Being competitive can have an ugly connotation in our society. It has become, in some ways, synonymous with greed, envy and narcissism. But feeling competitive isn’t always about climbing the ladder, winning the race or getting ahead. Competitive feelings are completely natural. Moreover, they’re unavoidable. Like it or not, we all feel competitive a lot of the time.
Most of us are uncomfortable with our competitiveness. Competitive thoughts are rarely nice. They’re usually exaggerated, and often, unsettling. And why wouldn’t they be? Competing itself is, by nature, fairly uncomfortable. Nevertheless, allowing ourselves to feel our competitive feelings cleanly and directly is not only acceptable; it’s actually healthy. Our competitive feelings are an indication of what we want, and acknowledging what we want is key to getting to know ourselves.
Competitive feelings don’t discriminate. They can be felt toward distant strangers or our closest friends: that attractive co-worker we’ve only heard about or our best friend since we were toddlers. However, because these feelings often feel unacceptable to us, we tend to ward them off or disguise them in ways that can be hurtful to ourselves and to others. When we suppress these feelings, we leave them to fester and impact us in a variety of negative ways.
It’s important to get comfortable with our competitive feelings. We can do this by recognizing that thoughts and feelings are separate from actions. We can allow ourselves to feel whatever we feel, then choose how we behave. By applying this principle to our competitive feelings, we can avoid their many negative manifestations. These include:
Cynicism—When we fail to acknowledge our competitive feelings, we are more likely to become cynical. This may sound counter-intuitive. Wouldn’t putting someone else down or wanting what they have make us more cynical? Actually, competitiveness is very different from cynicism. Cynicism arises when we won’t accept our competitive feelings simply for what they are. If, for example, our boss was to acknowledge a co-worker in a meeting, we may think, “Wait! I want that recognition. I work just as hard and am worthy of just as much praise.” We may turn against our co-worker, “What a kiss up! She doesn’t even deserve this. She’s barely competent. Why am I even trying at this company when idiots like her reap all the rewards?”
When this less-than-pleasant thought process arises, we can take one of two courses. We can accept that we are competitive. We can feel outright that we want acknowledgment in our career. When we let ourselves experience these feelings, fully and directly, in the moment, we can more easily move on. We can even channel these feelings into being more motivated, working harder or setting specific goals for ourselves.
On the flip side, we can distort our competitive feelings into cynicism. We can allow them to well up or fester within us. We can confuse them with our real point of view or turn against the person with whom we feel competitive. Instead of seeing that we simply want what the person is getting and moving on, we can engage in a destructive thought process that negatively colors the world we live in.
Gossip—When we deny our competitive feelings, we may slowly start to distort those around us through a negative lens. Gossip is a way we attempt to release or relieve our anger or cynicism. Instead of feeling competitive with that very attractive woman who is friendly and confident in her demeanor, we may comment on her “slutty style” or refer to her as a “phony tease.” We may even gossip about people close to us, saying one thing to their face and another behind their back.
Our feelings toward a person aren’t black or white. In fact, the people we most respect are the people we are bound to feel most competitive with. We can be happy for them and hate them all at the same time – often for the same thing. We may be thrilled that they just bought their stunning dream house and simultaneously wish that it would get termites. If we face our feelings directly, we can get some relief, even laugh them off. If we don’t, we may start taking less respectful actions, maybe calling our friend a “social climber” when he isn’t around or criticizing his “materialistic goals” or “superficial interests” to a mutual friend. This commentary or gossip may feel good in the moment, but it leaves us feeling pretty lousy within ourselves.
Self-denial—One of the worst results of denying our competitive feelings is that it can cause us to reject what we really want in life. Because feelings of desire or jealousy make us uncomfortable, we may pretend that we don’t want whatever we once longed for anymore. If someone we had a crush on goes out with someone else or if a job we interviewed for falls through, we can easily turn against ourselves and become self-denying. Instead of thinking, “I really wanted that, and I’m furious that I didn’t get it,” we might think, “I don’t even care. I never really wanted that. I’m not going to put myself out there to embarrass myself again.” When we engage in this pattern, we become increasingly passive. Rather than going after what we desire, we avoid it, all in the interest of denying our “unacceptable” competitive feelings.
Jealousy—Competitive feelings can be full of jealousy. Allowing ourselves to have competitive thoughts will not leave us falling victim to unstoppable fits of envy or suspicion. When we hold back our healthy and natural competitive feelings, we strengthen the negative parts of those feelings –jealousy included. Instead of building a case against someone, we can face the reality of our feelings and adopt a healthier attitude.
For example, a guy I know recently revealed to me a thought process he went through at a party with his girlfriend. He noticed that she was happily chatting with other people, including a few men throughout the night. At first he thought, “She is totally flirting with my friend. Why does she light up around him? Is she more into him than me? I should just dump her before she makes a fool out of me.”
At a certain point, he realized that what he was really feeling was competitive. He wanted her to respond to him the way she was responding to other people at the party. His thinking quickly changed to, “I love when she is fun like this. I want to share that with her.” Instead of listening to the voice in his head that told him to pull away and act cold to her, he joined her and engaged in joking around with her. By being lighthearted and fun himself, she was naturally drawn to him, and they were both able to feel closer and happier with each other. If he’d acted on his jealous insecurities, rather than admitting he felt competitive, he would have achieved just the opposite.
Self-hatred—Another risk of burying our competitive feelings is that we may turn them around and use them to feel bad about ourselves. A straightforward competitive thought like, “I hate that he is so smart and always says the right thing,” may turn into an attack toward ourselves like, “You are so stupid. You never know what to say. He is so much more engaging than you.” When we turn against our competitive feelings, we turn against ourselves. We feel ashamed of who we are and what we want. Instead of seeking to emulate the people we admire, we simply tear ourselves down in relation to them.
With so many negative manifestations of suppressing our direct competitive feelings, how can we face them more honestly and make sure to use them in healthy ways? First of all, we have to remember that feeling competitive is not about letting these emotions take over or ruminating in negative thoughts. It’s about accepting our naturally occurring competitive responses, feeling them fully and moving on. We can accept that we have these feelings a lot of the time. We can even have fun with them, letting ourselves have the nastiest thought possible, then letting that thought go.
Doing this as an exercise can feel clean, healthy and even refreshing. As illustrated by the above examples, when we suppress our competitive feelings, they have a way of seeping into and influencing our behavior. Yet, each time we acknowledge that we have these thoughts, we can consciously choose how we want to act. We can be much more proactive in becoming the best version of ourselves, both accepting ourselves and evolving, as the motivated (and competitive) individuals that we inherently are.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org