i realized something this weekend. my family is competitive and not in a good way.
looking back, i should have seen the signs. my therapist told me she thought the conclusion was obvious yet until i had the thought this weekend, i couldn’t see the behaviour for what it was.
i knew we were competitive when playing games. winning is everything in my family – how you play is less relevant, and “friendly” insults fly furiously. i didn’t realize that the behaviour stretched to non-gaming time as well.
i didn’t realize that it was competitiveness that underpinned so many of the behaviours that i find disturbing.
it was a small thing that lead to my realization. i’d shown my mother a piece of writing i’d done. i’d shown it to others as well and submitted it for marks in the class i’m taking. it got a good reception; people liked it and my professor called it a “slam dunk”. i didn’t stop grinning for an hour.
i showed it to my mother at her request, after sharing the good news about my grade. i generally don’t show my family things that i do because i don’t get what i need. i don’t get positive support or props, i get corrective feedback and criticism, though ostensibly, it’s the constructive kind. i’m usually left convinced that i’ll never be more than an also-ran in whatever it is i’m attempting.
this time though, it didn’t get to that point. she was reading my paper, making suggestions and questioning word choices and i could feel myself getting tense. that’s when i realized that i was feeling attacked. that’s when i realized i was feeling judged. i felt like i was in a competition and i felt like i was losing. it felt like my mother was trying to make some kind of point about my skill set. her feedback made me feel like she was trying to prove she was “better” at writing.
the thought was odd, but once i accepted it, it was also quite liberating. it allowed me to distance myself from the inevitable outcome, which was not fulsome praise but a summation of how i could’ve improved and done better. this time though, it didn’t hurt as much. the awareness of what was underneath the behaviour helped.
i wondered though, where does competitiveness come from?
what is it to be competitive?
when someone is being competitive, it’s generally because they’re trying to prove they’re better than someone else. looking for “better” is fine when you’re trying to decide what kind of car to buy. it’s not a good way to be with people. we don’t need to rank ourselves. when you try, you start to notice that there’s always someone you perceive as being “better”. if you tie your sense of self-worth to a ranking system, you’ll never feel sufficient.
the kind of competitiveness that i experience with my family is a passive-aggressive, “undermining your confidence” type of behaviour. much of what i do gets belittled, often in the form of humour. i end up feeling defensive, braced against “funny” comments about my life and choices. often, i’ll try to get there first and this behaviour carries over, even when i’m by myself. self-deprecation is an old habit. the rule is “mock yourself first before anyone else can”. this does not lead to a positive mental state and it’s a habit i need to break, regardless of the laughs i can generate.
the competitive behaviour also extends to boundary violations. my requests are ignored because other people think they know best. this disregard can be seen in my family’s unwillingness to adhere to requests i make regarding unsolicited gifts of food. i find it challenging as i work on my recovery from an eating disorder to deal with food i haven’t purchased or that isn’t part of my eating plan. yet my family members regularly arrive with baked goods “just because”, chocolate because i like it, and leftover bits of this and that come with a side of advice, such as “you don’t have to eat it if you don’t want to” and “just have a bite and leave the rest like i do.” they’re doing recovery better than me even though for them, having an eating disorder was not their thing. they still seem to know more about it than i do, though.
where does the competitiveness come from?
i was hashing it out with my counsellor and we agreed that competitiveness comes from a couple of places. one thing we came up with is the idea of scarcity. people compete when they believe that there isn’t enough for everyone. the “what” doesn’t matter, what’s important is the belief that there isn’t enough for everyone and only one person can “win”. competitiveness shows up when they believe that someone else doing well diminishes them in some way.
it’s an odd mindset and one that most of us struggle with. it’s hard to believe there’s enough to go around. it’s hard to step away from binary evaluations – if they’re doing well, i must be doing poorly. the truth is, there’s enough. if i achieve something, it doesn’t mean there’s less for anyone else. if i write something well, it doesn’t mean that someone else’s writing is awful. we are independent entities; my achievements don’t take away from anyone else’s nor do theirs harm me.
a scarcity mindset creates division and separation. you can’t work with someone, you can’t connect and co-operate if everyone believes they are on a different and competing team.
competitiveness is also connected to self-esteem and insecurity. it’s hard to believe you’re enough when you have a damaged sense of self. my grandmother did not treat my mother well; she spent most of her life abusing her, belittling her, and criticizing her. consequently, my mother’s sense of self is dependent on positive feedback from others. it’s also comparative. for her to be doing well means that the person she’s comparing herself to can’t be. otherwise, in her mind, she doesn’t measure up. i completely relate, unfortunately. i compare just about every aspect of my life with those around me, be they friends or strangers. how i feel about myself is dependent on these evaluations. the underlying belief is that i have to do better and be better than others to feel okay about myself. it’s not a good way to live.
can being competitive be good?
being competitive isn’t always bad. competitiveness can act like a spur. it can spark a desire to work on yourself and your goals, and to advance in the direction you’re pursuing. it can motivate you to try harder and to change bad habits. these are good things. being competitive can be a boon when you use it to drive personal growth.
the bad comes when you start judging yourself regarding your progress. the bad comes when it becomes comparative. in my experience, judging yourself never works out well.
don’t play the comparison game and if others act like it’s a competition, refuse to play.