Winners and Losers

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.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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25 comments

    Congratulations on all of this, Joe. I think it’s splendid — you have an interestingly unexpected take on so many things. I think this is going to be very useful to a lot of people. I certainly plan to read it all.

    An interesting article! I found your site through your twitter follow and I’m looking forward to reading your posts. You have so much experience I know I can learn from you. As for competition, I’m sure men have more of an issue with keeping this in proportion than women. What do you think Joseph?

    Ian, I’m sorry that I didn’t notice the question at the end of your comment before now. I think that men have more obvious issues in this area, especially since society largely encourages competitive behavior in men and rewards them for “winning”. But women also compete in less obvious ways, and often in very different areas, defining themselves as “winners” and “losers” in completely different ways. I actually think we might get an interesting discussion going over at the Facebook page, since people often have highly developed and intense opinions about gender differences. Thanks for posting your comment!

    Thanks for the insights. We were trained in the 20th century that being #1 is the goal. I’m glad to be part of the 21st century where cooperation and networking are beginning to take their place in our value system. No more “Risk” boardgame for me!!

    Hello to you. :) When I attend or host a social function, I am generally well received. :) I love to interact and I am very comfortable around all types of people. I love to make people laugh. My specialty is talking, :) but I enjoy listening and giving advice when asked as well. I don’t put much thought into how I am acting, because I’m not acting. I am just being me. Sometimes you meet people who seem to be snobbish and aloof, when actually they are shy and insecure.
    I was never very competitive. I never cared who had the best car, the best house etc.
    As far as games are concerned. I enjoy winning, but I am not a sore loser. I’ve played cards with a few where you were afraid to win! Once, our little group was playing scrabble. A particular person jumped up out of her seat and yelled. “It’s not like we’re playing for fun!” Umm okaay

    I cannot stand to see someone humiliated. I take no pleasure from seeing anyone suffer that horrible emotion.

    This seems particularly relevant to politics. As Donald Trump said “its not whether you win or lose, its whether you win”. It seems to me that one side of politics is always about winning. They must win, regardless of what they actually plan to do when in power, without regard for the consequences, and gloat about their victories, like them winning is the only real thing of importance.

    How do we combat this behavior on a large scale?

    I wish I knew the answer to that one, Marie. And I completely agree about its relevance to politics. Our culture as a whole needs to take a turn away from this emphasis on “winning” but I don’t see it happening any time soon.

    Out of curiosity, I looked among quotes regarding winners v/s losers and they are indeed filled with the sting of intolerance, arrogance, and condemnation for the loser. For instance: “The winner is part of the solution. The loser is part of the problem.” Not everyone can be the “winner”. Call me crazy, but my attitude is that the winner is one who believes we have all won; one who is a model for achievement and good will. One who brings out the best in all of us. The loser is the one who believes that in order for him to win, others must lose. In competitions such as the Olympics, while there will be one Gold Medal Winner”, everyone that makes it into the competition is a winner for having the guts to work hard and try. All deserve recognition. The real losers are those with a gift or ability that do not TRY to use in the first place; those who do not use it for the good of others.
    Any “winner” that is chosen by the general public rather than an objective measurement of merit, is merely a reflection of those voting and their intelligence levels, tastes, and so on. Popularity is not a measure of one’s innate abilities or a guarentee of successful future performance. We have had past elections (names need not be mentioned) that prove this point. I have met certain so called winners and find their vanity to be distastful and unattractive, while I’ve also met those who would considered losers (not by choice but rather by circumstance) whose humbleness and humility far outweigh those at the top. Winning and losing can not be measured by looks, money, possessions, rank, status and so on. It is an attitude. The winner is not the one who crosses the line first, but rather the one who forfeits his chance to be victor by stopping and helping a fallen competitor.

    All so true! In search of excellence has gone way too far over the top – from sports to academics. I find there is very little regard being taught about those who aren’t the “best” or “the winner”….they are people with dreams too. We need to role model humanity to our kids and balance out the ever-present push to be the best.

    Awesome. Competition can do so much damage. ” Compete with Jones” What does it matter what everyone else has. Unfortunately for so many individuals it means a lot.