Competition Cancer

Someone just sent a message to the TAGMAX list that really hit me—I started to write a reply and found that I couldn’t find much that’s positive to say.

His son is obsessed with being “better than.” Instead of being happy about his accomplishments, and rejoicing in the accomplishments of those around him (like his sister), he gets angry and needs to “beat” her in some sense. Rather than being happy with the fine violin he has and plays very well, he’s angry because the piano his sister plays is so much bigger and costs more. It isn’t that he wants the piano—he wants her to not have it.

I see two other boys—one grown now—in this father’s letter. I wish, so much, that I knew how to reach such a child, or what happens to twist a person this way. I don’t, though. I wasn’t able to reach either of them, and I honestly cannot relate to them. They are shallow and prideful and, honestly, incredibly fragile. If another person’s victory has to mean your defeat, you have to constantly be on guard and pushing higher and higher. You cannot be the best at everything. If you must be “the best” at anything, statistically it is almost guaranteed that someone in the world is actually better at it than you are—so you cannot ever be happy.

We are not our abilities. We cannot base our self-esteem on things that are genetic accidents or happy results of our rearing. If that is all we are, then it’s hardly worth being proud of what was handed to us, is it? We certainly didn’t do a damned thing to deserve or earn them. We didn’t choose our ancestors or the manner of our nurture.

What we do choose is our actions, our values, how we use our abilities and advantages—or how we overcome any disadvantages.

The only competitor I acknowledge is me. If I can improve in some way, I win. Whether it’s learning a new stitch, writing a new essay, or singing a new song, I can be happy with what I’ve done. I can rejoice in others’ accomplishments, admire them, enjoy them—and feel no need to duplicate or surpass them.

I cannot help but think that it is not possible to love if you cannot revel in your loved one’s pleasure. If you’re constantly competing, you cannot love. In fact, I don’t think it’s possible to love yourself in that kind of mindset.

I know that all three of the people I’ve seen with this sad outlook on life were told, constantly from a very young age, how very “gifted” they were. They were praised for their IQ test scores and, in two cases, were more highly prized by their parents than their “lesser” siblings (who might be gifted, but for whatever reason weren’t celebrated by their parents in the same sense). In one, I know the issue was that the Golden Boy was a BOY, long-awaited and valued above his sisters. In another case, the favored child is the eldest and has an emotionally incestuous relationship with his mother, who lives through him. His gifts are more similar to those of his mother than his sister’s are, and therefore he is more important to the mother.

I know that there is nothing inherently damaging about children knowing that they are intelligent and do well on certain kinds of tests from an early age. It doesn’t automatically lead to competition cancer. Is it being ranked higher than siblings by parents? If a parent realizes that it’s happened, is there a way to repair the damage?

Cyn is Rick's wife, Katie's Mom, and Esther & Oliver's Mémé. She's also a professional geek, avid reader, fledgling coder, enthusiastic gamer (TTRPGs), occasional singer, and devoted stitcher.
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