My Competitive Friend Brags – A Lot

Dear Robin:

I have been very good friends with a woman I’ll call “Sandy” since high school (we are both in our mid-40s now).  I love Sandy and we always have a great time together, but one of her personality “quirks” has gotten much worse over the past few years and I am not sure how to handle it.

Sandy is a very competitive woman and she also brags a lot.  For example, we are both avid runners, but since I work and she does not, we don’t run with the same group (we both run in groups for safety and camaraderie).  Almost every day, I get an email from her bragging about her time and asking me about mine.

She also brags about her kids, her house, her cars and basically everything you can think of.  She constantly compares herself to others and she even brags and is competitive with bad stuff!  We had a friend who recently lost her husband to cancer and one of the first things out of Sandy’s mouth was how devastated she was when her cousin was diagnosed with cancer.  They made a full recovery!

How do I tell her I am sick of this crap so I can enjoy our friendship without all the oneupmanship?  I’ve wanted to do this for years, but she is very sensitive and I just haven’t had the guts.

Sign me, “On My Last Nerve.”

Dear OMLN:

Ah, the One-Upper.  Who hasn’t dealt with this personality before?  Not content with merely lording their superiority over others, they also are compelled to win at the game of “Who Has it the Worst?”  The cognitive dissonance is strong with these folks.

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to surmise that the competitive One-Uppers suffer from deep superiority complexes combined with inferiority complexes.  You’d think such a mash-up would result with a net zero, but no such luck.

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However much this type of person annoys me, I also wonder what it is about you that would let such a person continue to be in your life without at least one attempt to fix what is clearly a glaring problem.  So before I fix your broken friend, let me take a stab at your problem.

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You have spent the better part of 25 years in a friendship with someone who regularly displays a startling lack of etiquette, empathy and support.  There must be something good in Sandy that keeps you tethered to this relationship but this problem, always an issue, has grown so bad over the past decade that you told me in our email conversation that she has lost several friends because of it.

I see two problems here:

1. You aren’t asserting yourself and demanding the respect one deserves from a long-term friendship; and

2. You are being a lousy friend by not addressing the issue.  I should say you “have been” a lousy friend because now you have taken the first step towards either helping her or dumping her: contacting the Advice Goddess for help.  Congratulations!

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As to the first point, you may want to examine other relationships in your life and take an emotional inventory.  Are you always afraid to speak your mind to others?  Do you find many of your relationships to be lopsided, competitive and unhealthy?  Do you find yourself constantly bending over to submit to the will of others?

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If so, please heed my words very carefully: you cannot serve as a doormat if you don’t lay yourself at the feet of others.  After you get real with Sandy, perhaps it would be a good idea to get real with any other dysfunctional relationships you may have.  The best way to do this is to figure out why you acquiesce to others and what, if anything, you get out of these friendships.

Back to Sandy and point #2: it’s time to tell her how you feel.  Then you need to resolve to end the friendship if the behavior doesn’t change OR stay in the friendship and live with the problem without complaint.

You asked me for advice on how to tell her, and here it is in the AskDesCamp Advice By Numbers format:

1. Invite her over.

2. Drinks.  Duh.

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3. Prior to your conversation, prepare a list of specific examples of Sandy’s one-upmanship and how they made you feel at the time.  There is nothing more annoying than someone coming to you with a complaint they haven’t bothered to quantify, so be prepared to list exact times at which her behavior was shitty, obtuse and obnoxious.

4. Don’t call her shitty, obtuse and obnoxious – that’s my job.  Loaded words can tank a meaningful conversation – just ask my husband(s).  Rather, focus on how what she said made you feel devalued or unheard.  Remind her that you don’t want to be involved in a competition with your friends, as life is hard enough without racing against those who are supposed to be racing with us.

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Sandy may have NO IDEA how she comes off to others, which is why the specifics are important.  Be prepared! 

Speaking of others, don’t be tempted to drag mutual friends into the conversation.  If they want to take the time to address this issue with Sandy that’s fine, but don’t try to bolster your argument with the age-old grade school girl tactic of “I think you suck and everyone else does too!”  You’ve got plenty of reason to have this conversation with Sandy without dragging others into it, especially without their permission, and that approach will surely make her extremely defensive and less likely to hear what you are trying to tell her.

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Finally, close the conversation by asking her why she thinks she has this characteristic.  You may find out that she is jealous of you – maybe your marriage is better than hers or she envies your career.  Perhaps she is deeply unhappy and is ready to drop the facade of perfection and admit her life isn’t what she wants it to be.  If that is the case, ask how you can help, but without losing sight of your goal that she be more empathetic and less competitive.

If you can’t live with this issue anymore, you need to be straight with her and tell her that.  That may be the hard core dose of reality she needs to change her behavior.  I’d give her three strikes from this point on.  For example:

1. You: “Sandy, I’m so excited!  I just got a big promotion at work and the CEO is using my ideas for the next shareholder meeting!  Let’s go celebrate!”

Sandy: “Speaking of success at work, did I tell you my husband just got an enormous raise?  We are going to celebrate in Hawaii in a couple weeks plus I’m throwing a party for him!”

You: “Strike one, Sandy.”

2. You: “Thank you so much for inviting me to your party celebrating your

husband’s raise, but I just found out my husband is having an affair.  I’m scared and depressed and don’t feel much like a party so I’m going to get in bed with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and a chardonnay drip.”

Sandy: “Oh my god, you know who is having an affair?  Sally, my son’s AP English teacher!  I know how you feel because my husband thought about having an affair once.  Not on me, of course, but on his former wife.  Sorry you can’t make it but will you still bring the cheese plate you promised?”

You: “Strike two.”

3. You: “Sandy, my home was foreclosed on due to the divorce and they repossessed my car.  Can you give me a ride to the unemployment office?  I was laid off due to my depression over my divorce and the pressures of the custody battle.”

Sandy: “You think that’s bad?  My daughter wasn’t selected for the Rose Festival Royal Court!  I’d love to help you out but I have to take her shopping for a tiara and keep working to convince her how much better she is than other girls.  See you at yoga on Saturday?”

You: “Strike three.  Over and out.”

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Please let me know how it goes.

-Robin

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. echinachea

    The question and especially your response are SO spot on, as the Brits would say. We all know people like this; I have the dubious honor of being a stepmom to just such a braggart, which explains our distance. When I worked up the nerve to address it, she was truly shocked (or pretended to be) but did more or less cease and desist with the “everything you can do, I can do better” routine on the occasions our paths crossed from then on out. It seems to be some people’s default position that absolutely everything in the world revolves around their precious selves, and while I agree that one needs to firmly address this problem or immediately bail on the relationship, I would not expect miracles. Who knows? “Sandy” might learn a valuable lesson about her behavior, the scales will fall from her eyes, and she will become an empathetic real friend. Or she might just get super pissy and tell you to buzz off, in which case, have you really lost a friend?

  2. Ali Whiting

    Ugh. It sucks when you genuinely care for someone and they ALWAYS have to get in the last word. Especially when they behave pathetic, as a victim – which they acknowledge! I’m getting tired of the “I’m always such a people pleaser, I want everyone to like me and it’s ridiculous that I’m so needy” and then they turnaround and take exception to something you say/write and feel the need to be self-righteous & chastise you – apparently forgetting for a minute that they are a pathetic, needy, people pleaser. Can you say fken hypocrite? Maybe you can give me advice on facing down a hypocrite without completely alienating them!!

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