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Asbury Park Psychotherapy Associates
Mimi da Silva, Ph.D., L.P.C., A.C.S., D.A.P.A.
LGBT Issues • Anxiety • Depression • Relationship Issues

501 Grand Avenue - Asbury Park, NJ 07712  •  (732) 823-2225  •  mdasilva@asburyparktherapy.com   Facebook LogoTwitter Logo

When Competition Is Unhealthy

How many of us played a sport, played in a musical competition, baked for a baking competition, wrote for a poetry competition, or ate hot dogs on the 4th of July to see who was the “best”? Probably most of us have at some point in our lives. Do you remember how you felt (or still feel)? Nervous? Confident? Overconfident? Full of dread? Again, I would imagine most of us would have felt all – or at least, some – of those feelings in different competitive situations. For the most part, competition can be healthy, fun, character building, and a great teacher of humility and grace. There are times, however, when competition can become unhealthy.
Healthy competition suggests that the person strives to do his/her best, with the understanding that no one is going to perform at optimal levels 100% of the time. Giving the task at hand our best – whether it be an essay, a conversation, a sports match, or any other kind of competition – is healthy competition at its pinnacle. On the other hand, competition that focuses only on outcome can have seriously detrimental effects on children and adults alike. Emphasizing winning at all cost, coming in first in a race, being the first person to finish a test, eating the most hot dogs, etc. puts extraordinary pressure on the individual, and in turn creates an atmosphere in those who are not first or always on the winning team a feeling of being inferior, not good enough, or even worthless. Over time, these individuals may become sad, discouraged, and even depressed. Similarly, the demands of always being first or winning every game, can create so much anxiety that the individual becomes disinterested, unmotivated, and apathetic.
Secondly, healthy competition involves embracing the process of learning how to be a good sport. This includes encouraging others (teammates or opponents) to do their best, congratulating someone on a job well done, and genuine appreciation for the skill and work that was involved in the person achieving some goal or milestone. Unhealthy competition is quite the opposite. Criticizing a teammate for a botched play, not accepting responsibility for one’s own lack of effort, or saying that the evaluation process was “unfair” or somehow biased again focuses only on outcome. Likewise, the person who always boasts about how superior he or she is at whatever task only alienates the others around him or her.
Lastly, healthy competition tends to bring to light what skills an individual has and what improvements could be made. Unhealthy competition, on the other hand, feeds off of comparisons. Statements like “You’re so much better than she is at writing” or “He’s so much better than I am on defense” are counterproductive and can lead to negative self-talk and self-defeating behaviors.
Winning is great, of course. However, there may be more to learn from the process of losing (in whatever form), particularly if it leads to self-examination, realistic self-appraisal, and authentic desire to improve one’s self as well as develop appreciation for others’ gifts and talents. With those skills, interpersonal relationships are bound to improve, as well, as the process of competition teaches all of us that in the end, we each possess a unique set of skills, preferences, desires, and experiences – none being any better than anyone else’s.