Humans are social animals and friendships are vital to our health, happiness and well-being. But if you want to be happy, having lots of friends is much less important than having good friends - loyal and trusted companions who are genuinely happy for you when things are going OK and genuinely supportive when things are falling apart.
Not every friendship is healthy however. At some point, rivalry will rear its ugly head. Whether it's the friend who boasts about her frequent romantic weekends away or the co-worker who brags about the high-pressured, high salary promotion, competitive friends can provoke feelings of anxiety, incompetence or distress. You may end up doubting yourself or feeling that you don't measure up to your friend's talent, wealth or lifestyle.
A small amount of competition can be empowering. Handled properly, low levels of rivalry can spur you on to do your absolute best. The problem comes when every dinner, drinks and weekend away is another excuse to 'one-up' you; when every conversation involves your friend comparing her life to yours in hurtful ways.
How do you deal with this toxic and tedious situation? Here are some tips for dealing with a competitive friend.
If you want to keep your friendship healthy, start by refusing to play the competitiveness game. Your friend is bound to have trigger points - the topics that really rev his or her competitive engine. If you feel the conversation heading in that direction, change the subject. For example, if the friend boasts (again) about winning a great new client at work, say, "way to go," then quickly talk about something else.
Another way of establishing boundaries is to find an ally. The chances are good that at least one person in your friendship group is not buying into your friend's jealous and competitive behavior. Bring this person along when you meet your friend and, when the conversation takes a competitive turn, focus your attention on your ally. This quietly shows a competitive friend that you have friends in kinder places.
Give Praise Where Praise is Due
Everyone wants to be seen, heard and respected by their friendship group. Ask yourself, is your friend getting the attention and validation they need? If your friend is in a bad place in some area of their life, then he or she may brag or brush off your good news to make themselves feel better about the things they are struggling with.
The best solution is to listen to and praise your friend. Point out her great qualities and let her know that she is deeply valued. By supporting your friend and working on her fragile self-esteem, you give her the validation she is seeking from you. This should help your friend become humbler, less critical and more tolerant of herself, and balance out her rivalrousness with reality.
Honesty is the best policy
Without a doubt, honest communication is the best way to sort out problems. Ultimately, you're going to have to tell your friend that her competitive nature is damaging your relationship. You're going to have to find a way to explain, gently, that your friendship would be so much more valuable if you could both be happy with each other's accomplishments.
But before you do that, you need to consider whether you are being entirely honest with yourself. Do you constantly compare yourself with others? Is your self-worth tied up with how much you are "winning" in the areas that are meaningful to you-careers, romance, wealth? The uncomfortable truth is that your friend may be echoing your own competitive urges because you have somehow made it clear that he or she needs to be their very best to win your love and acceptance.
Diversify your friendship circle
Interacting with overly competitive people is hard. For your own sanity, you will need to make friends with people who are in a similar place in life so they don't feel the need to compete. These non-rivalrous friendships will build you up so you have the strength to overlook, or confront, some of the negative aspects of your competitive friendship.
The final option you must face is this: sometimes, it is better to let a toxic friendship naturally fade out. People come and go in our lives and it is rare that a friend will give you the sociability and support you need forever. It can be scary walking away from all that history, but your self-esteem is much more important than trying to salvage a mockery of a friendship. Accept that you may not be able to quench the competitive fire and let go.