The When to Compete (part 2)
You can read The Will to Compete (Part 1) here.
Every now and then I get this buzzing throughout my body that makes me want to crawl under the bed and hide for a while. It often happens when I read something by someone I know, or when I hear about someone doing well in a race, or when I realize that I’m not the only one who likes to cook.
That buzzing, I know now, is shame or embarrassment. I feel embarrassed that I dare to call myself a writer when there are people who are so much better at it than I am, or that people ask me about running when I (still) feel like a relative newbie. In short, I feel threatened, squeezed out, lesser when other people are good at the same things I am good at.
And it’s a very tiring feeling.
Shockingly – or maybe not so shockingly – I didn’t connect it with my competitive spirit until recently. Until I saw this same trait in Manchild. He’ll race his brother to the door and triumphantly state that he won – only to look back and find that Squish, his competitor, is blissfully unaware that he’s just been beaten. But anytime Squish happens to get there first and announce his victory, Manchild will come up with some reason for it to be discounted.
He was crushed when he “lost,” and elated when he “won.” It was perplexing to see the intensity of his emotions over things that really didn’t matter because there really weren’t winners and losers. But something about it was familiar to me. And then it clicked: the buzzing, the embarrassment, the need to “win” things in which no one else knew they were competing. And I realized that something needed to change. Most likely, it was me.
Somehow I needed to say to myself, as I’ve begun saying to Manchild, “It’s not a race. It’s not a competition. There are no winners or losers.” And I needed to believe it.
I’ve often heard it said that there is no pie, or that the pie is big enough for everyone – if someone takes a slice it doesn’t mean there’s less for anyone else. And intellectually, I can understand that. Everyone adds their own unique thing to the world. Even if everyone I know is better than I am at everything, I can still do it in my own special way and the world will be better for it. But it doesn’t always feel like that, like the world is a better place for my contribution. It feels more like my contribution is unnecessary, and that my efforts are superfluous. And that’s when I feel the buzzing. My skills are unnecessary. My voice is unheard. I’m working hard for nothing. And I need to compete harder to be noticed.
Or maybe I just need to go back to bed.
After all these years, I know that, eventually, I get over those feelings and am able to keep on keeping on, but I fear for my child. I want him to be confident enough in himself and in his skills to know that he doesn’t have to compete. In the wrong time and place, competition is a recipe for heartache.
It may be too soon to tell whether Manchild is as intensely competitive and unconfident as I am, but the feedback we’ve been getting so far – when he loses a game, for example – tells me that it’s best not to wait to help him learn when to harness his competitive spirit to take him to new heights, and when to leave it in the stable. And as long as I’m trying to teach him that the pie is big enough for everyone, or that there is no pie at all, I might as well teach myself.
So when I see him tense up at the sight of his brother getting to the door first, before he’s had a chance to realize what’s going on, I say, “It’s not a competition, Buddy.” And then I say it again and again and again, so only I can hear.