The Dark Side of Being Competitive
When we turn our relationships into rivalries and our friends into foes, is it really worth the prize? (And what's the prize, anyway?)
Among four daughters, middle children Anthea, 19, and younger sister Katrina, 18, were the closest because they only had a one-year age gap. "We shared almost everything. We always had each other's backs," Anthea says.
The two sisters went to the same schools from preschool to college. Though they were often compared to each other, it didn't become an issue until high school. Anthea says, "Our high school had a total population of only 232 students, so everyone knew each other. Some of my teachers would tell me that I should be like my sister."
Katrina was then a Dean's Lister, secretary of an organization, and assistant captain of the volleyball team. Anthea focused on her band and was content with her average grades. Though she wasn't competitive by nature and was always proud of her sister's achievements, she didn't like how Katrina "rubbed it in my face that she was a much better student than me."
Anthea recalls, "One time, I failed my biology exam and she told me, 'You should know how to manage your time. You should be like me. Though I have many extra-curricular activities, I still get into the Dean's List.'" Anthea felt that Katrina was telling her she paled in comparison. "I guess she had stepped on my ego."
Come student council elections at the end of the school year, Katrina ran for vice-president. Anthea ran against her.
"It was just a dare from my friends," Anthea says. Though she initially didn't think it was a good idea, she gave in. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision and she submitted her application at the last minute. "I wanted to see what my sister's reaction would be if I ran against her. She told me it was okay with her because I didn't stand a chance against her. That made me angry."
Anthea won the election, which greatly affected her sister. That quarter, Katrina failed some subjects and was put on probationary standing. She didn't go to school for weeks, not showing up even for volleyball varsity games. Anthea, who stayed in her dormitory and didn't go home for over a month because of school requirements, tried contacting Katrina, who simply ignored her messages and rejected her calls.
Katrina stopped talking to Anthea, who had to sleep in another room because her sister wouldn't let anybody into their shared bedroom. "She told me she felt betrayed. I tried to explain everything to her but she'd cut me off,"Anthea recalls.
Eventually, Anthea got through to Katrina. "Since I just wanted to teach her a lesson and I was graduating the next school year anyway, I declined the position and it was given to her." After Anthea gave it up, the sisters became closer. Anthea says, "I told her she should always stay grounded. She began helping me with my academics while I helped her with her extra-curricular activities. There was a joint effort and everyone was happy."
Cha-Cha, 21, had a similar experience with her eldest brother Seph, five years her senior. Though Seph had been the best in school among the kids and even got into a premiere university, he didn't finish his studies. The family decided that Seph would take up nursing, like Cha-Cha, and the two siblings entered the same school in the same year. "Our parents requested me to look after him. They wanted my brother to be able to finish this time."
In school, they were compared in terms of their performance, their friends, and their personalities. Although they lent each other a hand from time to time, the two got competitive, mostly over their academics. "Our parents understood we had different teachers, but we had a hard time thinking of it that way."
One area of rivalry was their thesis. Seph's group was able to submit on time, which put pressure on Cha-Cha. But during the final defense, Cha-Cha's thesis got a good evaluation, while Seph had to do a lot of editing. Friends made remarks to her like, "Buti pa kayo, masipag ka kasi eh."
Come graduation day, Seph received a leadership award for his extra-curricular involvement. "I was proud of him that day," Cha-Cha recalls. "However, some friends and cousins tactlessly asked me, 'Ikaw, anong award mo?'"
Cha-Cha says they simply couldn't avoid comparison, and it strained their relationship. The two grew less patient and more disrespectful with each other.
In competing with her brother, Cha-Cha wanted him to step up. "There was a role reversal in the family. Since I'm the only girl, I always thought it was my role to look after my brothers, to the point that I acted like the eldest." She wished Seph would be the older brother she felt he ought to be. "I wanted to be the one being cared for—not the other way around."
Unlike Katrina and Anthea, the road hasn't been as smooth for Cha-Cha and Seph. Though their relationship has improved, Cha-Cha's frustration is still there."I stopped calling him Kuya because I lost a lot of trust and respect for him, but I know he tries his best to make up for his failings. I'm still trying my best to forget all the comparison made between us."
For many years, Tracy, 18, tried to go head-to-head with her best friend Kariz because she had always felt like the second fiddle. "Kariz was intelligent, pretty, rich, and popular because she was so active in school. Though I had good grades and some extra-curricular activities of my own, I always felt overshadowed."
Because she couldn't beat her pal at looks and smarts, Tracy started taking note of Kariz's possessions. "I couldn't afford the gadgets she had, so I tried to one-up her in the things I could buy." If Kariz used a certain lip gloss, Tracy would buy a more expensive item, subtly mentioning the brand name when they freshened up in the ladies' room. If Tracy Saw Kariz in a top she recognized from a shop window, she'd also buy something from that store and wear it to their next gimmick.
Jealous that Kariz had a lot of admirers, Tracy also made up stories about boys. "One time, I brought a rose to school, and told Kariz I found it in my locker. We giggled over who my 'secret admirer' could be. She never knew it was only me."
Tracy adds,"Kariz would tell me when she thought my clothes looked great, or help me when I had a hard time with lessons. I don't think she ever suspected I was trying to beat her at some things."
It took a while for Tracy to realize that she didn't need to compete with Kariz. "I focused on what she had that I didn't, rather than who she was—my best friend. "When Tracy acknowledged her mistake, it was then that she saw and appreciated how Kariz was a caring and humble buddy. "I realized that, for example, when she'd pick me up or bring me home in her car, it wasn't to highlight that she had a driver—it was for my convenience. I finally understood that Kariz just happened to be born into an affluent family, and that she just happened to be talented, that's all. I was the one who made a big deal out of it, when in fact our friendship had nothing to do with her money or achievements."
*Names have been changed.
According to Kathleen de Jesus-dela Rosa, a psychologist from the Ateneo Center for Psychological and Educational Assessment, competition is often triggered by comparison, but a deeper root may be a lack of awareness and acceptance of one's strengths and weaknesses. "It's important to be aware that we are all made differently, with different gifts and different limitations."
Dela Rosa says competition is okay as long as you know that each person in unique, and you acknowledge that wile you'll be better than your peers in some things, they'll also "beat" you in others. Healthy competition—whether with yourself of with other people—can even be a good thing, she adds. "You will learn more about yourself, know your strengths and limitations, and develop into the best version of yourself. You also get to appreciate other people's strengths and their uniqueness as individuals."
Just be sure to keep your competitiveness in check. "It's healthy when it encourages you to be the best person you can be. It becomes unhealthy when being better than others propels all your actions and decisions," dela Rosa says.
How do you deal with the unsolicited tension when a friend turns everything into a contest? "Be a mirror," dela Rosa says. "Chances are, she's competitive with you because she sees all this beauty in you that she doesn't see in herself." Point out her best features and let her know that you see and appreciate those traits.
At the end of the day, winning may be a thrill, but is anyone really keeping score?
This story originally entitled "And the Winner Is..." first appeared in Candy Magazine's November 2009 issue.