The essay below was inspired by a conversation with my wife Karen. We talk about everything under the sun, sometimes all in the same conversation. We found ourselves talking about competition and how it gets in the way of relationships. We’ve talked about it before but this time something stood out for me. When Karen invited me to write a blog post as a guest on her site I had a subject ready to go. I shared with Karen what I wrote and it sparked her imagination too. Her feedback became part of the piece. It occurs to me now that what could have been a competition became a collaboration. I am so grateful for her inspiration and insight.
W. Peter Collins
Competition is a natural part of life. It permeates our culture so deeply that sometimes we don’t even recognize it when it’s present. Have you ever wondered how it might affect your physical and mental health?
We all recognize competitiveness in organized sports, in business and our work environment. It’s the everyday interactions with family and friends where competition can be so subtle yet powerful. Hiding in plain sight, it can be corrosive to our relationships, our happiness, and our health; even our sense of self, who we are in the world can be affected.
The more I studied this the more I wondered if it really is competition or if there is something underneath that, something deeper. I was on a Zoom call the other day observing two people vying for attention to get their point across. What appeared to be a display of competition was confusing to me. We’re all on the same team. Why is competition showing up? Then it hit me. What both people had in common was the desire to be seen. As this became clear I noticed a profound difference in how I perceived the exchange. Before I thought they were being selfish, consuming all the time and energy in the group. This brought up resentment for me. Once I realized they simply wanted to be seen I felt compassion and empathy for them. Honestly, I had to admit I saw myself in them and I probably engage in that way of being more than I realize. This triggered a painful emotional response in me.
I suddenly got it that the tension and anxiety I noticed in their voices and body language was present in me. I went from being a detached observer to an active participant. Then came the realization that the world wasn’t out to stop me from expressing myself. It was all a story I made up. I thought I was asserting myself in a world that didn’t care and I got energized by that. This energy was actually stress and it weighed on me. It was like the fight-or-flight, acute stress response that happens in moments of feeling under attack. The difference was that it was constant. It was running my life and causing disease. This is a fascinating word. It literally means dis-ease. My desire to be seen was manifesting as competition which in turn was making me sick. I was also losing sleep and friends in the process. I saw that it even affected my identity, my sense of self. Fortunately, I have people in my life I can talk to about this. People who are willing to let me fall apart in front of them and still believe in me. In sharing this I’ve discovered how common it is. Friends and family that I talk to noticed this in me. They also saw it in themselves. So many people who appear competitive really just want to be seen and heard.
Of course this begs the question why? Why is this so common? Perhaps it’s a remnant from childhood, something to overcome as we grow and mature. There could be something in each person’s history, a particular event that leaves a scar. The root cause is most likely unique for each individual, something to discover through examination. Whatever the case, viewing the world as an obstacle to being seen and heard is a path to dis-ease in our health, our relationships, and the larger community. It’s easy to see the connection between this point of view and the disfunction in our culture. Letting go of this opens up a world of freedom, self expression, and the ability to be truly present with people.
Karen Barbarick-Collins is a Certified Ayurvedic Technician and Wellness Coach as well as a Registered Yoga Alliance Teacher. She is the founder of Bending Blade Healing Arts.