Women seem to have a reputation for being “catty” and competitive with other women, unlike how men behave with other men. This is a curious notion, especially since women are actually less competitive than men out in the world and less comfortable being competitive.
How can we make sense of this paradox?
Healthy competition and confidence are encouraged in boys but often seen as undesirable traits in girls. Team spirit and friendship provide the glue that strengthens and bonds men when competition prevails. Not surprisingly, men are typically comfortable with competition and see winning as an essential part of the game, rarely feeling bad for others after a victory, and maintaining camaraderie with their buddies.
Because women learn that they are not supposed to be competitive and win at others’ expense, their natural competitive spirit cannot be shared openly, happily, or even jokingly with other women. In such situations, when aggression cannot be channeled into a healthy, positive edge, it becomes inhibited and goes underground. What could have been healthy competition becomes a secret feeling of envy and desire for the other to fail – laced with guilt and shame.
Thus, what looks like hostile competition between women may instead mask feelings of insecurity, fear of success, and healthy aggression. Women, often experts at being tuned in and sensitive to others’ feelings, may easily over identify with other women’s insecurities, projecting how they would feel in the other’s shoes and then feeling bad about their own success. Women learn to feel guilty for feeling happy and successful – and with their female friends who may not be having such luck, they may experience their own success as hurtful to their friend. This can make it uncomfortable for a woman to share and enjoy her accomplishments with her female friends.
In a common example, women may feel uncomfortable or self-conscious discussing their dieting success or weight loss with certain friends. They may even eat high-calorie foods they don’t desire when with a friend who is struggling with her own weight but having trouble being disciplined with food. In such situations, women may succumb to what they experience as an instinctive pressure to protect their friend in this way, sabotaging themselves but insulated from becoming the object of envy and resentment.
Interestingly, in friendships with men, where men and women are often competing in different arenas, these issues of competition usually do not come into play. Women don’t perceive men to be as vulnerable and sensitive as women, or threatened by success, and are therefore freed up from worrying about their feelings in this way. Further, women seek approval from men and often rely on them to validate their desirability, creating an interpersonal context in which success and confidence are rewarded. (Note that this “safer” dynamic with men applies to platonic friendships but is more complicated in romantic relationships, where women may diminish themselves with their partners as they do with other women.)
Women often rely on the approval of others to feel good about themselves.
Women often take care of people emotionally and rely on the approval of others to feel good about themselves. Women’s fear of triumph over others may lead to keeping themselves down and even (conscious or unconscious) subversion. Dependency on other people to maintain self-esteem creates a double bind, impeding women from embracing and using their own edge to achieve success. Constrained by internal conflict and over-focus on others’ reactions, many women endure the frustration of being unable to fulfill their true potential in terms of aggression, sexuality, and power.
Women’s trepidation and ambivalence in the face of their own strength and power often underlies their mistrust of the power of other women. Discomfort with their own power can make women alternate between inhibiting themselves to protect a female friend, and feeling mistrustful and helpless in the face of another woman’s perceived destructive power. A good example of this is when women whose husbands have had an affair blame the other woman more than they blame their spouse, holding the other woman more accountable – and seeing men as helpless in the grips of a desirable woman.
Autonomy cannot be achieved when actions are based on fear, and without the self-protective capacity to experience anger and aggression, which are part of drive. Being able to experience and utilize these states adaptively is different from acting them out in hurtful ways. If women are frightened of aggression in themselves or others, and threatened by success, their experience of themselves will be muted, leading to depression. How can women feel comfortable with their own (and other women’s) drive and power, without feeling threatened or worrying that their own success will hurt others?
Inspirational Tips for Women
• Women who feel more confident within themselves are less vulnerable to feeling threatened by, or threatening to, their female friends in the face of success.
• Good fortune, happiness and success can be used to help others and as a source of inspiration.
• Women can allow themselves to be separate and autonomous and still maintain close connections. An example of this is giving oneself permission to be happy (or unhappy) even if someone else is not.
• Feeling confident and whole involves allowing one self to know, accept and hold onto one’s own inner experience without being reactive to the anticipated, imagined or perceived feelings of others.
• Taking responsibility for a friend’s feelings is different from being caring and empathic. Being over-protective at the expense of one self weakens relationships by leading to an insidious sense of burden and resentment, passive aggressive behavior, or withdrawal.
• Competition does not have to be dangerous or hurtful but can be motivating and allow for healthy sublimation of aggression. Sports works well for this.
• A healthy balance of competition and compassion means allowing oneself to do well and embrace a positive feeling of empowerment and strength while at the same time caring about friends’ feelings and supporting them in their own growth.
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