You never intend for it to happen — it usually just creeps up on you: feeling as though you’re in competition with a friend. Of course you know that you’re not (unless it’s the 1992 Olympics and you’re either Dan or Dave), but it’s really hard not to compare yourself to your peers, especially when they’re friends.
On the one hand, they’re your friend and you’re happy for them and want to see them succeed. But on the other hand, it can be hard to watch someone else progress in an area of their life where you may feel like you’ve stalled (even if that’s not actually the case).
Regardless of which side of the competition equation you find yourself on, it can be unpleasant and hurtful. If you find yourself competing with a friend, you may feel as though you’re inadequate or doing something wrong because you haven’t made the same achievements. And if you find out that a friend feels competitive with you, it may seem like they don’t want you to be happy. Either way, it’s not great for your relationship.
But it’s also totally normal. “I believe competition with friends is quite natural,” Dion Metzger, M.D., a psychiatrist based in Atlanta, tells Lifehacker. “As you go through different phases of life with your friends — whether it be school, career or relationships — we tend to compare our lives when it hits different checkpoints.”
And social media definitely isn’t helping. With people feeling compelled to curate the perfect life and then post it for all to see, it makes it very difficult to ignore the achievements of others in a way that didn’t exist 15 years ago. Social media is basically like attending a constant high school reunion where everyone’s putting their best face forward. Even though we know it’s not reality, it can be hard to convince ourselves otherwise.
So how can we be less competitive with friends, or at least manage it better? Here are a few suggestions that might help.
Be mindful when using social media
We know social media makes us sad and fuels competition between friends, but most of us aren’t in a position where we’re willing or able to give it up completely. In these situations, we should at least try and be more mindful of the impact social media can have on our brains and mood.
According to Adam L. Fried, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist practicing in Phoenix and assistant professor of psychology at Midwestern University, there has been some research suggesting that significant use of social media may lead to negative feelings and even depression. “Theories vary as to how exactly this may occur, but one that has received some support describes ‘upward social comparison,’ where individuals regularly compare themselves with others, especially those who are believed to be doing better than them, and may be more likely to feel badly about themselves if the comparison is negative,” he tells Lifehacker.
Use your friends’ successes as inspiration
Competition isn’t always a bad thing. For example, when friends hit their fitness goals or achieve success in their career, Metzger says that it should inspire you rather than make you feel worse. After all, if they’re able to get there, you likely will be, as well. “It’s best to reframe your confidence and this will help you positively receive their accomplishments,” she notes. When that competitive feeling happens, we should try to use it as a positive. So when your friend gets that big promotion because of their hard work, it can actually be an inspiration for you to move further in your career, Metzger explains.
Identify the feelings that comparisons generate
Another way to work through the idea that you’re in competition with a friend is to identify the specific emotions triggered by comparing yourself to them. “Some individuals can become hyper-focused on these methods of comparison, which can be on almost anything, including social media feedback, body type, type of car/lifestyle, amount of money earned, number of friends and types of activities,” Fried explains.
When working with clients dealing with this, he finds that it can be helpful to try to identify the feelings that these comparisons generate — envy, self-hatred, anger, etc. — and why this particular comparison point is so important to the individual. It can also be useful to identify the types of global beliefs about yourself these feelings generate. “For example, do they see themselves as a ‘failure’ for not having whatever or as much of something as the other person?,” Fried notes.
Remember that everyone has their own timeline
Contrary to what your parents may have told you, there is no script or checklist for when you should be reaching various milestones in life, like finding a partner or becoming a parent. In fact, Metzger says that it’s it’s unrealistic to compete on many of life’s accomplishments. “We can’t work harder necessarily to hit certain life goals such as marriage or having children,” she explains. “We also shouldn’t rush those milestones according to someone else’s schedule.”
The feelings of competitiveness and inadequacy often happen when friends hit personal accomplishments, like getting engaged or buying a home. As much as you may feel as though it should be you doing those things, spending energy feeling bad about yourself or envious of your friend isn’t going to get you anywhere. It also doesn’t mean that just because your friend reached a certain milestone first, you’ll never get there yourself.
“Once again, reframe your confidence to know that it will happen for you when it should,” Metzger says. “The biggest mistake I have seen is people placing relationship pressure on themselves to keep up with friends. You can’t speed up love and commitment and definitely shouldn’t accelerate parenting. Your speed is the right speed.”