Competition is a fact of life; the desire to win at games, get the highest grade in the class or bring home a blue ribbon from the county fair is a feeling most of us can understand. Playing sports provides an outlet for competitive urges; watching your favorite professional teams allows us to compete vicariously.
Competitive urges may also pervade our lives in many other areas: Who has the bigger house? Whose kid got into the better college? Who drives the nicer car? Who has the more prestigious job? Who is better-looking or fitter? Who is more popular, smarter, wittier? People regularly make such comparisons and often feel in competition with their friends and acquaintances, whether or not they realize it. As long as it’s not a preoccupation or source of great distress, this is “normal” — that is to say, competition is everywhere.
Competition becomes toxic, however, when you add the element of triumph. I don’t mean that word in its positive sense, as in “His victory was a triumph of self-discipline and fortitude.” The triumph I have in mind goes hand-in-hand with the humiliation of others. In this sense, when you are victorious it means there must be a contemptible loser. “Personal best” doesn’t apply in that instance; seeing others go down to defeat is a major part of the gratification. Feeling superior to and better than those losers is the goal.
I think this feeling is more commonplace that you might expect. Why, after all, do so many people tune in to reality-based TV shows like “American Idol” or “Project Runway,” where week after week, the “losers” are dismissed from the competition by contemptuous judges, often in extremely degrading ways. A very large part of the viewing public must derive satisfaction from witnessing this humiliation, no doubt identifying with the triumphant winner or the sneering judge.
A preoccupation with triumphant winning can be a way to escape from low self-esteem and an underlying sense of shame, to disprove feelings of damage and project them into the other person, the inferior and contemptible “loser”.
I’ve had clients so competitive and consumed by winning that virtually every aspect of their interactions with other people became a basis for comparison. A real estate broker, for example, who always looked first at a man’s watch, to make sure his own Rolex was better. A new bride who constantly felt inferior because her husband couldn’t afford a diamond as large as the one on her friends’ fingers. More than one attractive client whose first mental act upon entering a social context was to decide if he or she was the best-looking person in the room.
All of these clients struggled with issues of basic shame. I believe it’s usually at the root of toxic competition and triumph. I’ve known other clients who tried entirely to avoid competition for very similar reasons, although they were secretly just as competitive in spirit.
How competitive are you?
Finding Your Own Way:
Next time you go to a party or a social function where you have to meet and converse with many new people, pay close attention to your first exchanges and listen for how you/they present yourselves, describe what you/they do. Are you trying to make it seem as you’re a winner? We all like to put our best foot forward, but does the other person make it seem as if he or she is so together that it somehow makes you feel bad? Are you actually interested in finding out about the other people, or are you simply waiting for an opening to talk about yourself in a way that will make you look good? About 90% of the people I meet at large social functions are only interested in talking about themselves in flattering ways.
Invite some friends for a game of some kind, sports or cards, and study the competition. How do you feel if you win? How badly to you feel if you lose? Do you move on quickly from either one, or do you find yourself dwelling on it long after, reliving the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat?
Competition is a fact of life, but the excessive desire to win and triumph over others may be a sign of low self-esteem, hidden from view, and unacknowledged damage and shame.