Compassion Matters

How to save a life

Why Do Women Act Catty?

The unhealthy way women act on healthy feelings of competition

No woman likes to be called "catty." But most of us can't deny the times when our competitive feelings have slipped out by way of a sarcastic dig or a cutting comment. Just think of all those little statements we unleash, only to instantly (at least somewhat) regret it. That whisper to a friend about a co-worker's inappropriate work attire: "Wow, someone's skirt is riding high today." The remark we made about the new girlfriend of someone we've had a crush on: "That girl is a tease. Just wait until she breaks his heart." Whether coming out as a harsh one-time comment about a stranger or a full-on rant about a lifelong friend, cattiness often has a way of rearing its ugly head on occasions when we are afraid to expose our real competitive feelings.

The term "catty" is a sexually biased way of describing an unhealthy way women act on an otherwise healthy feeling of competitiveness. Think of the times we say things we regret about other women. Who are we saying these things to? In what context do these feelings arise? And most importantly, what are the underlying feelings driving the negative comment?

We live in a culture where it is still considered more socially acceptable for a man to directly express his competitive nature. For women, this quality has been shunned as undesirable. Many women are consequently uncomfortable with both their natural feelings of wanting something and their desire to compete to get it. Having evolved under the stigma of being the "weaker sex," women have historically been expected to be more covert or manipulative in their efforts to achieve success. Sadly, as women, we sometimes inadvertently strengthen this false notion of gender norms by failing to face our competitive feelings directly or to learn to deal with these feelings in a positive way.

For any human being, feeling competitive is 100 percent natural, and it is impossible to avoid it. The trouble comes when we start to express these feelings by lashing out at others or turning on ourselves. A friend of mine recently took my suggestion to analyze a scenario in which she'd casually made a self-described "catty" comment about a co-worker who was acting flirtatious in the office and receiving a great deal of male attention. What she found when she looked into the emotion that prompted the remark was that, at first, she actually felt admiration for her co-worker. "The truth is, her legs looked good in that skirt."

This lead to feelings of envy. "I thought, damn! If only I could look like that when I walk through the door. Not to mention, she is also more outgoing than me and so much more confident when it comes to men." One can see from this casual remark how my friend quickly shifted from feeling competitive to putting herself down in relation to her co-worker. I asked her to expand on the mean thoughts she started having about herself. "She is so much prettier than me. I could never show off my legs like that. No one would ever notice me like they notice her. I'll never get it together enough to be that confident and look attractive." The cruel thought process set off in my friend describes a common internal enemy we all possess, which we refer to as our "critical inner voice."

We can see from my friend's example that what may seem like a no-big-deal, flippant remark about someone else can actually hold a lot more meaning about how we view ourselves. One reason we find competitive feelings so uncomfortable is that they awaken our "critical inner voice." That is, they stir up old feelings in us that we are not good enough or that we are "less than." Instead of standing up to this inner critic and challenging these thoughts, we often accept them as our own point of view or even act on their directives.

For example, rather than acknowledge that she felt competitive, my friend started to feel critical and angry toward her co-worker, writing her off as "narcissistic and slutty." She also noticed having more critical thoughts toward herself throughout the day. "I look so dumpy. This outfit was a mistake. What am I trying to attract attention to myself for? People will just notice how awkward I am." For the next few days, she found herself acting on these thoughts, even dressing differently in an effort to "cover her thighs and problem areas." She became less vocal in meetings, feeling unsure of herself and self-conscious.

Listening to and acting on our critical inner voice is the worst thing we can do when we feel competitive. There is a clean and healthy way of dealing with our competitive feelings, which involves the following steps:

1) Acknowledge that you feel competitive. Try to recognize when you feel competitive without trying to justify or rationalize the emotion. Accept the competitive thought for what it is, simple, direct and even mean. Allow yourself to take pleasure in the angry thought.

2) Don't act out. Competitive thoughts are always acceptable. Being cruel to someone is not. Don't say things you'll regret or start building a case against the person you feel competitive with. Again, don't try to rationalize your feelings or fester in a state of anger. These are just feelings. Allow yourself to feel them fully without acting them out toward yourself or others. Savor them and then let them go.

3) Identify and challenge your inner critic. Try to recognize how you might be putting yourself down in relation to someone else. Look for ways you may be holding yourself back in the competition. Take action to go after what you want that counteracts this withholding pattern. Instead of acting on them, write down the critical thoughts that arise when you feel competitive.

When you write these thoughts down, use the second person—"you" statements instead of "I" statements. For example, instead of writing "I am so ugly. No one will ever notice me," write "You are so ugly. No one will ever notice you." This may feel silly or unnatural at first, but this exercise helps you to separate from your critical inner voice and see it as an alien and unrealistic point of view.

Next, write a response to these critical statements that reflects a more realistic and compassionate attitude. These should always be written as first person "I" statements. For example, "I'm an attractive woman with many desirable qualities." Again, do not be lured into listening to this sadistic internalized coach. Be strong in standing up to its false directives.

4) Compete in a clean and healthy way. Part of ignoring your critical inner voice involves taking consistent actions to counter it. For example, in social situations, you can go against the self-attacks that are encouraging you to stay in the background by smiling and talking with people. If my friend were to have taken this advice, she might have challenged herself to dress in way that made her feel confident, instead of covering herself in layers to hide her supposed flaws. She would have made an effort to be more vocal in her meetings, rather than slipping into the background. She could have redirected her entire thought process and taken actions to improve, rather than shatter, her self-esteem.

It is easier to have confidence in ourselves when we face our competitive feelings directly and don't allow ourselves to fall victim to our "critical inner voice." The negative attitudes we have toward ourselves or others are worth facing and challenging. In this way, competitive feelings can be channeled into something very positive: going for what we want in life. They can help shape our goals and give us motivation. They can reveal the many ways we are self-critical and that we hold ourselves back.

Our biggest challenger in life will always come from within. By overcoming this internal enemy, we can stop engaging in attitudes and behaviors that seem "catty" and indirect and that, ultimately, bend us out of shape. We can compete directly for the things we really want in life and give ourselves the best chance for success.

Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association.

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