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 overidentify 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.