Is It Possible To Be *Too* Competitive? Watch Out for These 6 Red Flags

Photo: Getty Images / lechatnoir
If you’ve ever played Monopoly against me, or stepped onto the treadmill next to mine at the gym, you may not have realized it, but I was sizing you up—and I was hell-bent on winning.

I’ve always been competitive. I've been the primary instigator of my sibling rivalry with my older brother since we were in diapers. I sought the best grades in school—my valedictorian speech was my victory lap—and when I realized I didn’t have an athletic bone in my body, I gave up all sports. What was the point in playing if you couldn’t win?

That thought became a defining ethos that I carried with me through adulthood. Although I’d always taken pride in my competitive edge, I eventually started to see the cracks. For every raise or promotion I’d “win” at work, the ones I "lost" felt like personal affronts. Whenever a friend shared their success, it would only remind me of how I’d failed. If I scrolled too long on Instagram (or, worse, LinkedIn), I’d realize how far behind the metaphorical “finish line” I was compared to everyone else. In my mind, if I wasn’t the best, I was a walking disappointment.

“When you're young, like in school, there is often a clear sense of having done your best,” says Adia Gooden, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist who predominantly works with high achievers. “You get a grade, and you know exactly where you stand compared to other students. But once you’re in adulthood, those metrics fall away. There’s no clear ‘best,’ so you end up searching for something and working toward something that ends up being unattainable.”

This realization had me wondering: How did I get so competitive? And is it actually a bad thing?

The origins of a competitive nature

In a society that rewards hustle culture, idolizes GOATs, and normalizes asking people we just met “what do you do?,” it’s hard to imagine that not everyone shares my competitive nature. “Some would say they were born competitive or that it ‘runs in the family’ as if it’s a genetic trait,” says Mary Beth Somich, LCMHC, a licensed therapist based in Raleigh, North Carolina. “But it can be argued that family, environment, and cultural norms certainly contribute to the formation of that personality characteristic.”

Jessica Rabon, PhD, a licensed psychologist at Prisma Health in Greenville, South Carolina, agrees that one’s competitive streak is likely a “nature versus nurture” combination. “There are definitely people who are innately more competitive than others,” says Dr. Rabon. “Individuals who measure their self-worth by comparing themselves to other people are likely to be more competitive. However, situations can definitely impact someone's competitiveness. For example, if the individual is in competition about something that is important to them, they are likely going to be more competitive. If there is an audience or there are limited resources, these situations can also enhance competitiveness in individuals.”

In this sense, people are usually either situationally competitive—that friend who’s a fierce adversary exclusively on monthly game nights or the corporate climber who couldn’t care less about winning a pickup basketball game—or they exude what Stephen Garcia, PhD, professor of management at the University of California-Davis, classifies as “trait competitiveness.”

"People who are high in trait competitiveness will tend to perceive a non-competitive situation as being competitive.” —Stephen Garcia, PhD, professor of management, UC Davis

People who are situationally competitive may feel the need to win at games or dynamics that naturally lend themselves to competition, says Dr. Garcia, who studies the psychology of competition. “But people who are high in trait competitiveness will tend to perceive a non-competitive situation as being competitive,” he adds.

Imagine you’re staying in a high-rise hotel. A person with high trait competitiveness in an elevator may feel they’ve one-upped another guest by staying on a floor that’s higher than theirs—or they’ll feel slighted to get off on a lower floor.

Is being competitive a losing game for your mental health?

The short answer: No, it’s not inherently a bad thing to be competitive.

“Competitive processes can provide the wind beneath our sails that we need to achieve a goal, to be productive, to move forward,” says Dr. Garcia. It can be a hugely motivating force, particularly if you employ a growth mindset versus a fixed one, like I had growing up.

“When people with fixed mindsets experience failure, they feel as if they are losers and withdraw from competition. But those with growth mindsets do well in competitive activities; they interpret failure as helpful feedback and are more likely to pursue challenges rather than shying away from them to protect their self-esteem.”

However, decades of research makes a clear case that competition doesn’t always lead to positive results. Although some studies have shown that under certain conditions, competition can improve performance, others have alluded to the opposite: that if the competition is greater, people are less inclined to try. Researchers also believe hyper-competitive people tend to have lower self-esteem and higher rates of anxiety and depression. There’s also evidence that people motivated by self-improvement have higher levels of job and life satisfaction compared to those primarily motivated by outperforming others—though, I suppose that might point to competition with oneself providing a healthy push.

So when does healthy competition teeter on going too far?

Based on the pressure I put on my daily Wordle performance alone, I feel safe in stating my status as being highly competitive—but am I too competitive? While Dr. Garcia says it's possible to be both happy and healthy, he and the other pros offer some clear warning signs that a competitive streak might be veering toward some unhealthy extremes.

1. You’re motivated by winning, not mastery or self-improvement

It’s one thing to train for a race to beat your previous PR or to study for a test so that you can fully understand the subject matter. But “when individuals feel they need to win at all costs,” they lose sight of the benefits competitive drive can provide, says Dr. Rabon.

“People who have fun while they’re competing, who enjoy the process, and are more focused on becoming the best version of themselves they can be, they’re going to reap the most rewards.” —Adia Gooden, PhD, psychologist

“People who have fun while they’re competing, who enjoy the process, and are more focused on becoming the best version of themselves they can be, they’re going to reap the most rewards,” says Dr. Gooden. “For them, competition is about, ‘Oh, I’m growing, I’m learning, I’m able to do new things. I’m coming out on top.’”

2. You compare yourself to others endlessly

“Competitiveness is often a manifestation of the social comparison process,” says Dr. Garcia. “We compare our progress and potential to others, and thus behave competitively to minimize or preempt any gap in performance.” This mindset can make a person constantly on the lookout for minor differences and shortcomings rather than appreciating where they are or what they have now, he says.

Exacerbating this is the global platform for which these comparisons can be made: the internet. “People used to compare themselves to their co-workers and neighbors as a benchmark of where they stand in the world,” says Somich. “Now with social media, they are comparing themselves to the best, brightest, and most successful people in the world.” Not exactly an even playing field—and potentially bound to hurt someone’s self-esteem.

In addition to limiting the time spent on social media—and blocking or muting people who tend to trigger comparative feelings—Somich suggests practicing gratitude. Personal affirmations and journaling, for instance, may help combat the jealousy that often accompanies competition.

3. You struggle to feel genuinely happy for others, or take pleasure in seeing others fail

If you readily share in a sibling’s success when it’s unrelated to an interest of yours (for example, if she completed her first marathon) but squirm when they outperform you in a shared passion (if you are both bakers, and images of her latest cake go viral online), you might feel like a bad person. You might feel even worse if you can’t shake a subtle smirk when a friend reveals they didn’t get a big promotion or that they were outbid on their dream home. Dr. Gooden, however, notes that these reactions—while undesirable—are normal human responses.

“Inherent in competition is the idea that there’s a limited number of spots, so there’s this sense of scarcity,” says Dr. Gooden. (I.e. If they get a good job, then I’m not getting one.) But mindset is misleading. In most cases, someone else doing well doesn’t directly impact your ability to do well, too. While she acknowledges that there are exceptions, like you and a friend being up for the exact same job, “in general, it’s important to remember that there is an abundance of opportunities. Instead of feeling threatened by someone’s success, or even feeling satisfied when someone we’re close to doesn’t do well, we should remember that there are many successful musicians and consultants and small business owners.”

4. You’re constantly keeping score in relationships

“Individuals who are highly competitive in romantic relationships may intentionally, or unintentionally, put the other person down to make themselves feel better,” says Dr. Rabon. That's not exactly a recipe for trust or cooperation that’s essential for any healthy relationship.

More damaging? Score-keeping with a partner. Whether it’s competing over who cares about the other more or who does more housework, it’s not habit that's likely to serve you. “Being the best, being right, or winning becomes the most important thing to an individual, so much so that they are willing to sacrifice the happiness of their relationships,” says Dr. Rabon.

Dr. Garcia understands that for many high-achievers, “pursuing your career and your self-interests may bring personal gravitas, but it might hinder close relationships with family and friends.” He suggests that people should consider how “even the memory of those at the top of their game will fade away,” but the memory of how they treated people won’t.

5. You have a hard time celebrating your own wins

If you’re driven to compete out of feelings of insecurity or inadequacy, no amount of winning will bring peace. And losing will just bring pain. “Tearing yourself down after performing worse than you wanted to or expected, which may include negative self-talk or calling yourself names, is a red flag here,” says Dr. Rabon. “The same goes if you are unable to move past your performance, win or lose.”

“Tearing yourself down after performing worse than you wanted to or expected, which may include negative self-talk or calling yourself names, is a red flag.” —Jessica Rabon, PhD, psychologist

Dr. Gooden suggests imagining an ideal coach: ”the one with high expectations who pushes you to try your best but is also incredibly encouraging and affirming, who believes you can do it but doesn’t beat you up when you’re down.” Whenever you’re too hard on yourself, she suggests purposefully treating yourself like that dream coach. “If we can show up to ourselves with that balance of encouragement and compassion, that can go a long way.”

6. Your self-worth is tied up in your performance

Dr. Gooden stresses that our productivity-based workplace culture, in which “long hours and hard work are the keys to success,” has propagated unhealthy competition both in and out of the office. “We’ve lost sight of who we are, holistically, as people,” says Dr. Gooden. “‘If I’m not always performing at 100 percent, then I’m not worthy. Then I don’t treat myself well, and then I don’t believe other people should treat me well.’ Tying our sense of worthiness to our output and to winning creates a bunch of unhelpful behaviors.”

Somich sees this constantly with her clients. “They struggle with anxiety around how they may be perceived by others, their own self-image, and how that all intertwines with personal and professional achievement,” she says. “These feelings are fueled by competition within our culture and the idea that we have to ‘do more’ and ‘do better.’ There’s been a shift, in which there is the human doing, not the human being.”

Those who feel like human doings, says Somich, have likely lost sign of their original purpose. She suggests looking inward: “Start with the question: ‘Who are you without the doing?’ Then, find a noncompetitive activity you enjoy doing just for the fun of it. And do it.”

How people who might skew too competitive can keep that edge in check

The first thing Dr. Rabon does with highly competitive clients is work with them on identifying the ways their competitiveness is impacting their ability to function or their overall well-being. “We identify how things would look or be different for them if those areas were not negatively affected,” she says. “And if their competitiveness manifested as a maladaptive practice—like spending hours doing drills for a sport, risking potential injury, or revising an essay multiple times for hours to get it just right, compromising sleep—I would set time limits.”

Although it’s a more challenging endeavor, Somich and Dr. Rabon both suggest working to uncover where one’s need to compete comes from—and why it’s so important a pursuit.

“If someone feels that they need to be the best because it’s the only way they feel like they have worth or purpose, we would work on identifying other ways they can feel worthy or other areas in their life that can provide them that purpose,” says Dr. Rabon as an example.

For hyper-competitive people like me—who manage to turn innocent board games into life-or-death battles—this advice might be easier said than done. But, I'm in it to win it.

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