A different framework for psychological strength
As a leader, you face challenges that you may not feel fully equipped to deal with. This can spark the desire to build your character, to become stronger psychologically and develop your resilience.
But when we think of developing and growing, we often think within a framework of competition. A framework that says the solution is to be more competitive. Or on a more subtle level, our want to be better, can sometimes come from a place of wanting to be better than others, of wanting to triumph over others, rather than for the inherent benefits that come from strengthening ourselves, regardless of what others think, say or do.
I would like to propose that this competitive framework has some major flaws.
Alfie Kohn has scoured the research literature on this subject and found that cooperation, not competition, builds character and strength. It’s the soil from which the seeds of trust, safety, health and resilience can grow. You wouldn’t expect a seed to grow into a strong tree if it was planted in depleted soil and told to “toughen up”. Yet we sometimes think this way when it comes to ourselves.
The idea of mental strength and a strong character are often associated with a warrior like grit, but I think that a more truthful way of thinking about it is in terms of being mentally healthy.
This is because a soldier may have developed an extraordinary ability to fight in hellish conditions, but no amount of stern faced grit can address the resulting PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).
In fact one expert on suicide pointed to the pressure of competition as a major contributor to the rise in suicide rates among young people, as well as drug abuse. That doesn’t seem to be the path to genuine strength and growth.
Before getting into the more detailed aspects of this, here are two cases of the devastating effects of competition that Kohn found in the news:
1) There was a case where 49 teenagers in one area were hospitalised for depression, suicide attempts or substance abuse, connected to the stress of academic competition. The administrators of the school said that there had been a failure to teach them coping skills. But Kohn points out that if a factory polluted the air, which subsequently caused people to be hospitalised, it would be ridiculous to say that the problem was that there had been a failure to wear respirators.
2) Some passengers of a plane crash died because two of the passengers were blocking the exit as they were competing for who should get out of the plane first.
Needless to say, we need to revisit this assumption that competition is a good way to develop ourselves and grow.
The addiction that masks our flaws
Kohn suggests that we compete in order to cover up our inadequacies, our doubts and our fears, that we treat our lack of self esteem by overcompensating with fierce competition.
For example, have you ever wanted to beat someone else just to “prove” you were better (because in reality you thought maybe you weren’t?) Or perhaps you wanted to feel good and triumphing over someone else was a sure way to bring that about?
It’s important to note that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to improve. The problem comes when we need to improve in order to be better/feel we are better than someone else. A healthy want becomes an obsessive need, an addiction, an anxiety about our inadequacies. Encouraging competition because winning makes you feel good and bolsters self esteem, might be like encouraging an alcoholic to take a shot of whisky because it makes him feel good.
Even if you do win a competition, it says nothing about your true worth and strength. It’s a simplified, artificial metric. It makes us feel good in the short term but lacks the sustenance for true mental stability and strength.
Research also shows that competition can produce isolation and anxiety, which amongst other things lowers our performance.
This can become a self fulfilling prophecy: the more isolated and anxious we are, the worse our performance. Therefore, we compensate by becoming more competitive, this produces more anxiety and isolation. That’s a downward spiral, not an upward progression of a strengthening character.
Rather than strengthening our character and developing resilience, competition seems to mask psychological needs. Needs to be loved, approved and admired. It’s a futile attempt to feel better in the moment and prove something externally, without addressing the underlying cause of what that needs to be proved in the first place. But rather than acknowledge this, we all too often conclude that the answer is to compete more and to compete harder.
It’s like an addiction because we return to the very thing that didn’t truly satisfy us the first time. It’s like drinking salt water to satiate our thirst or like trying to fill up a bucket with water, except the bucket has holes in the bottom. No amount of competing, of pouring more water in the bucket, is going to lead to anything lasting. It’s not going to solve the inadequacies and insecurities that damage our strength and weaken us psychologically if left unaddressed.
The answer is not to be “OK” with being number two instead of number one. That’s just a practice in self deception. I believe it’s to favour cooperation where possible, and work on ourselves to address those inadequacies within (even though that may not sound as appealing).
But isn’t some competitiveness healthy?
Isn’t it just extreme competitiveness that’s the problem?
Competition may always be around and something that we just have to contend with. Demonising it might not be the best approach. So the following is not an indictment of competition, bur rather a harsh look from a perspective that is rarely taken:
Imagine we lived in an alternate world in which it was encouraged to interrupt other people (just like competing against other people is often encouraged here). If we took this to the extreme, there may be a person who interrupted so much, and so loudly, that he never heard anyone else speak more than a single word. Other people may think “he’s over the top, he’s arrogant, his excessive interruption is such poor character”, while they continue to interrupt people in “healthy” amounts.
In other words, the need to overpower someone in a conversation all the time compared to only sometimes, can be said to have the same underlying psychological need or flaw. The only difference is the intensity of that need. There is no amount of interruption that is “healthy”, just like no amount of smoking is “healthy”.
The same may be true for competition. If we define competition as a structure which says “if I win you lose, and if you win I lose”, can any amount of competition be said to be healthy or good? Could the problem not be with the need/want to compete in and of itself?
There’s something to be said about the fact that sometimes the bigger conditions in our life puts us in a situation where we have to compete, or where it’s favourable to compete. A lion is going to have to kill another animal in order to live. It’s not all black and white.
It’s also worth acknowledging the possibility that the above analogy is wrong. Perhaps it’s more like eating and fasting: both are good as long as you don’t do them in excess (ie: eat too much or fast for too long). Both competition and cooperation may be good as long as we don’t do them in excess. But it’s worth considering this different point, especially with the evidence supporting the benefits of cooperation / negative aspects of competition.
What the research shows about building strong character
There was a study which looked at 800 high school students to see what other characteristics went along with those who were competitive. Turns out they had a greater dependency on evaluation and what others thought of them. (Being dependent on what others think of you is not something that sounds like a strong character trait).
There was more extensive research that looked at 17 separate studies on learning. They found that cooperative learning (as opposed to competitive or individualistic learning situations) promoted higher levels of self-esteem and better ways of evaluating self-worth. (That’s something I would consider to be a strong character trait.)
There was even a panel of sports medicine experts who advised that children under age 10 should not play in organised competitive sports because it could impede their psychological, sociological and motor development skills. So yeah, not great.
Some of the specific benefits that were found with cooperation (rather than competition) were:
well adjusted social relations
strong personal identity and greater self esteem
basic trust and optimism about other people
a greater sense of control about their lives
Those are some of the smaller components that make up mental strength. You wouldn’t consider someone to be psychologically strong and resilient if they had the opposite of these traits, ie: were immature, had poor social relationships, didn’t really know who they were, had low self esteem, didn’t trust other people, felt pessimistic about other people and felt like their life was out of control.
One professor even came to the conclusion that “experiences in human cooperation are the most essential ingredients for the development of psychological health.” (Again, I would argue that psychological health is very strongly linked with psychological strength). While another said competition is “the most pervasive occasion for anxiety” in our culture.
So if we want to be psychologically strong and healthy, the evidence seems to be pointing to favour cooperation rather than competition.
What are the mechanisms that make cooperation so beneficial?
Amongst other things, cooperation is more productive which means people do better work and thus have greater success (that’ll boost your self-esteem in and of itself). You also feel more valued when you’re an important part of a group and have a greater sense of safety because if you’re not having a great day, other members can help you out personally, and pick up the slack professionally.
Even in sports, players require the support and cooperation of other people. Whether that’s their coach, their family, or the other members of their team if it’s a team sport such as football (as opposed to a sport like tennis or golf.)
Even for people that are healthy and strong, losing in a competition (especially in the public eye) can be psychologically detrimental. We’ve all felt ashamed, inadequate, humiliated and exposed, in situations when we lost. And seeing as there is often one winner and many losers in competitive situations, you’re more likely to be damaged from loss than congratulated for winning - that’s simple mathematical odds.
We also tend to hate losing more than we like winning. So even if the number of times we won and lost were even, it would still likely be detrimental. And seeing as losing is always possible, there’s always the fear of losing throughout the whole process up until you know you’ve won. But that’s short lived because now you’re a target to be beaten. There’s nothing permanent about winning, it doesn’t truly satisfy and bring about safety.
We may have learned over time to disguise our disappointment when we lose in competition. We may even try to fool ourselves. But if we’re honest, losing feels bad and there’s no way around that. Self deception is not the road to self development.
Even if, by a stroke of luck you are someone who is not damaged by losing, it seems doubtful that it’s positively healthy for you.
The security that is so vital for healthy human development is precisely what competition inhibits.
A suggested framework
We live in a world of polarity, and there is no doubt a structure of competition in our modern world. Whether this is good or bad is difficult to say (especially when you consider how often human beings have gotten things wrong in the past). However, we can perhaps find a middle ground in which to work. A place to bring cooperation to the table. Bringing a mindset of helping and supporting rather than dominating and being number one.
When we’re in situations where we have to compete, we can consciously focus less on winning or losing and more on doing well. Remember that cooperation is not a loss of autonomy, it’s about working so that we can all benefit.
We already engage in both competition and cooperation at some level. We have formed habits. This means that if there’s an area where you notice you compete, but you recognise that cooperation would be better, it might feel a little uncomfortable changing that habit.
But we can use some simple tools that help us on that journey. One of them being Tapping. It can help us work through the blocks we encounter and develop our resilience.
Here's a refresher of the main tapping points you can use, but click the link above if you're unfamiliar with this method.
Some tapping prompts:
When do I feel the need to compete?
Does the notion of cooperation bring up any resistance or uncomfortable feelings?
Try finishing this sentence with the first thing that comes to mind: Cooperation sounds good but…
Use tapping to work through the blocks and see what happens to the strength of your character when you bring about more cooperation.
No contest by Alfie Kohn
Photo by mari lezhava on Unsplash