Why Anger and Shame May Fuel Your Competitive Drive
When social comparison can foster anger, shame and unhealthy competition.
Posted Jun 03, 2018
“My primary care physician referred me because he believes my symptoms are stress related. I’ve had increased anxiety, headaches, back pain and acid reflux. He might be right. I work in a high-pressure firm and have for ten years. But I just haven’t been myself for the last few months.”
James is a lawyer with whom I met several years ago. While physical symptoms of stress precipitated his seeking help, he soon acknowledged depressive thoughts such as, “I just don’t have the drive I use to have. The work isn’t as rewarding as it used to be and I’m feeling a little disoriented in my life right now.”
During the initial sessions, James reported that he had always been fiercely competitive, an intensity of competitiveness that was highly rewarded in his field and especially in his firm. And, as he emphasized, his hard work led him to achieve great financial success.
James was married and with two children, one five-year-old boy and a nine-month-old girl. Two years prior to moving into his new home, his father, also a lawyer, suddenly passed away from a heart attack.
Further discussion with James revealed that he was always driven and intensely competitive, especially in high school, through college and in his career. He described always comparing his success with others in his field and even with his father. James also reported that his competitive drive was consistently associated with anger. He became angry with the success of others and elated when he surpassed them. These reactions were at times manifested in his interactions with colleagues and, for a while, interfered with his promotion to partner. He reported having few friends other than some of the partners in the firm.
James is certainly not unique in making what psychologists have come to describe as “social comparisons”. Most of us have at times compared ourselves to others, most often with regard to attributes that we deem most relevant for the comparison. When doing so we sort of rank order ourselves with others–regarding a range of qualities that might include weight, height, intelligence, physical skills, wealth, attractiveness, personality and values.
Comparing ourselves with others can be a good thing. It offers us a sense of our standing in the world. Some of these comparisons offer us values and attitudes that we may choose to cultivate as part of our evolving identity. Additionally, we may draw on these comparisons to evaluate our own opinions about others, the world in general and about ourselves.
According to social comparison theory these comparisons inform us regarding our self-worth (Brickman & Bulman, 1977). If we are prone to feel sufficiently secure and positive in our self-worth, we can make these comparisons without feeling threatened by them. Those whom we deem as being superior to us may inspire us toward individual growth.
The Challenges of Social Comparison
However, some individuals may be prone to feel “less than”–rooted in shame and self-loathing. As such, a negative self-assessment following social comparisons may only reinforce feelings of shame as well as anger, with others and oneself.
Shame and anger may result from not living up to our expectations, not being perfect and not feeling “good enough”. Some of us may channel our anger inward, reflected in a “tough love” internal voice that is consistently critical and judgmental.
As with James, such shame and anger may then provide the fuel for intense competition. The constellation of these feelings may contribute to feelings of isolation and further increase any sense one has of shame and being unlovable. Some may direct their anger inward. Some may display general hostility and even violence toward others, toward those of “higher ranking” who foster their self-perception of inferiority.
Resolving the impact of a negative self-assessment
By contrast, suffering induced by social comparison may lead some individuals to engage in self-enhancement. They may distort, deny or minimize the information provided by such comparisons. Such distortion may inflate their feelings of self-worth, positive self-esteem that rests on always having to view others as inferior to them. This may only further fuel their compulsion to compete and come out “on top” when evaluating themselves against others.
Some individuals may be so highly competitive and feel so deficient in their social comparison that they minimize, deny or suppress their desire to compete. Additionally, this withdrawal from competing may also impact their desire for acceptance and connection. This makes sense when interactions so frequently foster overall feelings of inadequacy. In part, this contributed to James’s lack of close friends.
Embracing self-improvement is another approach for dealing with the negative self-evaluations aroused by social comparison. This may encompass building emotional resilience, which includes the ability to sit with and move past negative feelings that arise from a negative self-evaluation resulting from social comparison.
Alternatively, self-improvement may be grounded in compulsive competition, fueled by anger with others and with oneself. It may reflect ongoing hostility with oneself for not belonging, for not “measuring up” and for not being perfect. The potential for such self-degradation may be especially strong when impacted by global or “black and white” thinking patterns. This fosters an inner dialogue such as “If I’m not perfect, I’m a failure.”
Compulsive competition versus healthy competition
Certainly, being competitive can fuel motivation and behaviors that lead to great success. However, overly intense perfectionism associated with such motivation may predominately focus on extrinsic measures of success–such as wealth, fame, or possessions.
This stands in sharp contrast to success based on a self-assessment that is more intrinsically grounded–an assessment based on a comparison between ourselves and the guidelines and guideposts that we have defined for ourselves.
Self-improvement that follows this course fosters healthy individuation, trust in oneself that honors oneself, even when acknowledging the differences observed by self-comparison. Consequently, relying less on social comparison to form a “measure” of ourselves reduces the potential for feeling less than.
With or without awareness, many individuals whose competition is predominantly fueled by anger and shame remain reactive in their pursuit of self-improvement. Each step toward improvement and achievement may be grounded in the determination to prove one’s worthiness to others and to oneself. Each success is sought after in an effort to move them beyond the experience of shame and feeling “less than”. Their movement and energy are fueled by flight away from potential suffering rather than toward the intrinsic joy of engaging in a task, mastery and accomplishment.
The price James paid for this dynamic was reflected in his physical symptoms as well as depression and anxiety. His seeking help came about by a referral from his primary care physician. This is often how such individuals come for counseling. More importantly, however, several major changes in his life led him to feel disoriented and to even question the meaning that had become a part of his identity.
In the course of treatment, James revealed that he had not dealt well with his father’s passing. Additionally, he felt somewhat overwhelmed following the birth of his second child. And, perhaps most poignantly, he reported not feeling as happy as he had anticipated he would feel following his becoming a partner at this firm.
For many of us, our competitive nature is driven by an intense desire for connection that includes acceptance and recognition. And while the desire for connection with one’s peers may be a part of the motivation, a parent’s acceptance may in some cases be the more powerful driving force for the compulsive need to be superior to others. In such situations, our emotional mind concludes that being the very best in our achievements will gain us the love and connection that we did not experience in our early years.
For others, the obsession of exceptional achievement and perfection served as a distraction from feeling the pain of earlier wounds. It’s no surprise then, if these individuals make it to therapy, they frequently fear letting go of strategies that have helped to protect them from the raw sting of their pain. Additionally, they may fear that they will soon lose their competitive edge if they question their expectations. And, as with anyone seeking to create change in their lives, the invitation for self-reflection may be experienced as threatening to an identity that has helped to provide a positive and stable sense of self.
At times, situational factors might also contribute to heightened competition and social comparison. For example, a major loss of a relationship, a job, the deterioration in one’s health or even retirement may precipitate a loss of self-worth that fosters such comparison.
As with James, it often takes a major life change or challenge for individuals to question themselves regarding overly intense competition and strivings for achievement that are fueled by anger and shame. Such events may push them toward recognizing and experiencing some of the suffering that lies dormant–below the radar of their awareness. For this reason, it is inherent that such clients are helped to recognize the very positive aspects of their competitive drive.
Such clients need to be helped to identify and move past old wounds. It requires recognizing and acknowledging past loss, sadness and anger. As with much of moving on from the past, it requires developing increased empathy and compassion with their former selves and the development of more realistic expectations. Doing so can open them to increased flexibility in their mindset, one that fosters greater connection with themselves and other.
In this manner, clients can be helped to embrace their strengths and make peace with their weaknesses. Most importantly, they can be helped to develop a more positive sense of self-worth grounded in a more fluid and mindful sense of self-comparison.
Through this process they can learn that being human means we have faults, flaws and make mistakes. They can be helped to recognize that success, measured by our wealth, possessions or fame cannot make them feel lovable. And that growing to accept ourselves, both our failures and successes, offer us a more sustained experience of feeling lovable.
And in the process they can learn to derive greater intrinsic satisfaction regarding mastery and achievement. Through this process, as with James, they can develop more realistic expectations of themselves be less prone to anger and, consequently become more open to healthy competition and greater connection with others and themselves.
Brickman, P. and Bulman, R. (1977). Pleasure and Pain in Social Comparison Processes: Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives, eds. Suls, J. and Miller, R. Hemisphere, p. 149-186.