Competition. A word that fuels energy, action, persistence….nervousness, impulsivity…selfishness, anger & conflict? Disruption of Relationships? Or in some cases, intense turmoil to a person’s psyche?

Well, yes. Yes to all these questions. Competition has trickled into every possible stream (or even brook) of our lives, be it for high flying jobs, stellar educational courses, romantic partners, attractive looks, kitty parties….the range is very wide…and seemingly endless. “Competition” is the reason behind an unassuming six year old’s over-packed schedule in the ‘summer vacation’…. Why not? More the number of classes he attends, higher the edge he would develop in the future over other equally unassuming six year olds.

Hmm… it is no discovery that competition looms large upon us. How large though? Is there an end to it? Do we ever ‘outgrow competition’ and get over it?Darwin said ‘survival of the fittest’. Only thing, each of us has our own definition of what ‘survival’ is. Does survival mean outdoing everybody on every sphere of activity?? “Of course not. We know the limits, obviously we do…” Do we? Do we really understand where to draw the line? Is there a threshold beyond which our approach shifts from competition to collaboration? From “my growth” to “our development”?? Do we perform the balancing act between these two? Well, there are some of us who do and beautifully so…, whereas some of us have difficulty navigating through this one. I was of the opinion that 20 something is the age where we identify and realize the world of fulfillment that exists beyond competition, the happiness of sharing…the time we understand that perhaps it is not so bad to grow and develop together. Maybe I was wrong. I knew this when I came across accounts of students this age being ridiculed, teased and stripped of all mental peace. Why so? Simply because they were probably more active participants in class, interacted more with teachers or gave in assignments before the last date for submission.

These occurrences got me questioning. I wondered how doing this would truly help the doers. How, just how can belittling the “teacher’s pet” help me do better??? When I tease him, I am not doing ANYTHING for my progress. Why still, do I pursue it relentlessly??

Let’s muse over this together. Let’s explore the world of unhealthy competition.


1. Negativity:

This is inevitable. The moment I think, ‘I must do better than him!!’, an immediate fall out is “therefore, he CANNOT do better than me.” If indeed, he ends up doing better than me, the next thought that arises in a by now dejected and indignant me is, “WHY?? JUST HOW is he doing better than me??” Everyday then could become a quest to seek the answer to this intrusive question. It’s ‘me versus him’ or ‘me versus my group’ or ‘that group’ or ‘the rest of the class’ for the rest of the academic year….Oops, no. It probably ceases to remain an academic exercise any longer…because it shifts (and HOW) to what I call a “battle of egos”. Life is subsequently negative for most of us who engage in this battle. We are then subject to the effects of negativity, so let’s get to understand them now…

2. Magnification

This is a direct consequence of the “battle of egos”. Every event in a battle is important right?? So every event that unfurls with respect to our competitor catches our attention and arrests our thoughts. Every such event becomes a ‘knock-out’ opportunity. Slowly, minor instances begin to gain utmost importance. For example, his giving an answer in class or discussing doubts with the teacher becomes a “sign” of his “trying to gain an edge over me”. The war is on. “How CAN he do this?” He is ‘desperate’ to warm up to the professor! Or, say if he cancels an outing with his friends, we go, “Just look at him! What a NERD! Wants to outdo me at any cost!!!”

Can you understand what is happening? Let me explain. There are things like intellect, effort, grasping ability, memory etc., that directly affect performance. Most others, like talking to the teacher, have either a neutral or a miniscule effect on performance. Certainly not enough for us to go bonkers over it. …however, because the war by this time has intensified, our mind shifts focus quietly, without our knowing it, onto frivolous events. Let me put this in other words. All it wants is to keep us happy ‘in the present’. Ridiculing the competitor, even if it is only to ourselves, only gives us a ‘temporary kick’. A series of such events leads to several such ‘temporary kicks’….which help us gloat and feel good….and by no means to regain focus and invest in our growth concretely and meaningfully.

So why? Why adopt this strategy? Why hurt others, succumb to jealousy and let friendships go sour? Why invest so much, only to gain increased momentary pleasure at the cost of mental peace and probably stagnant performance??

What then, is a way out of Unhealthy Competition?

1. Compete in activities, not with the person:

The way out, or the trick is to replace “competition with Varun, Sara, or Abhinav “ with “academic competition” or “competition in sports” . It is a quest only to do better in one limited activity, NOT to BE BETTER than HIM/HER. Notice the difference. An activity is limited. “Academic competition” exists only while we are studying for the examination or planning a time-table for it, NOT when we sit in class, not when he answers a question in class and definitely not when we’re playing or out for a movie. On the other hand, competition with “Varun” has no boundaries!!! It can exist in all situations, every time we meet or even think of Varun. This is definitely not healthy. It harms more than it helps.

Making this segregation will automatically prevent the battle of egos or at least restrict it. It will help us understand the true meaning and also the limits of competition.

2. Choose targets with care

They say an appropriate goal is one that is just a little beyond your current capacity. Think of it like this. The basket in a basket ball court is placed at a height that is definitely not comfortably within your reach, at the same time it isn’t at an unattainable height either. The same applies to your goals. Be aware of your competence, personality and constraints before you decide upon a goal. Setting unrealistically high goals or extremely mundane goals can both be frustrating, leading to but one way of feeling good – belittling those who can attain that goal at present.

3. Discover your strengths

All of us have those unique abilities that form an important part of us. It could even be something that perhaps does not have an obvious link with our goals, for eg., being a good conversationalist, or having a fabulous sense of humor. Build on these. These are areas that you are inherently good at. Engage in activities that bring your strengths to the fore, even if they are as informal as entertaining classmates during a bus ride with rib-tickling jokes. You will feel better. We all like to gain recognition and admiration in the eyes of others. The rat race often makes us feel that we aren’t good enough, which acts as fuel for negativity and the battle of egos. Appreciation in any form helps reverse this gnawing feeling.

4. Perform deliberate acts of sharing

For those of us who love challenges, the next time your friend asks you for notes and you just do not feel like sharing them, take it as a challenge and try to share. Sharing almost immediately reduces the sense of “rivalry”. Maybe you could start small. You could begin by helping a student who you think is genuinely in need, say by explaining concepts you have understood better. This will give you a feeling of happiness that is difficult to substitute. Sharing is a behavior that is opposite to selfishness. Even if done in small ways, it helps reverse negativity and magnification.

On a final note, none of us are truly happy while in unhealthy competition. Pausing to evaluate the value of such competition will open our eyes to a happier, more peaceful us. It will facilitate a gradual mastery of the balance between competition and collaboration. All this, while we still abide by Darwin’s principle, while we still “survive” and probably invest wisely in being “fit”.

Post contributed by: Malini Krishnan (Psychologist, Inner Space, 2010-2015)

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The Art of Listening

Join Our Community

-Attend our free online Mindfulness Sessions (Wisdom Circles)
-Get our free E-Book "First Few Steps to Mindfulness"
-Get the latest updates on all our events & courses

* indicates required