Throughout my life I have always identified, at least in part, as an athlete. Along with that identity always came a strong instinct for competition. I was taught even from my early days as a blossoming young soccer player how to cultivate and develop a “win at all costs” mentality! In fact, throughout my career as an athlete it was this attitude that I felt gave me the motivation I needed to succeed. From a young age I was taught that a ferocious competitive attitude was what it took to be a champion! That this is what separates the winners from the losers…that no matter what, “winners” always find a way to win! This mentality is the only one I have ever known. Growing up this way and now being a CrossFit athlete, I sometimes forget when and how to turn my competitive nature off. While I have more often than not been proud of this quality, associating my competitive nature with my success in sports and fitness, it wasn’t until recently in pursuit of my career goals, that I realized sometimes that “aggressive competitor” can come with a significant price. Our integrity!
Recently however, having signed on to work at MYND MVMT in many roles, and in part to help to develop our Mindful Fitness program, I began to wonder if there is a down side to my competitive nature. Working in an environment where learning about success, motivation, psychology, and mental wellness is a crucial part of the culture, has helped me to focus more on me. At one of our recent trainings I ran across a critical concept that forced me to stop and consider my competitiveness more closely. One of the most critical concepts to understand at MYND MVMT is the idea of the Thought Disturbances™. These are patterns of thoughts we all have, that interfere with our ability to get where it is we want to go in our lives. Up until now, never had I ever, in a million years, imagined that my competitiveness could possibly be anything but a good thing! You can imagine my surprise then when I saw that 6th on the list of the “Thought Disturbances™” was written the words “The Competitor”. Underneath it read the following:
“An inner dialogue of constant comparison with others (especially one’s peer set)”
Seeing this, and hearing more about the challenges this type of thinking can bring, I found myself reflecting back on the times I was told I was being too competitive. I remembered being called that about pick up sports games, leisure activities – like bowling and mini golf, video and board games, and of course with fitness & exercise. I began to ask myself, could it be possible to be too competitive?After thinking about it for a while I realized that it is not being too competitive that’s problematic, it’s being competitive for the wrong reasons!
At MYND MVMT we often talk about the idea of “contingency happiness” . It’s what happens when we need some condition to be met in order for us to feel good. Not so different from being dependent on drugs or alcohol to feel better, what I came to realize was that over time, I needed “to win” (my success as an athlete) to feel good about who I was. It was my competitive nature that had given me my sense of self worth! I never stopped to realize that I was developing an unhealthy need, a reliance on “winning” to feel good about myself. In the end it meant that I could only feel good about myself as long as I was good enough at something. Obviously this is not a sustainable way to maintain a healthy self esteem. A teacher I once had always said “just remember this….there will always be someone who is prettier, smarter, bigger, faster, etc.” At the time I thought it was bullsh*t. In my mind I thought, Not if you’re the best! Now I see what she really meant. In the end you can’t rely on winning to be happy. If you always have to be the best just to feel OK about yourself, you will spend your life chasing happy! I know now that in needing circumstances to go my way all the time to be happy I am only setting myself for The Victim Mentality™. feeling victimized by life any time everything, everyday does not go the way I think it should. An impossible way to go through life!
Thats not to say that I shouldn’t feel good about my accomplishments. In fact I encourage clients to use exercise and fitness as a source of empowerment! Hitting your fitness goals is an amazing feeling. The challenge occurs, when it’s a necessary requirement to feel the way you want to feel. What we teach instead is how to feel the way you want right now, regardless of what is happening at any given moment in the circumstance around you!
Thinking about my competitive nature in this way I then began to consider other areas of my life where I felt the strongest drive to compete. I realized just how easy it is for me to become so focused on winning for the sake of winning, that I lose sight of what my purpose is to begin with! In recent years no better example of this jumps out than when I was fixated on pursuing my doctoral degree. Now, this is an interesting example because this is a big and for most people, positive goal to set. What I realized though is it does not matter how great the goal might be, if it is not your goal to be motivated for, why are you really competing for this thing to begin with? At first I tried to ignore my doubt about the direction I was headed in. I tried to bury my head into all of the program research. Inevitably I could not outrun that feeling in my gut. Deep down I knew that I was not ready for this commitment, yet I still couldn’t just drop it. At first this baffled me. Eventually though, with patience and time I could see clearly what was happening. It was my need to compete with others in my field, the idea of having to be the “best” , the most impressive, that made it the most appealing option. I eventually realized my motivation was very misplaced.
Some of you might read this and say to yourself, “well that is a great goal to be motivated and competitive about?!”. And sure, it is! And maybe someday it will be my goal to pursue it. However, when I really asked myself, in the here and now, why am I so desperate to achieve this goal? I realized it was solely because I was measuring myself, comparing, against others. I was so fixated on achieving something for the praise, the title, the “win”, that I lost focus on the most important variable of all, me! Without even realizing it, I had almost compromised my integrity, not recognizing, at first, that aligning my needs, beliefs, ideals, and values with my actions is what truly matters above all else!
For years, like most, I bought into the “ladder of achievement”. This culturally embedded idea that there’s this one “correct” path to success, that you’re either on or off, and that your self worth is directly related to how well you measure up against everyone else on this “ladder”. The truth is what was really motivating me was pure, raw, fear. The fear that it wasn’t good enough to just have a Master’s Degree. The fear that I would not be good enough without the more impressive credentials. I had to have something bigger, better then the rest to guarantee to myself that I would, when all was said and done, be at the top of the ladder.
Rather than pursuing something because it was what my heart and soul wanted excited by, I was pursuing because it was the objective “right” answer! In the end what I realized was the only right answer that really matters, is mine.
So, given all that I have been through, I made a list of the most critical steps the anyone can take to find their way from someone else’s “right answer”, to their own!
First, we can identify our core values. Once we understand what our personal core values are, we can align our goals with our values. For example, if you value integrity and you find yourself in a position where you are compromising that integrity to compete for something, is it worth it? Is it worth diminishing your value to achieve that goal? Write down those values! Use it as a daily reminder of what you are working to align yourself with.
Next, we need to bring our focus back to the present moment. The moment we start to focus on the future or planning ahead for things that are out of our control, we lose sight of the present moment. In order to leverage our competitive side in the most powerful way, we need to be present in the here and now. The moment our focus shifts to what other people are doing, and accomplishing, is the moment we lose our competitive power in the present moment.
Lastly, when you are present and focused on the here and now, assess what you are truly competing for in that moment. Is achieving that goal in line with the values you have set for yourself and is your motivation to compete pure? The moment you understand why you are competing and where the motivation to compete stems from, is the moment you regain your competitive power and transform to a more focused version of you.