite has not done any real damage to you or any others.

Wishing you the best in this challenging situation,

Doctor Life Advice

Sayeh Beheshti, M.D.