Nothing wrong with (un)healthy competition?

It always feels good to pass other people.

Two days ago, I ran the Broad Street Run for the second time. One month after a back injury and not training as hard as I would have wanted to, I managed to shave over two minutes off my time from last year. Unlike last year, I didn’t almost puke at the finish line. And while there is always a sense of camaraderie among runners and races as large as the Broad Street 10 miler, this year, seeing thousands of runners wearing red socks in support of Boston made this race more about coming together as a community than about competition.

So why was I mildly disappointed by my time? After all, I had set my own personal record for a 10 mile race, and I had just come off a back injury! And sure, I passed fellow racers in the first mile, the 5th mile, and passed several racers in my sprint to the finish line. All things considered, I should have been thrilled just to finish the race without exacerbating a pre-existing condition.

As children, we’re often told that if we just try our best, we’ll be successful and happy. But we aren’t really taught how to cope with what happens when the best isn’t good enough. Everybody loses at something at some point in their lives. And unless you’ve set a world record, you’ll never be the best at anything (and even those records get broken). But still, we compete. We strive to beat an arbitrary number, or at least to finish the race faster than some girl in high school that you haven’t spoken to in years. We put in hours of hard work and effort for those straight A’s, because we’ve internalized good grades as the pathway to success. We need to win that game to show the other team that we are stronger. Faster. Smarter. More attractive. Because we need that internal (and external) validation that we’re good enough. Or at least that we’re better than you.

Now, I’m not saying competitiveness is unequivocally “bad” and I’ve seen it used in productive ways. And when you know how to properly deal with not being the best, it can save you hours of time and mental resources. But working in eating disorders, I’ve witnessed competitiveness manifest itself in the most unhealthy of ways. Competition to stay ill in the midst of recovery. Who could be the thinnest? The sickest? The one wearing the baggiest clothes? The most symptomatic? The one who’s had the most inpatient stays? (Of  course, not all patients engaged in unhealthy competition, and some used their competitive nature in a productive way to get healthier). Though the purpose of the group setting is to build a larger network of support, it can encourage unhealthy competition in a manner that is detrimental to one’s physical and mental health. And while not everyone takes competition to that level, I can definitely recall plenty of times when competitiveness has taken a toll on my mental state (and if anyone reading this can honestly say they have never have felt the negative effects of competition, I’ll give them 5 bucks).

I am entering a career that encourages acceptance, support for oneself and others, and positive change. But even that’s difficult to acknowledge when you, your classmates, and recent graduates from other schools in the area are all vying for the same entry-level, $30,000/year job. In a career path that condones support for our peers, I’ve had friends not tell classmates about their job offers. Never mind that these individuals have been incredibly proactive in the job search and have worked very hard for their success. But avoiding telling others about their good news illustrates the negative effects of competition. Jealousy and anger can override our genuine happiness for our peers when they get something you want.

And try all you want, but mere recognition does not make you immune to it. Once my friendly poker group introduced the idea of a Tournament of Champions (in which six people with the highest number of “points” racked up from previous games compete in one higher-stakes game), I’ve seen people alter their style of play and personalities (myself included) to make it to the tournament. They know that the blown-out-of-proportion level of competition is affecting them in negative ways and screwing with their emotions and interactions with others, and take the competition to a level beyond friendly (again, I’m unfortunately not above it – working to change it, but not above it) And for what? Sure, there’s a monetary prize at the end, but is it worth breaking bonds with friends and showing people the worst side of yourself for something people will forget about in two weeks?

It always feels good to pass other people. But in the end, how much does passing others really matter, and is it really going to make you happy in the end? So maybe my 1:34 time in the Broad Street run ain’t so bad after all. And if I don’t set a personal record in a race, or beat that girl from high school, or win the tournament, or get the first job out of graduate school, maybe it isn’t the end of the world.

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2 thoughts on “Nothing wrong with (un)healthy competition?

  1. I hope that everyone I race sets a personal best, exceeds their expectations, and enjoy long healthy happy lives. I still want to pass them when I race. I particularly like passing those younger than me. It’s not a big deal if I don’t, but it is motivating.

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