Help! I Want to Stop Competing with My Friend

Dear GoodTherapy,

My best friend and I have known each other since college. We started out as “enemies,” competing to see who could get the best grades, run the fastest mile … you get the idea. Rivalry led to grudging respect, which in turn led to a ride-or-die brotherhood.

We moved in together after graduation, but the competitive streak never went away. We’ve always been rivals first, friends second. Now that we live together, we have smaller, more personal things to compete over, such as who’s growing the better beard, who makes more money, and so on.

At first it was a blast. We had dumb contests over who could clean their half of the apartment quickest or who could finish their cereal first. It made all the boring parts of adulthood fun.

But after three years, the rivalry has become a drain on my life. I feel as if I’m always putting on a show, like I can’t relax in my own apartment. It’s gotten to the point where I’m driving the scenic route home, buying a few more minutes to myself.

Part of me wonders if I lost my enthusiasm because my friend got a promotion at his job before I did. I’m happy for him, really. But now there’s this unspoken tension between us. My line of work requires a lot more training than his does, so I won’t catch up financially in two years at least. I’m finding myself being more competitive about fitness to compensate, even though I’m already exhausted.

I want to quit this never-ending competition, or at least dial it back some. But if I talk to my friend about it, I’ll be “surrendering,” and my pride can’t take that. Is there any way for me to bow out of this rivalry without losing my friend’s respect? —Can’t Compete

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Dear CC,

It’s funny you ask me that, because your competitor/friend also just wrote to me, and I’m trying to decide which is the better question.

Okay, I’m kidding. I appreciate the question. To be honest, it sounds like an excellent premise for a comedy film or short story. I can see the caption now: “Let the game begin!” with two serious young men staring at us.

I can’t help but wonder what keeps it going, and (in all seriousness) what makes the stakes so important. It is somewhat intriguing you have this self-protective pride with (I’m assuming) such a good friend (let’s call him John for the sake of simplicity). What’s up with that?

It makes sense that after three years you have tired of the constant rivalry, which from the sound of it pretty much overwhelms the friendship. I’m trying to imagine what meals at home are like. “Pass the salt.” “Quick: What’s the chemical compound of salt, and which elemental combination is toxic?” It’s a sure way to drive one batty, and I commend you for hanging in there so long. Part of me wonders, in fact, if your friend/rival feels the same.

In fact, it sounds as if the intense, never-ending competition has become a bit toxic, and certainly not fun—which begs the question of why you haven’t discussed it yet.

The moment I typed that question, a thought came to me. Perhaps it is hard for you to tell if “John” is truly a caring friend—would he forgive or accept your wanting to end the exhausting, perpetual contests, or would he lord it over you and say, “Ah, so you couldn’t handle the pressure, eh bro? Guess I win!” If so, the risk then is of possibly losing the friendship or taking a hit to your self-esteem (since obviously his estimation of you matters to you), thus the dilemma of having to endure or continue a competition longer than any iron man contest imaginable.

Now for a bit of oversimplified psychology. The pioneer psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, who bravely broke away from Sigmund Freud to create a psychoanalytic or psychological perspective based on empathy, spoke of two types of “transferences.” Transference can be understood in myriad ways.

One of the ways I think of it is how we attach to others. Specifically, others who represent the possibility of meeting some of our ongoing or unmet emotional needs. It is not unusual for young men to enter the kind of friendly, even sometimes edgy competition you speak of. Here, however, there seems to be an extra something underscoring the contest; something that is very much at stake, that could be lost if one of you “gives in” or “succumbs.”

Kohut spoke of an idealizing transference and a twinship transference. (There are other types, and this is oversimplified for the sake of brevity.) An idealizing transference tends to be that of a child looking up to a parent in search of positive reflection, encouragement, self-esteem, what have you. In Star Wars, for instance, Luke has competing father figures: the loving and benevolent Obi-Wan Kenobi and the darker, ego-based Darth Vader, each of whom struggles for the allegiance of Luke’s soul.

In this vein, I detect a possible co-idealization going on—either between you and “John,” or between you and some internalized father or authority figure whose possible “approval” (or denial thereof) is at stake in these contests, which have taken on significance. It makes me wonder if each of you sees a bit of your own father (or mother, or some other authority figure) in the other, or if you both invoke a coach you both had who instigated competition and doled out approval. Perhaps, along these lines, the two of you are now enacting or reliving an earlier, unresolved competition, the psychological stakes of which are mutually understood to be high.

This brings me to the second idealization Kohut talks about, which is twinship, or a profound sense of close companionship or cosmic similarity. A twinship is, as the name suggests, analogous to siblings. Using the Skywalker example, Luke turns out to have a profound twinship with his sister Leia, and (SPOILER ALERT!) sacrifices his life for her in the most recent installment. On a more comic level, there is a rich twinship between the two droids, C3PO and R2D2. (Many comic duos are based on such twinships, such as Laurel and Hardy, Hope and Crosby, Cheech and Chong, and man am I dating myself!)

I am curious about whatever deeper or unconscious motivations are pushing this initially rousing (I am guessing) and benevolently competitive twinship into an intensive contest where only one of you “wins” while the other shamefully “loses”—as if some judging but invisible authority figure is hovering close at hand.

It sounds like you are outgrowing the need for your friend’s (or some shared authority figure’s) approval, which to me is a positive sign; growing pains are never easy. You are realizing the rigors of this never-ending trial are becoming absurdly irrelevant and straining.

It sounds like you are outgrowing the need for your friend’s (or some shared authority figure’s) approval, which to me is a positive sign; growing pains are never easy. You are realizing the rigors of this never-ending trial are becoming absurdly irrelevant and straining.

Your task, then, as I see it, would be to find and tap into the “benevolent parent” or Obi-Wan Kenobi aspect of yourself. Confide in a trusted counselor or adviser. Maybe say to John, “Hey, buddy, it’s been fun, but it’s over. I just can’t anymore. Too tiring and time consuming, and we both have a life. We’re not college students anymore, so let’s move on” … or something of the kind.

You might also point out that life itself is competitive, in terms of finding a successful partner, career, and so forth. At what point does this college holdover become a distraction or safer way of competing in a wider, more uncertain, or even more intimidating world? Might the two of you become allies in spurring each other on, since the field of competition (as it were) has grown wider, more vast?

Finally, allow some compassion for the two of you, certainly yourself. Change is difficult, and transitioning into post-college adulthood is daunting. Clearly you have other tasks before you, and life is calling you forth. Sounds like you have good intuition to move on from this, and I would follow it.

Yes, it is risky, as John could become a taunting sibling or even invoke a dark or judging parent or authority figure before your very eyes and shamefully exclaim, “You weakling!” But honestly, so what? Do you really want to have a friend who is that inflexible, so insecure that he must always be competitive? I also imagine, by the way, that any potential romantic partners, were it to continue unabated, might find it distracting. (The comedy film I Love You, Man and similar “bromances” touched on these themes.)

The fact you even sent the question means your psyche or spirit is wanting to grow—which is difficult, to be sure, but a sign of maturity. In the end, you learn that a mark of true self-esteem is not needing to compare yourself, since each person is on their own existential journey. Perhaps this is, in part, what is dawning on you.

Hope this was helpful. Thanks for writing.

Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.

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