Is Competition In Female Friendship The Last Taboo?

None of us like to own up to it - but admitting you want what she has can be liberating, says Helen Whitaker

Competition female friendship

by Helen Whitaker |
Updated on

Earlier this year two of my closest friends got fantastic new jobs; one as deputy editor on a prestigious publication and one as... to be honest, I’m still not entirely sure, but it’s in fashion tech, highly paid and sounds seriously impressive.

As we all started out as lowly assistants on glossy magazines in the mid-00s, this was the culmination of years of hard work by two of my favourite people and I was thrilled for them. But as they told me about their new roles and salaries, I felt that telltale clench in my stomach. Envy. Even writing that down makes me squirm because I love them both, but yes, I was envious of two of my best friends. In the current landscape anything other than full ‘you go girl’ fangirling between women is seen as taboo, especially when it comes to your mates. Being competitive with a colleague is fine – a recent survey found that six out of 10 people admit to having a workplace nemesis – but rivalry with the very people that have cheerleaded you through every job interview and bad break-up? Not so much.

But personally, I think it’s there and more common than we own up to. There’s a messy middle ground that exists between encouragement and envy, where you can simultaneously want the best for someone, while also wanting slightly better for yourself. That’s what inspired my novel, which is about the lengths a group of women will go to, to get a school place for their children.

They’re friends, but they’ll still get one over on each other if it means winning a coveted place – and therefore a better start in life – for their own child. And it’s inspired by the many real-life stories I’ve heard, from mothers spending months ‘getting in’ with the vicar at a church school, to sham relationship break-ups that allow parents to register two addresses for their offspring, with one conveniently located in the prime catchment area for a good school. It’s backed up by statistics that show a third of middle-class parents know someone who has used ‘dubious tactics’ to get a school place.

But this competition doesn’t only exist between mums, it’s everywhere there’s the promise of ‘success’ (whatever your definition of it) and the risk of comparison. At school or university, you’re on an equal footing – flailing through badly paying part-time jobs and sort-of relationships – but when you start hitting the traditional markers of adulthood at different times (if at all), envy can easily set in – even if you’re not quite sure you want the same things.

My friend has recently launched her own company,’ Jenna*, 29, told me. ‘I’ve been helping her with contacts, liking all her posts and cheering her on. But part of me is jealous that she’s had the drive to see her idea through rather than just talking about it, like I do. I don’t want to do the business she does, so it’s not that I want a slice of it – but I’m jealous of her tenacity and ability to manifest her dreams.’ And it’s not just careers. What about when friends settle into relationships or start having babies, while you’re still being ghosted on dating apps? Until I met my husband at 32 that was definitely me, happy for every newly pregnant friend while still feeling diminished because I hadn’t managed it yet. I didn’t want them not to have it, I just wanted it too.

That’s where my friend Caroline_,_ who has just broken up with her long-term boyfriend__, is right now. ‘My single friend Abby has just had sex after an 18-month dry spell. While I am delighted for her and have been coaching her through their WhatsApp conversations, encouraging her to message him and not just wait passively, I was so jealous that she’s having a hot hook-up that I had to message another friend to vent about it. It’s as though somehow she’s won.’

So why can’t we admit it? Neither of the women mentioned wanted to use their real names because they thought it made them look mean-spirited, but it seems to be a largely female concern that you can’t appear to be in competition with your friends– even if you secretly are. I know men who openly compete over everything: from half-marathon times to social media followers and salaries, but women are still expected to play down their achievements so as not to seem conceited (case in point: the Duchess of Sussex apparently turning down the Vogue cover in case she was seen as ‘boastful’, despite being the very personification of its ‘forces for change’ theme).

If we feel like we can’t even shout about our actual successes, how can we admit to coveting someone else’s? But being open about it could be good for our wellbeing and our friendships (although it goes without saying that acting on these emotions and trying to sabotage others’ achievements is a hard no).

Hilda Burke, psychotherapist, couples counsellor and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook, says, ‘It’s good for us to admit jealousy, if only to ourselves. So many of us feel we “shouldn’t” feel that way so we suppress these feelings – and like any suppressed feelings they will likely surface in other ways, maybe a bitchy comment here or there. But rather than reacting to it, judging ourselves for having such feelings, be curious – ask yourself, what’s this envy telling me?’

Of course, sometimes there’s no learning moment – you just covet the job/flat/baby/ designer boots – but acknowledging my job envy was positive for me. Yes, I’d love the swish title and the big salary, but I realised that what I wanted more in my life was balance: time to write and time with my family. The competitive pang my friends’ successes ignited gave me the kick up the bottom to chase what I wanted, rather than what they actually had. And sometimes, maybe, my friends are even a little bit envious that I did.

‘The School Run’ (£8.99, Trapeze) is out now

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