Is Competitiveness Ruining Your Friendships?

17 Jan 2013

How do you feel when a friend loses weight, bags a dream job or pairs up with a hot new man? Happy for her, or secretly sick with envy? We examine the cult of female competitiveness and how to curb it

Picture the scene: you’re catching up with an old friend over lunch. She enters the restaurant and your heart sinks a little when you clock she’s dropped five kilos since you last saw her. When she sits down, she tells you she has also landed a coveted promotion at work; not only that, but her handsome husband dotes on her every whim
Outwardly, you smile, hug her and tell her how excited you are for her, but inwardly, you’re seething. Why her, why not me? Sound familiar?
According to Susan Shapiro Barash, author of Toxic Friends, it’s common to experience feelings of resentment and jealousy when good things happen to our friends, as it causes us to look at what’s missing in our own lives. “Competition among women - whether it’s work colleagues or friends – is so totalising,” says Barash. “We are always finding a way to be competitive or rivalrous with another woman.”
And Barash believes society actively encourages women to compete against each other, from the ‘Who Wore It Best’ columns in magazines, to rivalry in the workplace. “Women are constantly pitted against and compared to one another.” She adds, “I call it ‘not enough pie’ syndrome: society makes us feel like there is not enough pie to go around. In other words, there is always something another woman has that we wish we had. Whether it’s the friend who gets the great husband or the one who gets the huge bonus...there is a sense that we are competing with each other for all the glittering prizes: lifestyle, love, work life, beauty, popularity...all of it.”
And while we’re usually happy to openly discuss our emotions with our girlfriends, this is one topic that’s off limits. “Jealousy is women’s dirty little secret,” says Barash. “It’s something we’re not willing to talk about.”
But instead of brushing your jealousy aside, acknowledging and questioning your own feelings can be the first step to your own happiness and fulfilment. So next time a friend’s success riles you, stop kidding yourself that you’re not jealous. “You can stop the feeling by facing the fact that it’s happening,” says Barash.”Understand where your feelings are coming from and remind yourself that they are counterproductive - being jealous will get you nowhere.”
She adds, “That’s the moment you’ll stop feeling jealous. Instead of thinking, ‘Why her, not me?’ say, ‘Look at her, she has gotten what she wants, how can I facilitate that for myself?’ That’s the way to stop feeling so competitive. Instead of being envious and jealous, work on yourself.”
So, whether you’re the one feeling jealous or you suddenly find your friends are envious of you, we asked the experts how to escape the green-eyed monster before it sabotages your friendships. Read on to find out what they had to say...

Working Girls
Pat Heim, a corporate consultant on gender differences and author of In The Company of Women believes that competitiveness between women all boils down to power. “If the power between two women is equal: things are fine; in fact things are great. It’s when the power between two women becomes unequal that things can become really ugly.”
In the workplace, in particular, when there is a power deficit between two women, we become quick to judge and quick to attack, warns Heim.
Our uneasiness with power playing is all down to our cave woman origin, according to Heim: “It’s hardwired within us. Our brains are essentially still hunter-gatherer brains. Males, historically, are very hierarchical - that’s how they got the big game. Females share power equally. For example, the way you raise a baby is not hierarchical: you need other females to help nurture your child. Therefore, if you behave hierarchically with other females, it’s not to the advantage of your genes.”
And even in the modern workplace, females are still uneasy when another female tries to take charge. “One of the most assured problematic things to happen among women is if you are a peer and you get promoted and suddenly you are their boss. You’ve been given the power over them, so you can guarantee that they will attack you,” says Heim.
Julie Powell*, 36, a marketing executive was popular with her female co-workers – until she landed a promotion. “I was very close with three of my female colleagues, as we had all started at the company around the same time. After my promotion, suddenly everything changed. I am no longer invited to lunch with them, they stop talking as soon as I walk into a room and I can hear them giggling behind my back. I’m still the same person, so I don’t understand how they can suddenly hate me, just because of my new job. I don’t know what I’ve done wrong.”
Heim explains: “The difference between the way men and women do conflict is that men tend to do conflict in your face; they are more likely to tell you to your face what they think of you. Women tend to do conflict behind your back, so they will gossip about you, they’ll make snide remarks or roll their eyes when you say something in the meeting.”
To manage the situation, Heim advises making an attempt to redress the power imbalance: “Don’t suddenly start acting like the boss. Get up and get your own coffee; bring in cupcakes for your team. Don’t start bossing people around like the male that preceded you in the job because the rules are different for you as a woman.” Heim adds, “Work on building up the self-esteem of those around you. Give them compliments. Tell them when they are doing well. Tell them when you appreciate them. That way, you are building up their power.”Lastly, Heim says, confronting the situation head on is the only way to deal with this kind of conflict among women. “It’s very uncomfortable, but you have to bring up the topic in an overt way. Not in a mean way, but just to say, ‘Are you angry about this?’ ‘Do you have a problem with this?’ or ‘Do you want to talk about this?’ Once a woman is confronted directly, usually she’ll back off because she’s not expecting a direct confrontation.”

On the other hand, if you are the one experiencing jealousy because of a co-worker’s success, use it as a springboard to follow your own dreams, says Barash. “Ask yourself what you would like for yourself. Maybe you would like a new job like your friend just got, in which case, talk to your boss about promotion opportunities. Maybe you want to go back to school. Instead of worrying about what your friend has and trashing it, look at yourself and your own career goals.”

Beauty & The (Green-Eyed) Beast
When actress Megan Fox recently gave an interview bemoaning her lack of female fans, she put it down to jealousy of her beauty, and Barash believes this sentiment illustrates a wider social problem. “It reflects a sense that women will be envious of another woman who succeeds - whether it’s an actress, a model or even a famous scientist.... Women will find a reason not to like her.”
Barash also argues that alpha females are often so fearful of other women’s jealousy that they’ll do everything in their power to forge female friendships. “The proverbial ‘prom queen’ is usually someone who works doubly hard to please her friends because she is keenly aware of their jealousy of her, so she bends over backwards to be nice.”
Barash adds, “Of course, this is not always the case - there are women who feel very entitled, and being the ‘it’ girl has become so much of her life that it creates an air of superiority and entitlement - but for many women who have been the prom queen, the leader, the one everyone gravitates towards... these women try to be so generous of spirit, as a way to have friends and stave off those feelings of jealousy that hang in the ether.”
Carrie Newly*, 33, a personal trainer, admits she works hard to deflect feelings of jealousy from her female friends. “I work out as part of my job, so I don’t tend to put on weight. My friends are constantly on diets and when we go out to eat, I can’t help but feel judged by them. If I order a salad, they’ll make some comment like, ‘no wonder you stay so skinny, you only eat rabbit food,’ but if I order fries, they’ll moan about the fact that I can eat junk and stay slim. I can’t win.” Carrie adds, “I usually end up changing the subject, and talking about something that is going wrong in my life – a fight with my boyfriend or a nightmare client – as a way of compensating.”Heim says that women are programmed to apologise for the good things they have in this way. “You can hear it in everyday exchanges between two women,” she says. “One woman will say, ‘Oh, I love your new outfit,’ and the other will say, ‘Oh, this old thing, I got it on sale.’” In an exchange like this, Heim explains, the second woman is desperately trying to redress any perceived power imbalance. “What has happened is the first woman has built the other woman up and this has created a potential imbalance of power and an unevenness in the relationship. So, the second woman has brought herself back down by effectively saying, ‘Oh, I’m not any better than you.’ And everything is equal again and all is well.”
And, says Heim, anything can pique jealousy among female friends. “It could be the woman who has the great husband, the great house, the kids that are too cute, the clothes that are too nice, the jewellery that is expensive... Overtly displaying these things can be problematic so often the best thing to do is just not talk about it.”While Barash says that we need to stop stacking ourselves up against our friends if we are to stand any chance of happiness. “It’s time for women to ask themselves ‘Why am I doing this? What kind of friend do I want to be? What kind of female do I want to be? What is it doing to our relationships?’ Because, as women, we really need healthy bonds with other women.”
Barash adds, “We have to be supportive of one another, not tear one another down. Secretly undermining a friend, flirting with her husband, stealing her idea at work and making someone else less so you can be more – it will get you nowhere. Instead, really focus on what is positive in your own life. Hone in on the good things. It’s time to work with other women, not against them.”

Celebs get their claws out!
Even the rich and famous are not immune to girl envy...

Renée Zellweger took a swipe at Jennifer Aniston, saying, “I’m not an actress who’s made her way based on the way she looks. It’s not all about my great hair.”

Lily Allen publicly slated Cheryl Cole saying, “Cheryl represents everything I hate. I’d rather shoot myself between the eyes than be a WAG.”

Madonna took a barbed dig at Lady Gaga, comparing her song Born This Way to Madge’s own track Express Yourself. “I thought, ‘What a wonderful way to redo my song’. I mean, I recognised the chord changes. I thought it was... interesting.”

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