In every arena of life, we have to compete with other people.
In school we are taught to compete for higher grades. At work we compete for career promotions or higher salaries. In most life situations there is another person also vying for what we want.
Whether we like it or not, our lives are full of competitive situations. And if you are a competitive person, this can either be a benefit or a curse.
If you are a competitive person, you will probably relate to a lot of what is in this article. If you’re not competitive by nature, it might sound like the ramblings of an insane person.
The question I want to try to answer here is ‘why am I so competitive?’ and ‘is there a way to stop being so competitive?’
My Life as a Competitive Person
For as long as I can remember, I have been an over-competitive person. As a young kid, I loved to beat my classmates on tests, or try to win at sports, and video games.
My brothers and I would play the board game Monopoly against each other for hours (and sometimes days) at a time. We would keep playing until someone was completely broke and the winner owned everything. Often the game would end in tears.
Why am I like this? Honestly, I think it comes down to a deep insecurity that I harbored. I was a pretty quiet, shy, awkward kid. I wasn’t really popular or cool by most kid’s standards. So I looked for ways to feel special, to feel validated in my life.
Whenever I was ‘good’ at something – school work, sports, video games – then that thing became my life. I would push myself harder than other people to get better results. I would study longer, and face more setbacks just to prove I was the ‘best’.
On the one hand, being competitive was a good thing, and led me to create success in some areas of my life, but it also limited me greatly in others.
Personally, it took me until my mid-30s to start to understand that being too competitive is not good for mental health. Unhealthy competition leads to low self esteem and insecurity. It can also isolate you from friends, family, coworkers and limit your long term success.
The Benefits and Drawbacks of Being Competitive
What I’ve learned is that there are distinct benefits of being competitive with others, as well as some serious drawbacks.
Benefit: being competitive drives you to get incredible results. You push yourself well beyond what most people will attempt, and often won’t quit until you’re the best at something.
Drawback: Competitiveness makes you obsessive, jealous, and resentful. You find it hard to actually be happy for the success of others, and you can’t let go of a loss or have anxiety at being seen as ‘less’ than another person.
A competitive spirit can be both healthy and unhealthy. It depends on how our intrinsic motivation is driving us.
The Psychology of Being Competitive
There is a lot of psychology that backs up the reasons why we tend to be competitive. A 1998 study for the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization showed that people feel better about themselves knowing they earn more money than their peers.
Another 2015 study from Frontiers of Psychology showed that people who believed they were competing against others demonstrated faster reaction times, and put forth greater effort.
Of course, there is a downside to competition and hyper competitiveness as well. According to Good Therapy “Excessive competition can also hurt the individual. A person may spend so much effort training to succeed that they neglect other parts of their life, such as friendship or hobbies. This can quickly lead to burnout and isolation.”
A 2022 study from The Journal of Research on Adolescence showed that as children grow into teenagers, their tendency to compete grows, and their desire to be cooperative declines. This is due ‘an increase in public evaluation and concerns about social comparison’. Taken to excess, competitiveness in teenagers can lead to anxiety, depression, jealousy, and low self esteem.
Although many of the studies related articles around competitiveness are focused on small groups, the reality is that in normal everyday life competition is part of what we must contend with.
Healthy competition is all around us, whether driving in a car, vying for a promotion, or trying to get a date with someone we are attracted to. We also love watching athletes play a competitive sport and cheering on our team.
Learning to navigate through life while curbing your competitive streak is a great way to find balance and find more fulfillment.
Do People Have to Be Competitive in Order to Succeed?
It does seem that a competitive mindset helps people achieve their goals in business, sports, and other areas of achievement.
There are many examples of highly successful people who are also extremely competitive people.
Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan, and Larry Ellison are all known for being obsessively competitive in their fields. These high profile competitive people use their failures as fuel to do better and eventually beat their competition.
However, all three men are also known for being extremely difficult to deal with on a personal level at times. Steve Jobs in particular was known for his rudeness, intolerance, and emotional outbursts if he felt something wasn’t the ‘best’ it could possibly be.
Of course, there are many examples of people who are not competitive who also succeed over the long term. People like Warren Buffett and Bill Murray are examples of people who seem to focus more on the process rather than the result, and achieve great results.
What are the Signs of a Competitive Person?
If you are wondering if you are too competitive in life, it’s good to take a look at your behavior. There do seem to be typical traits that competitive people have in common.
Here are five common signs that you’re a competitive person.
- You want to outdo or ‘beat’ others either in personal achievements or in business
- You’re not interested in games where there is no clear winner or loser
- You constantly check on how others are performing and tend to compare yourself to them
- You enjoy when someone says you ‘can’t do something’ and proving them wrong
- You find it hard to accept someone did better than you
Very often when someone is too competitive, they will experience a lot of negative emotion or act like a sore loser if they don’t win. They can’t let go of the fact somebody else has outdone them.
Again, while these behaviors can help to drive you and create success there is a cost to your ambitions, and competitive behavior.
Is Being too Competitive a Weakness?
Alfie Kohn, a prolific author and expert on the subject of healthy parenting, and building confidence for kids is against competition in schools.
In his book ‘The Case Against Competition’ he suggests that competition can become a recipe for hostility, and can reduce self esteem.
As Kohn explains “Studies have shown that feelings of self-worth become dependent on external sources of evaluation as a result of competition: Your value is defined by what you’ve done.”
On the flipside, the CIAP, which is part of Carleton University argues that “Competition not only helps businesses thrive but anyone involved in the process of competing, in any industry, will be persistently learning new skills.”
Of course there is no clear cut answer to whether competition is healthy, or competition is a bad thing. Each person has to make up their own mind about competitive activity in their life.
How Do I Stop Being So Competitive?
In my own experience, there is a healthy way to channel your competitiveness and to slowly quell your competitive nature.
Here are three ways that I have learned to reduce negative feelings, and find more enjoyment and stop being so competitive.
1) Realize there is no ‘scorecard’ in life
A lot of the time, a person with a competitive streak will be driven to ‘rate’ themselves against people around them. They may want to make more money, achieve bigger goals, or find ways to appear to have higher status than people around them.
The reality is that no matter how much you achieve personally, it doesn’t affect the life and value of anybody else. There is nobody keeping score in life, or ranking people against each other.
Letting go of this idea of rating yourself or keeping a scorecard can lead to a more balanced sense of motivation. It can also help to reduce feelings of envy, jealousy, and resentment.
2) Collaboration Gets You Further
Often our natural competitiveness can make us believe we need to do everything ourselves. This is especially true of entrepreneurs and high-achievers who value independence. We think that other people will somehow gain an advantage over us if we ask for help.
Of course, the reality is that nothing in the modern world is achieved without collaborating with others. We are part of a larger society and world that is completely interdependent.
While hard work on our own can lead to some success, the larger results only come when we collaborate with others.
Collaboration and cooperation is a great thing, and helps us all to do better in life. Even though it seems to fly in the face of a competitive mindset, it actually helps us rise to greater heights.
3) Focus on Your Development, Not Results
The problem with being highly competitive is that you put a lot of emphasis and value on achieving the result. You tend to forget about the self improvement that you gain as a results of the hard work you have put in along the way.
One of the misconceptions of failure is that if you don’t get the result you want, that all your efforts have been a total waste. The truth is that even though you might come up short at times, you are still growing and developing in skills and experience.
Focus on your long term development and how you are growing as a person. This will nullify the sense of insecurity that can come from a failure or setback.
Keep Competitiveness In Check
As with most things in life, a healthy balanced mindset can be a great asset to overcome competitiveness.
Knowing that ‘you can’t win ‘em all’ is key to having less stress and frustration. Having an abundance mindset and realizing that there is enough reward and recognition to go around is also valuable.
While competitive people do seem to get ahead in some arenas of life, there is immense value in tempering your competitiveness and realizing that there is more to life than always trying to win.
The next time you feel your competitive side taking over, remember:
Let it go, and let yourself grow.