Image Management and Relational Aggression


Image management – what is it? Is it keeping your image polished, restoring one that’s damaged, or creating one that’s new and shiny?  Perhaps it’s more technological and refers to managing digital images.  If it were any of these, I’d advise you to seek an Image Management Coach, PR agency, or computer geek. No need for any of those, though.  All you need is yourself and the ability to honestly self-reflect. Image management is maintaining perceptions of self through the use of coping strategies.  Let me illustrate through examples.

Two Examples

Mia, a middle school girl, sees herself as artistic, interesting, and witty. She, as do we all, looks for validation of her self-dubbed labels.  When someone compliments her artwork, listens to what she has to say, or laughs at her witty retorts, her perceptions are reinforced. To manage her image, Mia works diligently to produce her artwork and looks for opportunities to connect and display her wit.

Sally is a corporate executive.  She sees herself as competent, in control, and well-liked by her employees. Her self-image is validated when her employees smile at her, complete their projects, and work runs smoothly.  To manage her image, Sally works relentlessly to be pleasant to her employees and to control each step of every project to ensure quality results. She looks for opportunities to prove her competence.

Both Mia and Sally use image management to reinforce their self impressions.  As long as they interpret others to be experiencing them as they wish to be experienced, they feel balanced.  But watch them go off kilter when others have a different impression.

The Mirror Metaphor

When we polish our hypothetical image mirror, we expect it to be shiny.  And then someone smears it up after all the work we’ve put into managing our image!  Others may interpret our reflection differently than we.  In Mia’s case, some classmates see her wit as an excessive attempt to gain attention.  Some of Sally’s employees see her as controlling rather than in control.

A secure individual can bounce back quickly when her self-image is challenged by others’ words or reactions.  No matter how secure we are, though, when challenged frequently, it’s time to go inward and take inventory.  We need to honestly assess whether we are acting and living authentically or if were managing our image to portray someone we’re not.

Fear and Relational Aggression

When others’ reactions implicate they don’t share our self-image, the incongruence can produce feelings of irritation, anger, confusion, or self-doubt.  The underlying feeling, though, is fear.

We fear we may not fit the image we want.  A person who will not honestly self-reflect and adjust can resort to relational aggression to discount the people who don’t agree with her or share her self-assessments.

Mia might label the kids who don’t enjoy her wit as humorless or too dense to “get it.”  She may go as far as starting rumors about kids who don’t seem to like her in order to discredit them.

Sally might have an employee who asks for freedom to complete a project with less direct input. The employee may go as far as speaking up to Sally and saying she finds Sally to be too controlling.  Sally could discount this request by labeling the employee as insubordinate, cheeky, or incompetent.  To prove her point (and save her image), Sally could resort to becoming a bully boss.  By finding negative “evidence” about the employee instead of self-reflecting, Sally will probably find reason to let her go.  Score?  Image management 1, self-growth 0.

We need to help our girls learn to self-reflect and be honest about who they are instead of resorting to emotional bullying for image management.  Everyone has a shadow part.  As women, we should do the same.  And we should know that by now.

© 2011 A Way Through, LLC

WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR EZINE OR WEB SITE? You can, as long as you include this complete blurb with it: Female friendship experts Jane Balvanz and Blair Wagner publish A Way Through, LLC’s Guiding Girls ezine. If you’re ready to guide girls in grades K – 8 through painful friendships, get your FREE mini audio workshop and ongoing tips now at www.AWayThrough.com


  1. Heather says:

    Thank you for sharing your hard work! Your articles are very timely and help keep the issue of relational aggression in the forefront, where it ought to be.

    As an elementary school counselor I work with it every day. Unfortunately, the majority I see comes from grown women. If our young girls (I am also the mother to an 8 year old daughter) see this catty competitive behavior in their role models, then there is no wonder that they have such underdeveloped coping strategies.

    I could go on as this is very near and dear to my heart. Thank you for including examples of grown-ups displaying the same behavior that is considered inappropriate for our children. I wish more people would bring light to this travesty!

    Take Care,

  2. Jane Balvanz says:


    Thank you for your kind words. As a counselor on the front line, you know the toll relational aggression can take! When kids are routinely exposed to emotionally aggressive adult behaviors, it comes as no surprise that they would use these same behaviors in their own interpersonal relationships.

    Many thanks to you for all the work you do with children!


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