Competitive Living

An old friend likes to tell the story about the first time her (then) young son attended a march to raise awareness for a social cause. The young boy pushed toward the front of the crowd dragging my friend --his mother -- with him.  When my friend reminded her son that “this was not a race,” he replied (with a certain amount of indignation), “I know it’s not a race but we’re winning!”

The Race to Nowhere

Although this story isn’t a Buddhist fable, it could be. Many of us are pushing ahead thinking we can win even when no race is in progress.     A colleague recently commented about her discomfort attending women’s support groups where she often experiences an undercurrent of competition.  Feeling as if we need to constantly prove our worth is draining and nonproductive. Why do we compete when the stakes are low or nonexistent?

The year two high school students on my caseload died, I witnessed what I labeled “competitive grieving.”  Tragedy triggers all kinds of emotions and opens unhealed wounds, yet some students complained about the histrionics of others who were not as close to the deceased as they were.  Even parents got into the act, demonstrating their grief in very public ways.

Volunteer organizations, where tangible rewards and recognition are, at best, minimal are landmines for competitive behaviors. Sometimes a loose hierarchy exists and the mass of volunteers under the leader are vying for the imaginary number two spot.


Competition is not a gender-specific behavior; the ways in which men and women compete, however, have differed in the past.   Historically men have competed on physical strength and women on physical attractiveness.  More recently, competition based on achievement in the workplace and in school-based settings has been demonstrated by both men and women.  And, as the playing field has become more co-ed (if not level), men and women alike compete in athletics.

Competing makes sense when a contest is underway; i.e. there’s something to win and something to lose.  What’s more perplexing, however, is competitive behaviors in the absence of a contest. Clearly, insecurity and fear are at the core of competitive behaviors where no race is underway. 

Finding ways to stay above the fray is the sane response to competition in a non-race.  If insecurity and fear are at the heart of these behaviors, acknowledging others’ value and worth should, at the very least, tame the urge to ramp up competition.  Even little tokens of praise go a long way.  Just the other day, a fellow volunteer praised the thoroughness of the voter registration forms I submitted.  A small thing but, I must admit, I felt great the rest of the day.

Try a Little Tenderness

I must remember to practice this strategy of recognizing others’ worth the next time I observe competition where none is needed.  When done in a genuine manner, it is bound to feel good to both the receiver and to me. If we want to live more harmoniously, we need to discard competition for charity.  Even if we never get that elusive golden ring, we will surely feel like winners nonetheless.