Conflicts and anxieties about rivalry and competitiveness

Are you a perfectionist? Competitive? Afraid of what people would think if they saw or knew the “real” you?

You may be more anxious and/or conflicted than you know!

Symptoms of anxiety such as

  • perfectionism,
  • self-consciousness,
  • fear of social situations,
  • panic attacks,
  • or getting stuck on details

often have their roots in conflicts about how we measure up against others, or in  rivalrous feelings or thoughts in relation to those we love or need. (Yes, oedipal issues as Freud described them do tend to affect us!)

Deep down lots of us compare ourselves to others.

We don’t always know who that other is (the one we keep trying to keep up with) or why it seems to matter all that much…yet often there’s this invisible standard inside we hold ourselves to, this way in which we judge ourselves against an ideal of who or what we’re “supposed” to be.

Money, confidence, looks, and other externals often affect our sense of self worth…even if we don’t like admitting that it’s true.  Most of us have insecurities (some conscious and known to us; some we only unconsciously play out) about being exposed as lacking, or as a failure, or somehow not “good enough”. We want to be better, the best, or the “only one” in the eyes of some important other in our lives, or in relation to an internalized authority figure now living inside our own minds.

Living this way turns life into a competition or a quest. It’s never just us out there, being ourselves, living our values and desires, being who we are with ourselves in relation to our world. Life instead becomes about this other “someone” or “something” in the background, the one we imagine to be judging us, or the person or thing we judge ourselves up against.

Competition and perfectionism often come with internal conflict.

We want to be the best. We want to be the winner. We want to be special and exclusive.

But we also feel guilty…for the loser, who we identify with too, or for that person we may also love who has to take second place.

We both hate our rivals and we need them, and the same goes for our inner standards. They give us something to live up to, but they also remind us that we can be beaten at our very own game, that we can fail or come up short. There is fear of defeat and humiliation, but there is also no fun in winning if there is no-one or nothing to win up against.

Our earliest rivalries happen in our families of origin, in the homes we grow up in, among people we both love and need.

We like to think parents aren’t jealous of their kids…but sometimes they are. An insecure wife may secretly resent her daughter for being Daddy’s little girl. Or an insecure husband may feel jealous or shut out when his wife seems more into their child than himself. Siblings can be jealous or guilty if another is perceived as a parent’s favorite, and feeling left out or set apart at school can make one feel “less than” or inadequate with one’s peers…for boys this often has to do with feeling small or weak, and for girls it might be about who’s pretty or who’s not.

A young girl in childhood looks to her mother to tell her what it is to be a woman, yet she also notices what it is her mother lacks…and wants to surpass her. This is sometimes with guilt, sometimes with shame, and sometimes with a feeling of conquest or satisfaction. Young boys often act “macho” while secretly feeling like a fraud… because deep down they know it’s their father who’s the “real man” in the house, and there’s all this hidden fear underneath all the bravado.

Learning how to live life on one’s own terms often boils down to relinquishing the invisible other who is always in the background telling us how to be. It’s about being free to be oneself without constantly judging that self against some impossible standard, preconceived expectation, or fantasied other who seems to have it all…

Giving up the invisible competition, the quest to be best, the wish for the “most prized” or “special” position…means saying goodbye to an impossible search…learning to live on completely new terms, terms that are exciting yet scary both at the very same time.

For many of us, the process of giving up one’s drive to always keep up or be best, or to always live in relation to an ideal, only starts to happen once we realize that the idealized others we always looked up to are only human too; that chasing after perfection may seem urgent for a while but at some point gets old; and that accepting our rivals for who they are liberates us to accept ourselves too.

Are you ready to stop feeling like a fraud? It might just be time to let go of whatever image or standard you’re trying to live up to and to accept who you actually are instead.

P.S. Want to read more about relationship triangles in families? Here’s a post you might like: