Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How to Keep Your Cool with Competitive People

These people skills will help you stand your ground.

We all have to deal with a competitive person at one time or another. Whether it's the neighbor whose holiday decorations always have to be more extravagant or the coworker who grabs the credit for every project, competitive people can provoke feelings of irritation, anxiety, or inadequacy.

You may end up questioning yourself or feeling that you didn't measure up to their level of wealth, talent or accomplishment. Or, in an effort to compete with them, you may end up spending extra time or money unnecessarily.

Why are some people so competitive?

  1. Fragile self-esteem. Research studies suggest that there are different kids of self-esteem. Some people may have a secure sense of self, regardless of the situation, whereas others may have unstable or fragile self-esteem that varies depending on their last accomplishment or whom they are able to impress. When they are doing well, they feel great and even superior to others, whereas when they encounter setbacks, they tend to feel shame and self-doubt. This results in anxiety and vigilance around social status and performance. They have to keep comparing themselves to others to make sure they are measuring up and haven't fallen behind.
  2. Scarce resources model. Some people have a model of relationships that is based on scarce resources. In other words, if you get something, there is less left for me. They have a survival mentality and may be jealous and controlling. The basis for this is often a deep insecurity about having their emotional needs met. They may have had parents who were critical, played favorites, or were unavailable or inattentive to their emotional needs. This model does not take into account the fact that humans are inherently social beings and that connection and cooperation with larger social groups can increase our personal and environmental resources. A scarce resources model reflects a kind of "black and white" thinking in that it divides people into separate categories and ignores common goals and experiences.
  3. Narcissism and sociopathy. Some competitive people may be pathologically narcissistic and self-centered, not seeing you as a separate human being, but more as a reflection or extension of themselves, a source of admiration for their accomplishments, a potential threat to their own success, or as an object to use or manipulate in order to meet their own needs or increase their resources. If they are also sociopathic, they may resort to manipulation, deception, intimidation, and abuse to neutralize or eliminate threats and competition. These saboteurs are the most difficult to deal with, particularly if they have power over you in a work or social group setting. These individuals tend to seek out positions in which they have power and control over others
  4. Competitive environments. All work environments involve some degree of competition. Healthy competition that is balanced with a sense of mutual respect and commitment to common goals can spur people to do their best work. However, if the competition involves nasty, sneaky, or otherwise ruthless behavior on an ongoing basis, this can undermine the health and performance of employees or group members. Research with animals suggests that those at the top of the hierarchy have better health if their leadership position is stable, but worse health if it is unstable. Constantly having to protect your position and territory against competitors can take a toll on the body and mind of humans as well. The current recession has resulted in fewer jobs and employment uncertainty that increase competitive pressures. Nationwide, we are seeing an increase in anxiety disorders and mental health problems.

What you can do

Below are some tips to help you cope with a competitive colleague, friend, or family member. The best strategy to use depends on what the situation is (e.g., friends vs work), the cost of not winning, and what you think are the person's motives. There is no cookie-cutter approach that always works. You need to keep monitoring if your strategy is working and try a different one if it isn't.

At work:

A competitive person at work who takes on extra work and responsibilities can be an asset to the whole team. Make sure that you have sufficient responsibilities to do your fair share and showcase your talents. If a team member goes beyond that, remember you have shared as well as individual goals, and praise their efforts. This may be what they're looking for to feel more comfortable and secure.

A sneaky competitor who tries to sabotage you or take credit for your work requires a different approach. Watch your back and use passwords to protect your information. Keep detailed records of your contributions and make sure to let your bosses know what you have done.

You may also want to confront the person directly to let them know you are on to them. If this isn't your style, let your boss know what is going on and steps you have already taken to address the problem.

This type of person may act friendly to get information out of you, so keep your guard up and minimize contact with them. Don't let them get you to react; always be one step ahead. You may want to let other colleagues know about the situation and ask for their support.

With friends and family:

Generally, people who are competitive about their houses, kids, dinner parties, and so on are either insecure or arrogant and want to prove superiority. If they are the insecure type, praising their accomplishments and staying calm and friendly may make them see you as an ally or as less of a threat. If they are arrogant, you may want to speak up and toot your own horn as well or change the subject when they start boasting. Arrogant people tend to be narcissistic and status-conscious, so if you exude confidence and appear to have high status and accomplishments, they are more likely to respect you. If this isn't your style, walk away and find a less self-centered person to talk to.

In general:

Try to figure out why this person is being competitive and what their needs and goals are. Also, see if there are any common goals that you can use to get them to work with you, rather than against you. Highlight the specific values and goals that you have in common, such as "We both want the best for our kids..." etc. Also, be a team player yourself to help them see the benefit of cooperation. It may help to suggest specific ways you can work together, such as: "Let's divvy up this job to avoid duplicating effort. What part would you like to do?" This strategy works better if the person can be trusted to do their share and not grab all the credit.

Whatever strategy you choose, be mindful of how this person may be triggering your own negative scripts and insecurities. Try to see the whole person and relationship, of which competitiveness may be only one aspect. Don't personalize the person's behavior or get too attached to making them change. This may be about their inner insecurities, not about you. Keep in mind the humanity that you share with this person and try to summon up compassion for both you and them. When you are centered and clear about who you are, difficult people become easier to deal with.

Be sure to check out my other blog, and don't forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter.

More from Melanie Greenberg Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today