I took a personality test once and laughed as I shared the results with my coworker, Stacey. “Most of the results were exactly right, but can you believe they called me competitive? Cray-cray.”
“I can see that,” Stacey said. I was stunned. Maybe she thought I said, “Collaborative.” Nope. No static on our line—she had heard me correctly. I like to think of myself as generous, compassionate, supportive. I only participate in competitive sports if the points don’t matter. I hate competing with coworkers for anything.
Stacey has a Master’s degree in Leadership Development, and she understands me as though we were twins. Still, I tried to argue my way out of this one. I finally admitted that yes, maybe I compete with myself at times. She gracefully moved on to other topics.
Ever since that conversation, I’ve begun to notice signs Stacey and the personality test may have been right. I don’t like feeling competitive. It’s uncomfortable, seems uncharitable. I believe all of us should explore our own potential and make the world a colorful place. Yet the other day, I found myself watching a speaker and feeling not only competitive but jealous. “I could do that,” I thought. I had wanted that spot.
Shocked? Nice people aren’t supposed to admit to such feelings, but they turn toxic if we don’t. On the way home, I talked to God about it. What’s at the root of these feelings? Why do I feel frustrated? I know You’re at work in both our lives. Why didn’t I just enjoy her message? I don’t even remember the message. What’s wrong with me? Fix this, please, Lord.
Ever since I was a child, I’ve watched others do interesting things and said, “I could do that!” This desire for equivalent coolness has spurred me to improve my poetry, learn guitar, ride my bike with no hands and develop other skills which have made life an adventure. It’s led me to shoot for the stars more than once. My co-trainer and I have the best kind of friendly competition. Each of us is determined not to let the other take on a bigger workload. When things get off-balance, we invent things to do. We care about each other, but we also want to prove ourselves.
Competitiveness is defined by the Oxford Dictionary in three ways: desiring to be more successful than others, being as good or better than others, or comparing well in terms of pricing. Learning to do things others can do gives me a feeling of self-respect. My co-trainer and I like to compare well in terms of our accomplishments. At the end of the day, we know we must earn our keep.
It turns out Stacey had a pretty good chance of being right about me. 13 of the 16 Myers-Briggs Personality Types has a competitive side. Some people compete with others, some compete with themselves, always seeking to do better than before. It keeps us fresh. Life is long and atrophy awaits those who stop trying.
Why did I refuse to accept it as a personal trait? Before I rolled the idea around in my head, I saw competition as something that hurts people. We’ve all met people who are competitive to an extreme. They challenge you and then take joy in crushing you. They make snide comments, use sabotage, or attempt to control resources as though there’s never enough. That behavior drives away true happiness. Many of us have been in competitive environments at work or school, where we’ve been told we’re inadequate if we aren’t surpassing others. Insecurity might be a strong motivator, but it can cause anxiety and dysfunction in our relationships.
Where’s the line? People thrive under different levels of competition. Some people hate to be pitted against others while some actually need external competitors. There are distinctions everyone can make:
1. What is the benefit? If you’re feeling competitive, or if you’re being challenged, is there something you could gain from the experience? Perhaps your skills could be improved, your work could be noticed, or you could develop panache under pressure. James 1:2-3 ESV says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
2. How do you feel about your competition? Whether you’re competing with someone else or with yourself, are you using a single activity to judge an entire person? Maintain compassion. A friend recently told me that sometimes she leaves our group of friends feeling like a failure. It surprised me to hear that someone else felt that way, because I’ve dealt with those same feelings. Our people are positive, creative and motivated. At times, I feel I could never keep up. When she mentioned her feelings, we discussed it as a group. Bottom line—nobody’s throwing us out or judging us for going at our own pace. We are making self-judgments, and they are demotivating and unhelpful. Left unchecked, these feelings could actually destroy our friendship with those whose only crime is enthusiasm. Proverbs 27:17 ESV says, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.”
3. Is it competition or jealousy? There’s a difference. Competition can make you a winner, even if someone else reaches the goal first. Any time you stretch for a new distance, you benefit. On the contrary, jealousy slows you down. When we’re jealous, we spend negative energy that drags on us and absorbs the attention we should spend on enjoyable, productive activities. Jealousy makes us people nobody wants to be around. Proverbs 14:30 ESV says, “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.”
If you’re having trouble with jealousy or feelings of inadequacy, or if you notice that other people are tense around you, walk yourself through these questions. Talk to someone who will share honest observations with you. And pray—God has a plan for the person who’s in the place you want, and He has a plan for you as well. Our Creator doesn’t short anyone who’s willing to listen.