A few weeks ago, ultimate overachiever Spencer on Pretty Little Liars said, "I have this weird little quirk where I have to be competitive at everything. I even have to win at yoga." Her track record backs her up – she's competed with her older sister Melissa in everything from grades (she copied a history paper word for word) to guys (she stole her sister's fiancé!). The pressure to be the best at everything can be intense, but it can also take a toll on friendships. While Spencer might have the excuse of being tormented by a dangerous, anonymous stalker, we can't all say the same. So, what gives? How does competition ruin friendships and how can you cope?
The Competitive Friend: Sound Familiar?
Remember back in middle school when teachers would remind you to not share your grades with your friends? Not everyone learned that lesson, apparently.
Kate, a junior at the University of Connecticut, knows firsthand how tough it can be to deal with a competitive friend. “I have one friend in particular who always tries to one-up everyone else,” she says.
“It seems like sometimes she just wants to hear gossip so she can assert that she's either better off with her boyfriend, getting better grades or pursuing a more prestigious summer job than I am.”
While it's possible to deal with small doses of competition from time to time when your friend is in a particularly low mood, it can take a toll on an otherwise great friendship over time. “It's gotten to the point now where I censor myself to avoid her one-up attempts – it saddens me that I feel like I can't share everything with her, but the sense of competition that arises from a simple comment really unnerves me. She really is a good friend, but some things are better kept to myself!” Kate said.
It's no fun to feel like you have to keep secrets from friends, but when everything turns into a competition, that might feel like your only option to preserve the friendship.
Psychologist Irene S. Levine, Ph.D, author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Break-Up With Your Best Friend and creator of The Friendship Blog, explains, “It’s natural for people to compare themselves with others. That helps us define who we are in terms of style, ambitions, and personality. However, some people are more competitive than others if they feel deficient or lack self-esteem. In truth, they may measure up along most or a host of dimensions, but they simply don’t feel that way.”
The truth is that we all compete from time to time – but the key to doing it in a productive and manageable way is to keep in mind that competition isn't everything.
How Can You Dial Down the Competition?
Constantly competing with a friend can be toxic to a relationship. Here's how you can refocus the friendship in a healthy way:
Boost her confidence. Levine suggests, “Remind your friend that while you have x, she has y. Make a point of reassuring her about the qualities that make her a good friend.” If she's jealous of your new internship, remind her how much you admire her involvement with her sorority, her grades, or her relationship with her boyfriend. By listing out all her great qualities, you're helping her see the big picture and put the issue in perspective.
What to say: A sincere compliment should do the trick. Try something along the lines of, “You always have the best outfits. Where do you shop?” or “You and Sam are so cute together. You're a lucky girl!”
Watch what you say.Unfortunately, a little censorship might be necessary on your part to keep the relationship afloat. “For example, if you are very slender and she struggles with her weight, you may not want to ask her how you look in that tight, clingy dress or berate her when she sabotages her diet,” Levine says.
What to say: Stick to topics that are comfortable territory for both of you. If an off-limits subject comes up, change the conversation when it's appropriate to do so. “What are you doing this weekend?” or “How did your exam go?” are quick conversation-changers to keep in your back pocket.
Don't get caught up in the competition. When you're dealing with a particularly competitive friend, it can be tempting to play the game, too. But stooping to her level will only make the problem worse. “Recognize that each person is a 'package,'” Levine says. “While you may envy some of your friend’s assets, you have your own strengths.” Competing with your friend will only make the problem worse.
What to say: When your friend brings up her prestigious new internship, the best response is, “Congrats, that's so exciting! Tell me about it.” – not, “Ugh, I wish I had an internship.” By supporting your friend now, you'll know she has your back when you want to share exciting news.
Talk it out. If you think your friend might be receptive to a chat about how her competitive behavior is putting tension on your friendship, go ahead and talk it out. “At a relaxed moment, it’s okay to open a conversation about competition. Don’t be accusatory. Instead talk about your feelings. It’s unlikely that your friend will do a 180 and change completely, but she may be more sensitive to your feelings.”
What to say: Let your friend know how much you value your friendship and how you want to be a more supportive friend – talk about your feelings and your role in the friendship so you don't come off as accusing her of snippy behavior! Say, “Lauren, I know that sometimes it's tough for us to talk about grades together, but I would hate if it hurt our friendship – I'm so glad we became closer this year. I'm feeling stressed about grades, too. Are you free to study together tomorrow?” Keep it short and sweet!
Know when to move on. Some friendships aren't always worth saving. When you spend all your time reassuring your friend of her good qualities and hiding your successes in fear of making the tension worse, the friendship can feel one-sided. At that point, you may decide the relationship isn't worth pursuing. Danai, a sophomore at Harvard and HC Contributing Writer, advises, “Just like that bad boy on the street corner, you aren't going to be able to change her – she's a person, not a project.”
What to say: At this point, nothing. It might be time to move on.
What if YOU'RE the Competitive Friend?
When you're applying for a job or on the athletic field, a little healthy competition can be exactly what you need in order to get the position or beat the other team. But maybe you've noticed that same sense of competition creeping over into other parts of your life – competing with your roommate to be the thinnest, competing with your classmates to set the curve, or competing with your best friend to have the best relationship.
A good friend should provide support, not stress. If you repeatedly find yourself worrying about how you stack up against your friend, focus on all the ways you rock. I'm talking about your killer smile, your award-winning chocolate chip cookie recipe, your serious motivation at the gym, and that phenomenal paper you wrote last week. Seriously, pat yourself on the back – you deserve it! When you get caught up in how you fall short, it's easy to overlook all the traits your friends might envy.
Unfortunately, you might get to the point where you recognize a particular friendship is toxic. You don't want to live your life comparing yourself to others, but if one friend is making you feel that way, it might be time to walk away.
The Bottom Line
No matter which side of the competition fence you're on – whether you're dealing with a competitive friend or you are the competitive friend – focus on keeping a positive, big picture mindset. No more letting the best woman win!