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Outside of school gym classes, I’ve never been one to enjoy competitive sports. I grew up playing with dolls and stuffed animals, and participating in collaborative games where there was no “winner.”
I was also the eldest sister in my house, so I spent very little time competing with my sisters. I tried hard in school with the intention to do well — not to outshine my friends — and I was immersed in a passive-aggressive Midwestern city where avoiding conflict and confrontation was baked into the culture. With this kind of background, it took me until adulthood to realize how America’s love for competition influenced how I operated.
When I finally did become more aware of this, I had to break down the role of competition in my life. How did I find myself being competitive? What were the things I tended to feel competitive about, and what triggered this response?
The first step seemed to be comparison. I caught myself almost overtly comparing my “success” to others who present their “successes” via social media. The unfair advantage is that social media is just a tiny, curated portion of a much larger story. I realized I could prevent perpetuating a harmful cycle and avoid getting swept away by competitive thinking by making a concerted effort to not compare myself to others and being careful about my social media use.
In a book that shares stories about the prophet-founder of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah, a passage about competition shed light on its role in our society and the effect it can have on our internal wellbeing. Author Adib Taherzadeh wrote:
“Human society at present exerts a pernicious influence upon the soul of man. Instead of allowing him to live a life of service and sacrifice, it is highly competitive and teaches him to pride himself on his accomplishments. From early childhood he is trained to develop his ego and to seek to exalt himself above others, in the ultimate aim of achieving self-importance, success and power. The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh aims to reverse this process. The soul of man needs to be adorned with the virtues of humility and self-effacement so that it may become detached…”
The focus on self that competition usually requires can get us stuck in a cloud of jealousy. Once we are infected with jealousy, it’s difficult to give to others for the sake of service. We become consumed by insecurity and worry that we don’t have what we think we should have. Abdu’l-Baha, the son of Baha’u’llah, described how even spending time with people who express jealousy could inhibit the freedom and growth of the soul:
Petty bickerings and jealousies make one lose all the traces of spirituality, excommunicate a person from the divine company of the worthy ones, submerge one in the sea of phantasms, suffer one to become cold and pessimistic and throw him headlong into the depths of despair and helplessness! You must not listen to anyone speaking about another; because no sooner do you listen to one than you must listen to someone else, and thus the circle will be enlarged endlessly. Therefore, say to them: “O friends! Let us come together, forget all our self-thoughts and be in one accord…”
Even at a practical level, the Baha’i writings suggest that anger and jealousy hurt our physical bodies: “Jealousy consumeth the body and anger doth burn the liver: avoid these two as you would a lion.”
RELATED: Creating a Heart Free of Envy
We are all different in this respect. Some of us might feel a rush to do better when we feel jealous or angry. This passage reminds me that it can be a very physiological experience when I feel threatened: I might feel sick in my stomach or hot in the face. So, in trying to avoid a narrow competitive mindset, I have started to analyze and contextualize what creates jealousy within me. What can I do to prevent cycles of jealousy? How can I let go of feelings of jealousy once they present themselves?
Finding ways to incorporate meditation into my day is a great way to deactivate jealousy and hit the emotional reset button. Another tool is to try to figure out what the underlying negative thoughts I have are really saying.
Usually, when we are jealous, it’s because we think we lack some capacity, and we put some negative limit on our potential. While we all have different abilities and tendencies, we don’t usually know our limitations, so to feel jealous because we’ve assumed we cannot do something we have watched another person do is unproductive.
The Baha’i writings point out that we all have different capacities but that it is unproductive to decide how capable we are of certain things. Baha’u’llah advised us to never “consider the largeness or smallness of the receptacle. The portion of some might lie in the palm of a man’s hand, the portion of others might fill a cup, and of others even a gallon-measure.”
Another tool that has been helpful for me has been getting out of my head. Finding opportunities to support others or focus on building some aspect of the community around me takes my attention off of myself and allows me to detach from the competitive or jealous feeling.
The last valuable tool I have tried to dismantle cycles of competitiveness or jealousy has been reorienting competitive energy towards internal development goals. Competition and jealousy are often rooted in trying to gain others’ acceptance or approval, which sets us up for failure because it’s virtually impossible to satisfy everyone in this vast, diverse world. When I try to focus on what my spiritual health needs and how I can become a better, more giving person than I was the day before, striving for excellence can feel good rather than poking holes of insecurity.