I haven’t posted in a while on anything therapy/growth related and it’s about time. For the last two days I have been thinking of competition. Competition seems to be hard-wired in human beings. Even very little children want to be able to do something better than their sibling. They want to be thought smarter, prettier, cuter. They say things like “I can hold my breath longer than you can” or “my picture is nicer.”

It makes sense that we compare ourselves to others. There has to be some yardstick for performance, else how would we know if a performance were better or worse than average. We looked at Susan Boyle and we compared her to other women her age, other women singers, and before she began to sing, we expected that she would be laughable. Her appearance was thought to be substandard and people expected that her performance would be too. Everyone was surprised when she opened her mouth to sing and her singing was beautiful. In our minds, we compared it to the type of singing a normal person does and it was much better and then we held it up to a higher standard and she met or surpassed it. Comparisons help us make judgments.

However, competition turns out to be inappropriate and even harmful in many circumstances. In relationships with siblings and spouses, competition leads to devaluing behavior, sabotage, and ridicule. In families, we are on the same team. We need to be happy when any of our team members scores a basket! We need to help them maximize their performance just as we strive to do our own best. Saying “great job” and “wow, you did it!” when someone else has achieved something costs nothing and helps to build good will and feelings of security.

We all accept the concept of sibling rivalry as natural. Parents struggle to help each of their children to feel loved and valued, but there is always an echo of that rivalry. However, even worse is the situation when people have been programmed from early childhood to be comparing themselves to all others around them. The result is either always feeling wanting and inadequate or feeling superior (often without reason).

There are sometimes good results from striving for the kind of excellence that would lead people to see one as superior. People go to school and study for years to become the most knowledgeable, the recognized authority. People design research studies to achieve benefits for the public at large, but also because they want others to recognize their achievement and superiority.

But when competition enters family life, it is often destructive. When husband and wife each strive to be the one who is right all the time or the one who knows best, both of them suffer. When children are compared to one another in a way that lessens the value of one, that is destructive not only to the child’s ego, but to the sibling relationship– a relationship that often is the most satisfying lifelong relationship a person has.

Virginia Satir, a talented and much loved family therapist once told a couple that their competition was not a bad thing. The bad thing was what they were competing about. She suggested they compete to see who in the couple be the most loving, the most caring, the most forgiving, the most supportive, the most helpful. It’s the kind of competition that families need. It’s the kind of competition the world needs.

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  1. WOW! I never knew that Virginia Satir said that. I think it puts such a powerful twist to competition. Thanks for this great post.

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