This is called friendship. It's not a race.
January 23, 2012 10:41 PM   Subscribe

Is it going to be worth it to confront this friend/classmate about her competitive nature and its impact on our friendship, or should I just give up?

I'm in a good graduate program and have met some nice people. One of the girls I've befriended was great fun to start and a major source of support when I broke up with my boyfriend, but lately she's been really intense and competitive with me and I'm kind of put out by it. The stuff she does is cumulatively draining after a while:
  • every day she gets uptight and sometimes really upset if I've done the homework differently than she has or if I've written more ("oh my god I have to redo it if yours looks like this")
  • she micromanages interactions with me and with others so she doesn't embarrass herself and so we don't laugh at her (?!)
  • and when we're out and she notices some cute guy in our midst, she manhandles me and forces me to turn back to her if I casually glance at the guy or if I gesture in his general direction and lays into me if I end up talking to him first
I'm at a loss here because her crippling insecurity is something I want to have compassion about but she's really become a major wet blanket and I don't know how to weigh that with the fact that she has been a good friend to me in the past. The last time I gave her constructive criticism about berating in front of our classmates for doing a part of an assignment by myself during a group activity, she blew up at me and refused to apologize and I ate the interaction in an effort to just be magnanimous or whatever. When she's "in control" or is the expert in a situation she's really rather nice to be around. It seems like it's when she feels compromised that her behavior becomes off kilter.

Is this worth my time/effort? I have to see and work with her everyday until late summer and to my knowledge she thinks we're good friends. If we'd been friends much longer I'd probably just be like, "Quit being a bitch, you're making me uncomfortable" but I feel like she's not the type to take this stuff well.

Thoughts? I am trying to work on being a good communicator and keeping friendships alive where possible so if I can salvage this by speaking my mind I'd really like to. I'm also working on being less sensitive, so there's that too.
posted by These Birds of a Feather to Human Relations (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
No, never confront anyone over anything unless you have a specific measurable outcome in mind. Someone owe you money? Confront them. Want someone out of your house ? Confront them. Want someone to change their attitude in subtle ways? Don't bother. She won't even realize she even does these things.
posted by Ad hominem at 11:14 PM on January 23, 2012 [21 favorites]

If this crippling insecurity, confronting her will just make her feel more insecure. You might try, as an experiment, for the next month go out of your way to let her know that you think she is smart, attractive and someone that you respect. For example, re homework, "you're good in this class - I'm sure what you did was fine too" or point out good comments that she makes in class or in group that you think were on target. Also let her know that not only appreciated her support but that you see her a person that is a good listener or that cares about others. Whatever is true for you that might help her see her own virtues.

The idea is to convince in a hundred ways that you think she is a good enough as is and she doesn't need to impress you further to have your respect. It is possible that she is just bottomless pit and it won't make a difference. On the other hand, if works, it would not only improve the relationship (once she calmed down and was more secure in her relaitonship with you) but it would be a great way to pay her back being there when you needed a friend.
posted by metahawk at 11:33 PM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have recommendations for 2 of the behaviors but to me these are really not confrontations, just ways to deal with 2 of the things on your list.If there really is an underlying anxiety I don't think confrontation will help.

She micromanages interactions with me and with others so she doesn't embarrass herself and so we don't laugh at her.

At a later time point (not in front of the group, one-on-one), I would tell her 1) that you understand that she doesn't want to be embarrassed and as a friend you are aware of this and will not laugh at her/make her the center of attention, etc. but 2) if she directs you, then it makes you embarrassed and uncomfortable. Could she make an effort to help you out and not micromanage you? If it happens again after you have told her, I would just say that you don't really feel comfortable being told what to do/it's embarrassing to you (it may or may not be, OP, but the idea here is to pull her out of that anxiety state and recognize that you are not doing these things to her and that she could possibly do the same thing to others).

Every day she gets uptight and sometimes really upset if I've done the homework differently than she has or if I've written more ("oh my god I have to redo it if yours looks like this")

As an aside, a roommate in college had to deal with this from many people; my roommate was also nonconfrontational but here is what she eventually told people.... Tell her that for you to maximize your learning experience during lecture, you need to focus.It really stresses you out to have someone else compare notes with you. You have already completed the work and need to focus on the lecture. Now follow it and don't share the notes. Also, since this is grad school, is it really for a grade? Or is it to review material for an exam. Point this out to her so she doesn't get carried away. Homework isn't usually a grade at that level of education. But reminding her of this may help her realize it isn't that important.

posted by Wolfster at 11:46 PM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are you coming up to some deadline or evaluation point that's layering stress on her? Seems that's a fairly common thing, build-up of stress causing that kind of personality change - especially regarding your first point. You might want to consider approaching her from an empathetic perspective - "you seem like you're really stressed, what's up? do you want to talk about it? do you think maybe you should talk about it?" or whatever would work best in your context.

On the other hand? While she may be having perfectly normal, natural issues in her life, that does not mean that you are obliged to deal with the fallout. You have the absolute right to decide that you do not want that particular issue or drama in your world, and to minimize or excise it in whatever way you deem easiest and best.

Given your expressed desire to work on your communication skills, I'd say that you're probably not going to be content with any outcome if you don't at least try to talk it out with her once - regardless of whether that attempt ends badly. If/when you do, try as best you can to talk with her from a perspective of concern rather than accusation - most people don't react well to being told they've screwed up, especially if they already are aware of the fact ;) and yeah, don't be surprised if it goes badly, either. Confrontation is always difficult, at best, no matter how carefully and caringly done.

On the other hand, if you don't care about changing the situation in any way, or about the girl's emotional welfare at the moment, or future well-being if she continues to treat people this way, but simply want to glide through the situation in the easiest way possible, I would definitely recommend Ad hominem's advice. Sometimes, not confronting people about their issues can be hopelessly, heartlessly cruel - and sometimes, it is the *only* viable option, no matter how cruel it might be.

Ultimately, though, the question of whether you personally consider the "*shrug* not my problem" position to be ethically viable in your situation is entirely your own.
posted by mie at 11:48 PM on January 23, 2012

First, I'd say you have permission to take a break from the person once in a while for a breather, without cutting her out of your life. I know this can be awkward (or difficult) in a small cohort of grad students.

Also the classic co-counselling phrasing is very helpful and non-confrontation way of sticking up for yourself in situations like this:

when you ...
I feel...
I need ...
So that...

I feel that having a bit of a script helps.
posted by chapps at 11:49 PM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

If I was the girl in question, I would love to hear about what I have done so that I can change if I am inadvertently hurting my friends.
posted by moiraine at 12:20 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

and when we're out and she notices some cute guy in our midst, she manhandles me and forces me to turn back to her if I casually glance at the guy or if I gesture in his general direction and lays into me if I end up talking to him first

My experience is that you can have a limited sort of friendship with women like this but not a deep one because that kind of jealousy and competitiveness leads to drama and madness. Also it's very off-putting to your more normal friends who may begin to avoid you. I have several friends like this, as part of a much larger group and they're otherwise nice people who I like so it's manageable, but I definitely keep them at arms length.
posted by fshgrl at 12:51 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd let a lot of the other stuff slide, but the manhandling? My response would be TAKE YOUR DAMN HANDS OFF ME, NOW! Loudly and publicly as needed: for behavior like this, I'd say that making a bit of a scene is a *good* thing. and No-one has the right to physically shove you around, even if they're "only" forcing you to turn your back to someone-something.
posted by easily confused at 3:30 AM on January 24, 2012 [6 favorites]

I would confront particular behaviors in a low-key but assertive way rather than going for a full scale discussion of what is wrong with her personality. E.g- don't manhandle me, it's ridiculous or 'you're stressing me out with your stress out over these notes'- just take your own. I think that keeping friends like this means managing their behavior to an extent that you can handle it (i.e nOt be driven crazy by it) but also not beige critical if them as a whole, because as others have pointed out, this tends not to be effective with an insecure person. Be less analytical of it all (and thus less judgemental, which may make her feel more secure) and just knock particular behaviors on the head. After all, you are not her boyfriend or mother- I don't think changing her wholesale is your resp. I also think she's probably aware of some kind of flaw- hence insecurity and intense behavior. So simple pointers that don't shut her down as a person seem more compassionate and more likely to sustain a friendship to me.
posted by jojobobo at 3:43 AM on January 24, 2012 [10 favorites]

Beige= being
posted by jojobobo at 3:44 AM on January 24, 2012

"Dude, you know that grades don't matter in grad school, right?"
(this is only true for some forms of grad school, but it was definitely something that I had to remind fellow grad students about with some frequency)

The next time she does the cute guy maneuver on you, laugh and say, "Hey, aren't we alternating who gets to interact with the guy; I'm totally sure its my turn." Or turn it into a do-si-do square dance move.

Can you decrease your difficult interactions with her in some way - not showing her your homework?
posted by sciencegeek at 4:43 AM on January 24, 2012

Yeah, I had a friend quite like this (and still do, although now we're out of PhD crazyland things are much calmer), and jojobo's advice is pretty much what worked for me. Keeping it low-key (less "your attitude towards X is making me feel Y, let's talk about it" and more "hey, stop that!") really helped.

I'm at a loss here because her crippling insecurity is something I want to have compassion about but she's really become a major wet blanket and I don't know how to weigh that with the fact that she has been a good friend to me in the past.

Honestly, I think the best way to deal with this is to not think in terms of this divide, where your choice is 'being compassionate' vs 'getting her to knock it off'.

Sometimes the most compassionate thing you can do for someone is to let them know that their current behaviour is not okay. Her insecurity doesn't give her license to control other people's behaviour, whether that's on the level of changing the subject to get everyone reassuring her about her homework or on the level of physically manhandling you away from cute guys. That isn't a good thing for you and her other friends, and it's also not a good thing for her - insecurity is a really common thing at that level of study, and she needs to find a healthier and more sustainable way of dealing with it than demanding a constant one-way stream of assurance and attention from others.
posted by Catseye at 4:47 AM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

her crippling insecurity

Is not your problem. She is insistent on seeing the world through her own deluded lenses. It doesn't matter much if you're nice or mean about confronting her, so be nice, with a touch of steel in your back.

I would spend less time with her. If she asks why, I would give explicit reasons, in a non-judgemental tone. Whether she takes offense at that is up to her, you're just delivering information.

She may be fighting the toughest battle of her life, but that's not a reason to treat you like crap. Don't tolerate it from her or anyone else, because you're just teaching people how to treat you. Let her know her behavior isn't acceptable, every time she pulls something and then walk away. It's up to her to learn from all this.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:51 AM on January 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

Longish, meandering answer of sorts: I'm going through this right now with someone, albeit not a close friend. I've known her as an acquaintance for a few years, and I recently joined a hobby club that she's a member of (I was unaware that she was in the club when I joined) and now she is continually poking her nose into my activities in the club and trampling over other boundaries. If she does better than me in a competition, she never lets me forget it; I don't want to see what happens if I ever do better than she does. The sad thing is that her work is very good and speaks for itself; she doesn't have to come find me and tell me how great she is. The phrase that keeps popping into my mind when she starts blowing her own horn: "You want a cookie???"

I've been going along with it (my usual pattern) but it's wearing me down. I'm preparing myself to say the following: "Hey, X, you're a very talented XXX, but I joined this club to improve my skills, not to show anyone up. I'd prefer it if you let me conduct myself as I see fit in this club without any more questions or comments. Is that clear? " If she doesn't get that, the next response will be a brisk "Mind your own business" and a quick trip to the ladies' room or toward another person to ask a question.

Some friendships are not built to last; some people can't handle competition in a friendly way. Don't blame yourself or your communication skills if this one goes to pot, and don't feel that you have to walk on eggshells OR THAT YOU OWE HER ANYTHING for "being there" when you had your breakup. Sounds like she needs a wakeup call, and it's her loss.
posted by Currer Belfry at 5:18 AM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

She sounds very insecure. You sound like you are becoming her victim. If you cannot stay away from her then, as a friend, you could:

1. Take her aside and say, "I've noticed you've been more stressed out than usual lately. I went through/a friend of mine went through something like this before. It helped me/friend to talk to a therapist and get on a low dose of anxiety medicine. Would you like me to help you to get an appointment somewhere?

2. Another option would be to dose her yourself. Yogi has a bedtime tea with valerian root and St. John's Wort. Might help.

3. Alert a dorm monitor or someone at the school to the situation. Ask for help.

Don't be her victim. Do not allow her to control you. Do not be her crutch. You are not responsible for her.
posted by myselfasme at 6:16 AM on January 24, 2012

One more thing, a friend is someone who supports your happiness and wants you to do well.

She doesn't seem at all like a friend. She seems like someone who wants to use you and control you.
posted by myselfasme at 6:18 AM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm going to strike a slightly different tone here than the rest --- it seems to me that while she is def insecure, direct confrontation is likely to result in anger and conflict and that compassionate hand holding all too easily reads as condescension on the receiving end -- it's not impossible to avoid that, but it is tricky.

If I were in your place, I'd use humor. Whether or not that works for you depends a lot on your personality and your normal way of interacting with her, but I tend to think that a quick, dry "man, how cute is this guy behind me? Or are you trying to give me a deep tissue massage?" or "yeah I figured anything less than 5 pages on a non graded homework assignment would surely mean I'd fail the class, drop out of the program and end up homeless on the streets," would get across the idea "I like you, but you are being silly right now." (except you should probably actually be funny, unlike my examples.) being able to tease someone about their pretensions and insecurities requires a degree if trust and affection --- but it can be the safest way to handle something like this, provide that trust exists.
posted by Diablevert at 7:22 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

She doesn't seem at all insecure about telling you what to do.

If you feel she's competitive and you don't like that, why would you get in the race with a confrontation?

If you're not comfortable using humor, then try being patiently bored with the drama you can't actually ignore.

FWIW, some of my friends who like this in our early twenties evolved.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:48 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Insecurity sucks, but it's her problem. I used to have a couple friends like this, and it's true, it will drive away other, more sane people. You can still be friendly, but in a Teflon kind of way-- don't get too deep and be comfortable brushing her off if she's being truly rude to you.

And I agree with myselfasme-- I used to have a lot of friends who basically thrived on drama and oversharing. Our group kind of broke up a couple years ago, and I don't miss them a bit. True friendships are friendships where you have things in common and support each other.
posted by stoneandstar at 12:03 PM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Carry a hip flask of bourbon with you. Any time she busts out the panic, give her a swig.

(Generally conducive habit in graduate school, really.)
posted by ead at 9:55 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Grad school can be so intensely, subtley competitive anyway, that someone you're friends with really should be able to step back from that and see you as a friend first, a competitor second. I think honesty is really the best thing here: it's so much in the air anyhow, bringing it up really won't be as socially weird as it would be outside of a graduate program. Do you guys have private offices? If so, just dropping in one day and bringing up your discomfort with compitition in general, ie "I want to see you as my friend first, part of my cohort as a distant second!" might be a resolution.

Frame it less as "your behaviour is a problem" and more as "we are all under so much uncomfortable pressure" to avoid her blowing up again. She may not be doing very well, she may be starting to freak out about job prospects already, she might be in a position that she's putting you in and just trying to keep it all under control. You don't have to just take it in the chin, but verbally acknowledging that you're both under a lot of competitive pressure, and that it really sucks, might make her re evaluate the behaviour. If it doesn't, you will have to quietly remind her as the behaviour continues: "Yes, my writing assignment is longer, but it's probably totally different than yours, so it just took more words to explain", "I'm doing this assignment differently, but I'm not trying to compete with anybody, I just do things differently sometimes". If she's treating you poorly in front of your peers, a faculty mediator might eventually have to come into the picture.

As far as it spilling over to off campus stuff--again, she's seeing you as an academic peer rather than a friend. Shrug it off, stop hanging out with her outside of work, or just remind her constantly that you're not in competition with her. If she pretends not to know what you're talking about, or gets rude, just avoid extracurricular activities, sadly enough. Grad school turns some people into assholes, fact of life. Sometimes they get their shit together and apologize a semester or two later, sometimes they just drift away. Both have happened to me, and ultimately, I'm just so glad that I'm writing my thesis and getting the hell out of here.
posted by zinful at 10:19 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

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