People can get quite competitive when it comes to New Year’s resolutions—but making an effort to minimize your own competitiveness may be the best resolution of them all.
If you’ve noticed that competitiveness has negative effects on your interpersonal relationships, then it’s worth noting that competition between adults is only the tip of the iceberg. Acting competitively as a parent can have a destructive effect on children, according to Alfie Kohn, author of “No Contest: The Case Against Competition.”
“Research shows that living with someone who is competitive is associated with less empathy in children,” he says. “The more we want to raise caring, psychologically healthy kids, the more we have to emphasize cooperation rather than competition—and that means being aware of the potentially damaging effects of our own need to beat people.”
Kohn says competitiveness isn’t a strength, but rather a sign that “something is amiss psychologically speaking.” He says a person who is overly competitive needs to succeed at the expense of others’ failure.
“It’s a desperate—and ultimately futile—quest to feel better about oneself by triumphing over other people,” he says.
We talked to Kohn and several more experts to find out how to tame the competitive beast.
1. Recognize that you have a problem.
“There’s no surefire way to overcome or even hide the deep-rooted problem of competitiveness, but the first step is to recognize that it IS a problem, which isn’t easy in a culture that confuses excellence with victory,” Kohn says. “But the stakes are high, especially for parents, because of the proven destructive effects of competition on children.”
2. Focus on achieving your individual goals and becoming your best self, rather than beating out others.
Kathi Elster, consultant, coach and co-author of “Mean Girls at Work: How to Stay Professional When Things Get Personal,” says to look for constructive ways to compete, such as getting a promotion or creating a presentation that stands out. “See yourself as a long-distance runner who’s going to outdistance the competition rather than try to take them down,” she advises.
3. Practice mindfulness in stressful situations; don’t just react.
If you feel your competitive impulses taking over, stop and take a deep breath, says Dr. Melanie Greenberg, a psychologist and writer in Marin County, Calif. Give yourself a little space and time to observe the situation. Greenberg says to ask yourself, “What do you feel in your body? Are you being kind to yourself or others? Or are you just being mindlessly reactive? Regroup and make a conscious decision about what you want from the situation and how you want to act.”
4. Identify your core values and make sure your behavior is aligned with these values.
Audrey Grunst, a licensed clinical social worker and clinical site director for Insight Behavioral Health Centers‘ Northbrook location, says it’s important to remind yourself of your most important values in order to keep from getting sidelined in competitions that don’t serve you—or worse, are destructive. Surround yourself with people who have similar values as much as possible, she says. Talking over competitive situations with your partner, for example, can help you keep things in perspective and remind you of what’s really important.
5. Look for common ground and try to find ways to collaborate.
In a competitive situation, Greenberg recommends considering how the other person is similar to you—perhaps you have needs or struggles in common. Or perhaps you’ve both been under a lot of stress lately. “Tune into this recognition of common humanity or common suffering and let this awareness create compassion for both the other person and you,” she says. Then, consider whether or not there are goals that you have in common, such as wanting your group to succeed—goals that you can work toward together.
6. Address the underlying roots of your competitiveness.
Competitiveness can be a symptom of underlying insecurity, Greenberg says. “It’s important to acknowledge where those feelings come from so you can find healthier and more direct ways to meet your needs, when it comes to feeling worthwhile or respected,” she says. If your competitiveness is really out of hand, it might be worth talking with a therapist.
7. Don’t ever let a situation get ugly.
Ultimately, acting out in a competitive way can hurt your reputation. “It’s important to manage your competitive side because you don’t want it to come out covertly, leading you to do things like badmouthing a colleague, or stealing credit for their work, or any number of things that make you look bad,” Elster says. Furthermore, Greenberg says that making enemies drains your emotional energy and takes focus away from your goals. Overall, she recommends moving away from the “scarce resources” model: More for someone doesn’t necessarily mean less for you.