Sunday 25 August 2019

Opinion: 'It hurts to say it but, under the surface of many female friendships, a battle rages over who is most successful'

BFF or biggest threat? Meadhbh McGrath looks at competitive friendships

Blonde ambition: Big Little Lies co-stars Nicole Kidman (left) and Reese Witherspoon
Blonde ambition: Big Little Lies co-stars Nicole Kidman (left) and Reese Witherspoon

At this year's Emmy awards, Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon took to the stage together to accept a gong for their hit TV show, Big Little Lies. They seemed to present a united front, but a brief clip of the pair tussling over who got to hold the trophy during the speech quickly went viral.

Rumours had circulated for months that the pair were embroiled in a bitter rivalry after being nominated in the same lead actress category - a prize Kidman eventually won - but it was a disappointing story to read, particularly in light of the TV series' message of fiercely supportive sisterhood. While Kidman claimed, "We've always been a team; we will always be a team," it looked as though the reality was rather different.

As is so often the case. We constantly hear about women supporting each other - helping their female colleagues advance at work and generally having each other's backs. But most women will admit that there's a subtle undercurrent of competition, whether it's bemoaning how busy we are at work, undermining co-workers, complaining about our punishing exercise regimes, or gushing about the fabulous gifts our partners got us for Christmas. Women are particularly skilled at the backhanded compliment and the 'humblebrag', which means even the most humdrum social occasion can leave you exhausted from trying to keep up with your peers.

It hurts to say it but, under the surface of many female friendships, a battle rages over who is most successful - in their careers, relationships, friendships, parenting, fitness or looks. As our lives become more demanding, we continue to raise the standards for ourselves and each other.

Of course, this isn't entirely negative - some women thrive on a little friendly competition, but Tracy Vaillancourt, a psychology professor at the University of Ottawa, who has researched the topic, argues that it's important to distinguish between what is healthy and what is not. "Negative competition is about a desire to be better than others (competing to win), whereas positive competition is about performing well (competing to excel), regardless of whether or not you have beaten someone. Negative competition is a zero-sum game," she explains.

Much of the discussion of competitiveness places the blame on celebrities for setting unrealistic ideals, whether it's Beyoncé's pregnancy photoshoots or Christie Brinkley's 'ageless' beauty. But Vaillancourt notes that women often feel worse when comparing themselves to their friends. "Comparison to peers would be more meaningful than comparisons to celebrities," she says.

Women are all the time measuring themselves against each other - you see even young teenagers sizing up each other's clothes, hair, friends, boyfriends, academic success and myriad other status symbols. We call them 'mean girls' and, when they grow up, they are branded 'catty', 'bitchy' or 'queen bees' (what's the male equivalent? There isn't one.) While it seems trivial, psychologist Allison Keating, of the bWell clinic in Malahide, Co Dublin, notes that such rivalries can have a ruinous effect on friendships between women.

"Sometimes it's about stepping back from it," she says. "I think women need to ask themselves: why are they competing, who are they competing with, and where is it coming from? Do women really champion each other or do they tear each other down? Is there real support there?"

When men hash things out, they are seen as engaging in healthy competition, whereas women having any sort of disagreement are deemed to be 'catfighting'. According to Vaillancourt, women just can't get away with the same behaviours as men so must resort to more surreptitious methods.

"Women tend to be more covert when they compete than men, in large part because women have been taught early on that nice girls don't compete," she says. "There is less risk involved in being subtle when striving to win." So, women will typically use 'indirect aggression' to gain an advantage when competing. This can involve excluding friends from a group, giving someone the silent treatment, sharing secrets with others and, most common of all, gossiping. What woman hasn't heard (or uttered) the words 'I don't mean to be bitchy, but…' before delivering a torrent of bitchiness? This type of aggression, Vaillancourt says, maximises the harm inflicted, while minimising the personal danger involved - we boost ourselves up by putting a friend down, but do it so discreetly that we can avoid retaliation.

"Women who are the target of indirect aggression have been shown to suffer from a host of mental and physical health issues," she notes. "Girls and women are very sensitive to cues of being rejected and seem to react more adversely to poor treatment by peers than boys and men."

Of the difference between male and female competition, Keating says, "It's unfortunate that it's really subversive. You are trying to portray yourself as a superwoman who can do everything, whereas I think men are actually better at saying, 'No, I'm really tired. I'm not actually going to do that.' They have more boundaries."

Such behaviours often serve only to perpetuate the 'mean girl' stereotype, but Keating argues that it is a reflection of something much more sinister. "People see it as women being catty, but I think that misses the point. You look at it and think, 'Oh, it's just women fighting against each other,' but there's a much deeper issue that goes right to the core of your identity: who you are as a human being and are you good enough as you are?

"I think people really shirk away from the concept of something just being 'good enough'. What would it be like to be good enough in your job or good enough with your parenting, or good enough in whatever dinner you make tonight? Why does it always have to live up to this immense standard? If we're always pushing the standard higher, do we not think we're good enough as we are?

"A much deeper conversation needs to be had around why women are competing and who are they actually competing with? Sometimes it just comes back to 'the self' and that self as a woman in society."

Keating explains that much of our competition has to do with our own feelings of self-worth and how we present ourselves to the world, and wonders if we're reaching a tipping point in how much competition we can handle. "There are a lot of roles that women have to play, and that they're choosing to play as well, but the mental load that women carry is significantly higher [than men]. No matter how gender- neutral the house is, there's still a huge mental load for women - whether it's remembering the schedules for children or trying to fly at work. Their brains are all the time thinking, 'Once I finish this, I have to pick up Johnny from swimming, then I've to get the shopping, put it away, put the washing out, finish that email…' I wonder, are women's lives so full of quantity but not enough quality?"

Of course, when women do help each other, they all benefit. And maybe if we start to settle for being 'good enough', there'll be room for everyone to be lifted up.

How to handle a competitive friendship

Know the difference between positive and negative competition: A little friendly rivalry can be a good motivator, but it's important to recognise when your focus shifts from wanting to better yourself to wanting to beat others. Professor Vaillancourt says competition should be about excelling, not winning. Work on your own self-esteem: much competitiveness stems from our insecurities.

Take the high road: Keating explains that one of the reasons people compete is for an "extrinsic award that we get from people that matter to us", whether it's our parents, partner or friends. Instead of allowing yourself to be drawn into a competition with a friend, give her the validation she is looking for, which should make it easier for her to give the same back to you.

Ask yourself what's driving this competition: If you're slaving over a laborious spread for a dinner party, consider whether you're really enjoying it or if you're just trying to impress your friends. "If you're not that chef, then do something different - don't bother competing. Rather than feeling that you have to keep up with the herd, step back for a second and say, 'I hate holding dinner parties, I'm never doing that again - we'll just have a wine and cheese night.'"

Be direct: Women typically use indirect aggression to get ahead while competing. Cut through all the gossiping and murkiness and tell your friend that the behaviour is isolating and that you want to support each other, not compete.

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