The question: My sister is a sore loser. Tennis, Scrabble, poker – any “game” brings out her competitive streak, and she’s no fun to be around. How should I deal with it?
The answer: Dealing with anyone who is a sore loser can suck the fun out of playing a game altogether. Healthy competition does make playing sports or games interesting and creates a certain level of motivation and engagement, but when someone is taking the win or loss too personally and getting upset, sulky or blaming others if they lose, this can be highly uncomfortable.
The dynamics that come along with someone who has a strong competitive streak can be particularly amplified when it is a relative. Regardless of one’s current age, it is stunning how childhood history and family patterns stay strong and lasting through the years, and continue to affect adult interactions.
I would start by trying to understand where your sister is coming from. Were there instances in the past in which she explicitly or inadvertently felt she couldn’t live up to you? Was she regularly berated for losing? Try to be empathetic to the factors may be contributing to her behaviour. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with her approach, but it may provide you with an appreciation for what’s at the root of how she acts and lessen its impact on you.
Then talk to her. Let her know that you really enjoy playing tennis with her, but that you feel it is not always as enjoyable as it could be. When you provide feedback, avoid generalities. Be as specific and objective as possible. For example, rather than saying, “You are always a sore loser,” you could say, “Last Sunday when we played, you seemed to be upset after the game. I know you like to win, as do I, but when you slammed your racket into the net and told me you didn’t want to go for lunch after, I felt it put a real damper on our day together.” Allow her to respond. Ask her for feedback on your behaviour (“Is there anything that bugs you when we play or that I can do differently?”).
Then specify what you would like to see: “I’d love to keep on playing every Saturday through the summer, but for me the main aim is to have fun and hang with you. Would it be possible for both of us to not get too caught up in who wins or loses?” Do not be blaming or accusatory in language, and keep your tone light and positive. It could be possible that your sister does not have good insight into her behaviour, and the feedback you provide may be new to her. Then provide her with the opportunity to change.
If her behaviour continues, and you find that the cons of dealing with her responses when she loses outweigh the pros, suggest other activities that you could do together that are more enjoyable for both of you.
Send psychologist Joti Samra your questions at email@example.com. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.
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