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Competing with Friends

Friends: They are so precious to us.

What happens when you get what your friend wants, but can’t have, or vice versa?

It was March 1988. My best friend, Nichole, and I were both competing for a seat in the Olympic women’s eight rowing crew boat. The squad of 24 of us had just finished a particularly grueling rowing practice, followed by a tough weight workout. Panting and sweating, we were all glad the day was done. The Coach then said, “I am going to read off the names of the people that can come back tomorrow and keep training. The rest of you, good work, but this is not your Olympics.”

We were shocked and I am pretty sure no one took a breath as he read off 16 names, one by one. I finally heard mine, “Whew!” I kept listening for Nicole’s name, but it never came. “Shi*(!”

I hadn’t planned on how this would feel. I loved the competition, but hadn’t thought I’d win and go on without her. That loss was like a leg of a three-legged stool being knocked out from under me. Now what? Nichole wanted nothing to do with me, stinging with her own devastation. Without other friends, I was left all alone with my success. Yahoo. How fun.

Three weeks later, I hurt my back and was no longer rowing. Now, you probably think I am crazy here, but I believe the guilt of making the round of cuts without her contributed to me hurting my back. I was too discombobulated and just couldn’t go on alone. Some would call it “survivor guilt.”


We are often attracted to our friends because we enjoy doing similar things, or we are similar, or we are at the same stage of life. It is natural that we both may want the same things at the same time. However, what happens when your friend gets what you want and can’t have: a new pair of expensive shoes, a job, a house, a boyfriend, or a baby? Or possibly worse, you get what she wants, but can’t have.

Suddenly, where we were once aligned, we are not. The equilibrium in our relationship is off. The contrast between where we each are starts to pull the relationship apart. We are no longer joined together in a common cause. Our connection, once so solid, has a tear in it. One of us is apparently happy with the new situation, and the other is left wanting.

Studies have shown that, as women, we handle stress differently than men. Rather than going to fight or flight, as men typically do, women go to tend (take care of kids & things) and befriend (connect to friends). As women, our relationships are a vital part of our hard-wired survival strategy. So a break in our connection can feel like a visceral tear in our beings, leaving us feeling lost and bewildered.

Client Examples

Sally, a client of mine, had interviewed for her coveted job. Her friend was interested in the same work, but was not actively looking. However, the hiring manager knew them both professionally, and called to offer her friend the job instead of her. Sally was hurt and angry. How could she not resent her friend? It just felt unfair and wrong.

My client Mary wasn’t really looking for a relationship, but when her roommate invited her out with a bunch of friends along with a Ron, a guy her roommate liked, Mary was struck by the immediate, and mutual, attraction between her and Ron. Mary panicked, and not wanting to upset her roommate, tried to avoid the whole thing.

Cindy, another client, had been trying for months to get pregnant after a horrible miscarriage the year before when her friend got pregnant on the first try. Cindy was heartbroken and jealous. “Why? This is not fair!”

Attempts at Repair

Each of these women valued their relationships highly, and deeply in their hearts, wanted something for themselves. So they coped as best they could. Here’s what they each tried:

High Road: Sally tried to be strong and rise above it all, saying, “Hey, everything is fine. I am happy for you. I am over it.” The problem was, she wasn’t fine. She was hurt, disappointed and jealous, but wasn’t acknowledging any of that to herself or her friend.

Guilt - Fix: Mary, felt so guilty about her attraction that she ignored calls from Ron, and turned down offers to go out with her roommate’s friends. She wanted to fix it so badly that she encouraged her roommate to date Ron. However, when he finally showed up on the doorstep asking for Mary, the situation came to a head.

Compare & Complain: Cindy, in her despair, complained to her friend about how lucky she was and how unfair the world was to Cindy. Apparently, her friend took it as long as she could until her own hormones burst forth in self protection, telling Cindy that she needed someone else to talk to, which is when I got Cindy’s call.

So What Do You Do?

There are no easy answers here. Maybe you are a saint, and you can simply rejoice in your friend’s good fortune or feel no guilt when you win the prize and they don’t. I am not that enlightened. In fact, I have attempted all the ineffective strategies listed above.

No matter what side of the equation you are on – the one that comes out on top, or the one that doesn’t - the outcome is uncomfortable. Here are some ways that I have found that generally help the situation.

Support & Feeling

Do not rely solely on your friend to make you feel better. You (and she) may need someone else to talk to for a bit. Reach out to your spouse, coach or therapist to help you deal with how this experience is for you. Things to consider:

  • Are you letting yourself really acknowledge and feel how you feel? When we resist how we feel, it is like holding a beach ball under water. Eventually, it is going to pop up and usually with more force, hitting us in the face.

  • What stories are you telling yourself that may not be true and don’t serve you? Such as, “I’ll never get a job I love!” or “Our relationship is ruined! ”

  • You may be blowing this out of proportion. What else is happening in your life? In that relationship? What do you really want in this relationship?

Talking Honestly

Talk honestly with each other, which may make you feel vulnerable. If you value the friendship, which I am assuming you do, talk about how you feel and be interested in the impact this situation has on your friend. No matter what side you’re on.

Don’t be surprised if you have to keep talking about it for a while. It is one thing to initially learn you are not getting something and your friend is; it is a whole other story to watch the entire thing unfold over time, as with a relationship, job or pregnancy.

Space & Remembering

If you are a dramatic personality like me, you will think the relationship is ruined and may try to fix it and fit it back into its old mold. This approach usually doesn’t work. I speak from experience here. Believe me. Things are different. Take things slowly, both for you and your friend.

When you do reconnect, remember: Who is this other person to you? What do you like about them? What else do you enjoy doing together? My guess is, this was not the only thing holding you two together. If so, and you can’t talk it out, well, maybe it is time to let the friendship go.

The Olympics and Beyond

As for my Olympic story, three months after my injury, I came back and went on to make the 1988 Olympic team that went to Seoul, Korea. However, the guilt I felt was like a wall that stopped me from reaching out and clearing things up with Nichole. Our friendship never recovered.

Now when these things happen, and they still do, I have a desire to fix it too fast, which sometimes makes things worse. I have to remind myself to slow down and use my own support system to deal with emotions such as guilt, jealousy, or disappointment, which yes, still do come up!

The good news is that I am not as likely to shoot myself in the foot as I did with the back injury during the Olympics. Plus, I now reach out and talk about it with the other person. It is bumpy, but in the end, the risk outweighs a potential loss of friendship.

CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke

Coaches, Business Consultants, Speakers and Authors of The Beauty of Conflict

CrisMarie and Susan work leaders and teams, couples in business, and professional women.

They help turnaround dysfunctional teams into high performing, cohesive teams who trust each other, deal with differences directly, and have clarity and alignment on their business strategy so they create great results.

Check out their website: www.thriveinc.com. Connect with CrisMarie and Susan on LinkedIn. Watch their TEDx Talk: Conflict – Use It, Don’t Defuse It! Find your copy of The Beauty of Conflict: Harnessing Your Team's Competitive Advantage here.

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