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Comparison culture: how to recognise (and deal with) a competitive friendship

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Kayleigh Dray
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Trapped in an unspoken competition with your friends? Read this…

We all have that one friend. We love them, god knows we love them, but we also feel as if we’re locked in an endless, unspoken competition with them, too.

You know how it goes. We shyly announce that we’ve jogged our first 5K, they smilingly congratulate us – before letting slip that they did a 10K “fun run” at the weekend. We tell them we’ve been asked to lead an exciting project at work, they’re suddenly compelled to let us know about their eye-watering salary increase. And, whenever we head home after spending time with them, we find ourselves feeling thoroughly drained. Which makes sense, we guess: wearing a permanent game face and humble-bragging for hours on end will do that to a person.

“There have been a couple of times in various friendships when a competitive twinge has tainted our dynamic,” one person tells me in confidence. “At university, there was an underlying rivalry with a friend I held very dearly at the time but in retrospect, we really can’t have been very close. If I presented some good news, she’d respond to the group with something that had to be better, more important, or more impressive. If I hooked up with someone on a night out, she’d claim that she’d already slept with them. It was uncomfortable and juvenile, and I found it very confusing.”

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Another explains: “Whenever I tell my friend that I’m planning on doing something – be it buying a dress or booking a trip to Australia – she makes sure she does it first. She earns more than me, so can usually make it happen. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t want to tell her my dreams, because I know if I do she’ll make sure I get them second-hand.”

And one more says: “I’ve definitely noticed myself comparing my position to the accomplishment of a couple of my friends instinctively, and then subconsciously feeling like I need to prove my worth, that I’m moving at the same pace or am deserving of being on their level, if that makes sense? If I see a friend of mine has reached a certain career milestone, like writing a book for example, I feel this urge to take something on or find something to prove that I can do the same thing.”

The psychological benefits of a competitive friendship 

Researchers at the University of North Carolina paired up a group of undergraduates and had them send questions via instant message to one another: half of these were written to encourage, and the other half to undermine the recipient.

‘Frenemies’ (or, to use the scientific term, ‘ambivalent relationship) established, students were then told to edit an error-filled blog post that they were told had been written by their new friend or frenemy (but was actually created by the researchers).

Those who had been dubbed ‘frenemies’ proved to be far better at editing mistakes than those who were simply friendly – and, strangely, were also revealed to feel more empathy towards their partners, too.

A little competition is good for us, and can even strengthen our friendships.

So what’s the explanation? Well, frenemies have a way of getting under our skin in a way nobody else can. As we spend so much time complaining about them, however, we’re always focused on what makes them tick – and we always want to perform better in front of them, too.

As a result, our frenemies push us to work harder and help us to be our best selves. Win.

How to know if a competitive friendship has turned toxic

While a little healthy competition can help keep you motivated and accountable towards your goals, that competitiveness has the potential to turn toxic.

For the self-assured, it’s unpleasant. But, for someone less certain of themselves (I count myself in this category, for the nagging voice of Doubt is never quiet inside my head), it can make you feel as if a rug has been yanked out from underneath you. As if you’re not good enough. As if you’re forever being weighed, measured, and found lacking. And, worse still, all this endless comparison leads to jealousy – which, in turn, makes you feel deeply, deeply ashamed.

If you feel more sadness, anger, exhaustion, and frustration when you’re with them, then you have two choices: talk to them about the issue, or cut them out of your life for good.

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How to talk to your friends about their competitive streak

Couples therapist Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari explains: “A competitive friendship is not necessarily obvious or conscious, in a similar way to hidden competitions between a couple.

“There is still love, appreciation and respect between the friends, but if one is occupied with comparison it will most likely lead to negative feelings all round. On the other hand, some people gravitate towards friends who offer them inspiration or a sense of mentorship, and even if there are noticeable differences, they will be viewed with support and admiration rather than jealousy.”

Ben-Ari continues: “Competitiveness is rarely spoken about aloud because we tend to feel shame or a sense of guilt about it. We fear upsetting or losing the other person and often don’t know how to open up the conversation. However, close and intimate friendships will not only survive these conversations, they can actually become stronger if dealt with in an honest and respectful way.

“When one shows up with vulnerability, it invites the other to share their own vulnerability, and when we share and connect this way, we transform, grow, and deepen our connection.”

group chat friendship
Some people gravitate towards friends who offer them inspiration or a sense of mentorship, and even if there are noticeable differences, they will be viewed with support and admiration rather than jealousy.

Ben-Ari finishes: “If this is a relationship you value, but you are being made unhappy by these hidden competitions, then have an honest conversation about it. Don’t use blame language, but share your intentions, how you feel and how much you value the relationship and want to develop it. It’s likely that your friend is doing something they’re not even aware that’s creating tension for you.

“Opening up an honest conversation will offer them valuable information and you can both learn how to be there for each other.”

The Ready for Love courses by Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari are available to book here.

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Images: Getty/ Hian Oliveir / Unsplash

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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