Competition: Motivating or Crushing?

Carol Watkins, M.D.

When I was in medical school, one of my professors said that you knew that a person had conquered his own narcissistic problems when he could enjoy competing in a hobby where he did not possess great talent. This means that the individual has enough healthy narcissism (self-esteem) to tolerate and even enjoy situations in which he does not have to be the best.

To truly compete, you must enter a contest knowing that you could either achieve your goal or fall short. If either of these possibilities is a certainty, it is not a true competition. Sometimes you can be fairly sure that you will not finish first. In that situation, you are competing to achieve a certain self-imposed goal. This goal might be to finish above a certain percent, to beat one’s own previous record, or simply to maintain one’s current level of expertise. If you are fortunate enough to be sure that you will finish first, the goal might include beating your previous record, or learning how to be a supportive leader to the competitors.

For many of us, competition is an extra spice that keeps life interesting, keeps us on our toes, and stimulates us to greater creativity and productivity. Sometimes, however, competition can be toxic. It can become a pervasive lifestyle. You may feel anxious with each win and crushed with each defeat. Even hobbies can become so driven by competition that leisure loses its fun and playfulness.

Many of us know this from our own lives. Successful people are often good competitors. Many of you may thrive on competition. However being a successful competitor can be a double-edged sword. You may also know the down side of competition. It can come between you and your relationships. It can push you to drive too hard.

Competition is not just for work, school and the playing fields. Some of the most intense competition takes place at home. Almost any parent who has more than one child has experienced the competition that can occur between siblings. Mild sibling rivalry can help children learn about competition in a safe environment. Intense rivalry can leave lasting scars.

It is important for parents to model a healthy attitude towards competition in athletics and academics. If a parent feels that his child is defective in one area, he may insist that the child make it up to him by excelling in another area. If the child disappoints the parent with his classroom performance, he had better be a stellar athlete. This can promote an unhealthy narcissism in the child. He may feel that he has the right to win at any cost—cheating, or sabotaging other players. Parents must also model graceful striving, winning and losing in their own lives.

On May 14, 2001, Dr Watkins will be giving a seminar, "Is Competition Good For the Child or Adolescent with AD/HD?" at the annual CHADD Charity Golf Tournament. For information contact the CHADD National Office. 


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Northern County Psychiatric Associates 

Our practice has experience in the treatment of Attention Deficit disorder (ADD or ADHD), Depression, Separation Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and other psychiatric conditions. We are located in Northern Baltimore County and serve the Baltimore County, Carroll County and Harford County areas in Maryland. Since we are near the Pennsylvania border, we also serve the York County area.   Our services include psychotherapy, psychiatric evaluations, medication management, and family therapy. We treat children, adults, and the elderly.

Northern County Psychiatric Associates
Lutherville and Monkton
Baltimore County, Maryland
Phone: 410-329-2028
Web Site
Copyright 2001

Copyright 2006  Northern County Psychiatric Associates
Last modified: October 03, 2006