Early in my life, I developed the belief that life is a competition. When I was four and a half years old, my brother was born. At some point after that, I began subconsciously competing with him for attention and praise. I guess that’s normal for the first child to struggle to adjust to having a sibling. But, I look back as an adult and wonder why I ever felt the need to compete. Our parents often encouraged, supported, and praised us for our own unique talents and skills. They never, as far as I can remember, pitted us against each other or made comparisons. Somehow, though, I wanted to be able to do everything that my brother did (and as effortlessly). In my mind, he was more adventurous, more precocious, smarter, more musically gifted, more of a visionary. And that meant (in my child and teenage brain): “My brother is better than me.”
As a counselor who practices Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, I now recognize the faulty logic that lay beneath my automatic thoughts. Somehow I equated “different” with “better” and “better” with “more deserving of love”. If my brother was better, he deserved more love. Thus, if I wanted more love (and somehow, I always wanted more), I needed to be better. And so, my competitive side was born.
Competition can be healthy. Competition with ourselves can motivate us to set goals and work towards achievements we didn’t know were possible. But competition with others most often leads to useless comparisons, ignorance of one’s unique talents/skills, and painful feelings (resentment, discouragement, and burnout).
Competition is still a driving force in my life. It is often invigorating and motivating, but the one area in which I still experience unhealthy competition is with my physical body. At the gym this morning, I noticed a drastic dip in my mood. I had started my workout feeling healthy and strong. A half an hour later, I realized I was thinking dark thoughts and feeling depressed. I did a quick check-in and realized I had spent the past half hour staring at a woman who was working out on the treadmill in front of me. This woman has a physical body type that I have idealized. Instead of noticing her and telling myself, “I am healthy and strong even though I don’t look like that”, I was telling myself, “Unless I look like that, I’m not healthy or strong”. So, it was no wonder my mood took a dive. This competitive streak gets ridiculous at times; I’ve been disappointed in myself when I couldn’t lift or press the same amount of weight as some of my male friends in the gym. The rational side of my brain knows this is impossible; but some part of me wants to prove myself. To what end? Praise? Attention? Love?
One thing I’m learning as I develop healthy body image is self-compassion. Self-compassion makes no room for competition. Self-compassion says, “I see how you are now and I love you how you are now.” Self-compassion says (to paraphrase Maya Angelou) “You did what you knew how to do and when you knew better you did better”. How can we cultivate self-compassion and let go of the need to compete? Let’s consider this today.
Peace, joy, health, and self-compassion,