Mental health: Signs you're engaging in unhealthy competition

Can comparisons become toxic?

By Ghenwa Yehia

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram


Published: Thu 30 May 2024, 6:53 PM

Last updated: Thu 30 May 2024, 6:54 PM

“If I wasn’t the first, the best, I was nothing.”

Ziyad*, a Dubai-resident from Syria, has always identified as a competitive person. Encouraged by his father to excel in school and at sports as a child, Ziyad naturally felt a sense of pride in winning and enjoyed the praise and attention he received from his dad.

“When he passed away, I took that competition with others to a whole new level,” said the 34-year-old who moved to the UAE almost 15 years ago. “I felt like if I could be the best at everything, I’d honour his memory.”

Competing took on new meaning for Ziyad: “I know my dad was only trying to motivate me as a kid, but when he died suddenly, I internalised a lot of that and tied it to my self-worth: I was only worthy of love if I succeeded, achieved — if I was number one.

“So I threw myself into everything that I did. When I was number one, I felt like my dad would be proud; I felt worthy. But also, it was crushing when someone beat me, which inevitably someone always did. I had trouble connecting with others because I viewed everyone as a competitor.”

Later in life at work, Ziyad admits he felt isolated and threatened by his colleagues if they achieved success. When he was passed over for a promotion at work he fell into serious depression to the point of suicidal ideation.

According to Dr Gurveen Ranger, a clinical psychologist and lead for adult mental health and corporate well-being at Sage Clinics in Dubai, the difference between healthy competition and unhealthy competition is related to the underlying emotions and motivators.

“Healthy competition is often underpinned by a desire for personal growth and improvement. The focus is on striving to achieve one’s best, whilst maintaining integrity and mutual respect. Unhealthy competition tends to be underpinned by a desire to win rather than on growth, sometimes by any means necessary,” she explained.

“With healthy competition, we can be happy for others as our sense of self is not based on being better than them, but rather to be the best version of ourselves and learning from others helps us do this. But if we’re motivated by negative comparisons, it can be hard to feel happy for others who are perceived to be performing better. This can have a negative impact on our mental health, as the competitor is seen as a ‘threat’ and this can lead to feelings of inadequacy, low mood, low self-esteem, and anxiety.”

Dr Ranger, who doesn’t treat Ziyad, identifies possible triggers for unhealthy competition.

“Those who grow up in hyper-critical environments or where praise was attached to performance and being the best can develop a mindset where they have to be the best in different life domains in order to feel worthy. They can develop a fear of failing, tying it to their self worth.

“Those who tend to think in black-and-white ways can also struggle with competition — if they are not the best then they must be the worst. This thought rigidity can make it difficult to recognise or value the in-between where most of us sit.”

Because sometimes competition is fueled by thoughts about being inadequate, it can impact mood and self-esteem. And the lower we feel, the more likely we are to have such thoughts, thus creating a vicious cycle. A desire to ‘win’ may lead to heightened anxiety in any situation, which involves comparison to others or pressure to perform.

Over time, constantly striving to outperform others or meet unrealistic standards can lead to chronic stress, burnout, depression and anxiety. Social isolation is also a likely long-term effect as people are unlikely to respond well to some of the negative behaviours related to unhealthy competition.

There are a variety of treatments available to those whose unhealthy competitive behaviours are driven by low self-worth and self-esteem.

“Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) helps us understand why we have low self-worth, what our key fears are, and the unintended consequences of our methods for alleviating these fears. The approach is designed to strengthen our self-compassionate mind — the part of us that is non-judgemental, open, validating and committed to growth and improvement.

“Another model is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The aim of ACT is to create a rich, full and meaningful life while accepting the pain that inevitably goes with it. The overarching aim is to promote psychological flexibility — the ability to be in the present moment with full awareness and openness to our experience and to take action guided by our values.”

For Ziyad, the journey away from unhealthy competition to healthy striving has been several years in the making.

“Going to therapy has helped me understand that my unhealthy competitiveness is a trauma response to the death of my dad. I know my dad didn’t want this mental anguish and isolation for me, so it’s taken a lot of self-compassion and reframing of what success is to shift to healthy striving.”

*Name has been changed due to privacy reasons.

More news from Lifestyle