Girls stole from me.

It started my first year of high school. They didn't mean any harm by it. It was always little things they stole, the kind of thing that could be taken easily from a careless person. I was a careless person. They were magpies: attracted to the small shiny accessories that other girls had lying around their bedrooms. Lipsticks, a Sweet Valley High book, a half-empty bottle of perfume, a charred-looking shade of nail-polish called MINX: they were all girly items. It took me weeks to realize what was missing - sometimes, I never did. Sometimes I only realized that Marybeth had swiped my keychain when I saw it jingling brightly at the bottom of her trendy neon backpack. Sometimes I'd see my T-shirt in Grace's closet and think Oh, that's where that went.

On those occasions, I never said anything to Marybeth or Grace. Instead of confrontation, I chose the tactful solution: I locked up my possessions whenever they came over. "Marybeth, Grace" I said breezily, "let's not hang out in my room" (pushing my new pink iPod further out of view) "let's go to the mall" (sweeping the last pot of my glitter eyeshadow into a drawer) "and get milkshakes instead!"

They were easy to distract, because their thieving was petty: it was born of instinct rather than any real desire for my possessions. They were light-fingered girls, the kind who snuck into movie theatres without paying and dropped Claire's rhinestone clips into their handbags on the sly. I figured it was fine, because Claire's rhinestone clips were so ugly anyway. Even when they stole from me, I thought nothing of it. I assumed this was natural girl behavior. It was kleptomania, but in its most adorable bubble-gum form. I thought the damage was minimal.

Ten years later, I was at a bar in downtown Boston with some friends. We were halfway through our second year of law school, and employers were conducting on-campus interviews to determine where we'd be that summer and possibly the rest of our lives. Naturally, we could talk of nothing besides who got hired early and who bombed all their interviews. I was in the middle of figuring out whether Brian really had been drinking before his interview with Proskauer when someone with a smooth cold voice cut in.

"You know Weil hired Lauren? She just got her letter yesterday."

It was Emma, smiling at me as though there was no one else she'd rather see.

"I guess they're less fixated on first-year grades than they pretend," she said, "because Lauren's first year grades were"–here she made a soft clicking noise that made me want to strangle her.

"Incoming," hissed Emma's best friend, another girl who was notable mostly because her parents owned one of New York's most expensive restaurants. And sure enough, there was Lauren coming across the room, in a tiny black dress, fairly glowing with happiness.

"Wow," Restaurant Heiress said when she got to us. "That dress is so short. You never feel cold! I'm so envious!"

Lauren looked slightly confused, but nodded and smiled as though it were a real compliment.

"I heard about Weil," I said. "That's fantastic. Have you celebrated yet?"

"Thanks!" said Lauren. "I can barely believe it, to be honest."

"Me neither. However did you manage it?" Emma said, cocking her head to one side like a bright, vicious bird. And this time there was no mistaking the look on Lauren's face. Her expression crumpled in on itself like paper, softening and blurring till I could barely keep my own eyes from the wetness.

The first time I encountered the term kleptomania was in 2002, when Winona Ryder was arrested for shoplifting from Saks. The newspapers went into a frenzy. What struck me upon reading the case was the detail that Ryder cut holes in the stolen clothes in order to get the tags off. That could only mean these clothes were never intended for her personal use. If she needed a new wardrobe, she could have easily paid for it, anyway. If she stole, it was because she wanted to steal.

Emma wanted to steal. Many of us do. We wander through the supermarket aisles of somebody else's self-esteem, helping ourselves to whatever we find along the way. We don't want what we take; we take it because we want to take. The value lies in the act.

The act of stealing between women can be physical or it can be emotional. What is physical is easily replaced. A barrette goes missing, and you buy another one. As we age, we graduate to emotional stealing. But what do we do when we're robbed of our self-esteem?

I saw a girl crying in a bathroom once with her arms around her knees, indifferent to the fact that the door of her stall was open. I hesitated before asking if she was okay. She took one scrunched-up fist out of her eye, looked at me and said with drunken candor: "My friend told me my boyfriend was out of my league. She's always making me feel bad."

It was this pattern of behaviour I found fascinating: the "always making me feel bad." What the sad girl was describing was consistent, low-scale, looting of happiness. Contrary to what Eleanor Roosevelt said, it's very, very easy to make somebody feel inferior without their consent. It's easy, and it's addictive. It's so bold of you to wear that! It's great that you're not worried about your grades! Where do you get your confidence? None of these comments seem devastating on paper, but in person they're a one-two punch to your heart. They make you worry that you don't look as good as you thought you did, that you're not as intelligent as you thought. You go over subtext more than you did for any college English class. You lie awake at night wondering What did she mean? Did she mean that? Am I crazy for thinking that she meant that?

Helen Fielding, creator of beloved single-girl Bridget Jones, introduced a similar concept known as "jellyfishing" in 2001:

"The thing about Rebecca is, she's a jellyfisher. You have a conversation with her that seems all nice and friendly, then you suddenly feel like you've been stung and you don't know where it came from. You'll be talking about jeans and she'll say "Yes, well, if you've got cellulite jodhpurs, you're best in something really well-cut like Dolce and Gabbana"- she herself having thighs like a baby giraffe—then smoothly move on to DKNY chinos as if nothing had happened."

Underneath the light hilarity of this idea–(is there a more delightful metaphor than jellyfish?)—is real pain, Bridget Jones' real pain. The subtext of pain that is swept under the rug (of course, Bridget never says anything to Rebecca to indicate her hurt) as a matter of course.

Most frequently, we categorize this behavior as general cattiness. I asked my friends: "Do you have any men friends who make catty comments that fall just this side of mean, just enough so that you can't call them on it without seeming paranoid?" Many of the women said yes. The men didn't understand what I meant right away, so I tried again, saying "Sometimes it masquerades as a compliment, but it's definitely not a compliment." When the men finally understood what I was driving at, they said No, of course they didn't have friends who made them feel small. They said it with confidence, with incredulity at the idea that anybody would have that kind of friend. What kind of friends would they be?

It's tempting to think that men are better than women: nobler, kinder. I want you to understand that's not what I'm saying. Women are raised to be careful of other women, because women are catty, jealous creatures, always stealing things from each other: jobs, men, beauty, self-esteem. As girls, we grow up learning not to trust other women, because we're told there are only so many opportunities to go around, only so many good men to be had, only so much beauty to be shared. We are lied to.

I know women who say of Hollywood actresses, "Well, she's pretty, but she's not that pretty," in a tone that is, more than anything else, defensive. If you praise one woman's beauty, it is perceived as an attack on the beauty of another. So they concede prettiness, because they don't want to seem ungenerous. Then they revoke. One step forward, two back. They parse for flaws so intensely, these women. Rihanna is pretty, but. Rihanna has a big forehead. Blake Lively is pretty, but. Blake Lively is all body. It's as though they were thrown into an arena and told to fight for the prize: a single, golden apple of beauty. No sharing allowed.

This is part of the damnation of being a woman: We're forced into a false competition for everything: men, beauty, jobs. While men compete directly, we're socialized to compete indirectly. Men fight each other in the streets; they come for each other's throat in public because nobody expects them to stay polite. They say: "We're not friends. I don't like that guy." Meanwhile, women have frenemies, because god forbid we have straight-up enemies. Women are supposed to be nice to each other all the time because what are women, if not nice?

I told my boyfriend about the Emmas in my life and their stings, how the small aches and pains they inflicted added up to a large theft of my happiness. My boyfriend listened to me carefully and said: "Why don't you stop being friends with her?"

"I'm not her friend," I said in a kneejerk reaction. "I just hang out with her."

"That's what I mean," he said gently. "Don't hang out with her. Cut her off."

The idea of it shocked me. Cutting somebody off, as an adult woman, is not nice. More importantly, it's difficult. It's easy to let friendships die slowly and gently under a mass of unreturned texts and cancelled plans. Even when you're not friends with somebody–in the same weird way that I wasn't friends with Emma—cutting somebody off is difficult. Making excuses for them is easy–after all, they haven't committed grand larceny. Grand larceny runs along the lines of she stole my boyfriend. She stole my car.

We don't have meaningful shorthand for petit larceny. It's not legitimized in our vocabulary, and in our culture nothing is legitimate until it has a name. Women say nothing because we are afraid to put a name to the leakages that occur in us. We allow someone to hurt us—not with knives, with needles that siphon off just a droplet of blood. We pass these off as minor pains. Petty thefts.

Worst of all, we learn to needle each other. We learn to steal from each other until none of us has anything left.

In my last year of law school, I was trapped in the foyer of the building while a storm raged outside. I remember I was debating making a run for it when Emma approached me. I noted with envy that she held a black umbrella.

"No umbrella?" she said, looking me straight in the eye for once.

I shrugged.

"Come on."

We stepped into the rain under her small umbrella, sure we'd both get drenched instantly. But we both stayed dry. Her steps were perfectly matched with mine so we were in sync, neither of us taking more than our share. We walked home in that gale and darkness, neither of us speaking, both of us untouched.

Priya-Alika Elias is a lawyer and writer. She tweets about pop culture @priya_ebooks.

[Image by Tara Jacoby]