Do we really have to be competitive to be a man?
Do we really have to be competitive to be a man?
From the classic line ‘who’s got the biggest penis?’ to the stereotypical competitions over bank balances, cars or women, it seems that it is very common behaviour and considered normal for men to be in comparison and competition with each other.
In fact, in many circles competition is even regarded as inevitable and desirable between men based on the theory that we are sophisticated animals and must compete for food, space and a right to breed. I have even heard the expression that ‘a bit of healthy competition is good for us’ and keeps us excelling and striving to be better.
Competitiveness is also what drives the whole dominant or aggressive male behaviour, which we know can be a destructive and ugly force.
But is there anything about competition that is healthy, and does it actually deliver what it says it does?
Certainly in my own life I have witnessed and been a part of this competitive male culture, whether it be on the receiving end of a man trying to compete with me or finding myself caught in trying to outdo another man. When I was at high school I realised very quickly that the best way to avoid being bullied or picked on was to be competitive and be at the top of the proverbial pile of whatever was deemed to be successful by the school’s measures. So I developed and exploited my skills in sport so that I could be faster, fitter and stronger physically than everyone else to win by a long way. I applied the same superior model to academia and music as well. This would offer me a degree of protection, for rather than a few cruel or spiteful words, my actions when beating others would crush and demoralise all those that stood in my way. It meant that I always had the last word in any competitive banter. I have only realised recently that what I presumed was a survival mechanism was actually very arrogant, if not bullying in its own way.
However, the truth is that ‘the top’ was a lonely place to be as it made it more difficult to have close and meaningful relationships with any friends or family. My whole life I have experienced competitiveness from other men and each time it has felt awful and driven a wedge between us, not allowing us to really connect or be close. I know when competition is around I have to be on guard.
There are different angles to this competition thing and it seems that men will often try and find something that they can be better at. So, if a man knows that he is not the strongest or most muscular then he might pride himself on being smarter, more intellectual or richer than another. As well, we have all heard of the small man syndrome, right? This ultimately comes from a place of competitiveness and a seeking of something to be good at or better at than everyone else.
From my observations I feel that competition starts at school; partly as a tool of survival of what can be an intense place to be most of your life as a child, and partly because it is embedded in the education culture itself. Our whole education system as far as I can see is based on a model that competition is good for you and it creates motivation and striving to excel and achieve: so we are all taught from very young that the only way to get on in life is to compete.
And then when we leave school we find that many of our other systems – whether it be our workplaces or sporting fields – are also based on competition; even our global systems of finance and business and government are based on competitiveness.
It seems that our whole life in this world is full of competition, so it is no wonder that men go into this way of being with each other and consider it normal. I am not saying that any of these things are a good or bad thing per se, I am just wanting to have an honest look at how much we have allowed competition to be in our lives and have a conversation or discussion about whether competition is normal, healthy… or actually needed?
From my experience the problem with competition is that it is based on a continual comparison with something else outside of us. When you are competitive you are constantly measuring yourself against others, your environment and your performance, and are never settled or satisfied with who you are.
You are forever caught in a spiral of insecurity, thinking you are not good enough and that you can always DO better.
The doing bit is the key here – you are always measuring your worth as a human being by what you can do or achieve rather than just being settled and content with who you are and valuing yourself as a human being, equal to all others. And because you are measuring your worth or value against some outside event, situation or result you are forever caught in the yo-yo of feeling elation if you won that day or desolation if you lost and are forever in the tension of wondering which way it was going to go that day.
I used to be an elite and very competitive athlete and at the height of my success was the time when I was most insecure and uneasy. I have heard other athletes and ex-athletes say the same thing. Competition comes with this constant pressure to perform, prove yourself and stay on top, and your last performance or victory is never enough as you are always in the fear of someone else coming along and knocking you off the top or beating you at the next event. It is an insatiable beast – a virus that puts a constant immense pressure on the body and the mind. It does not leave you alone when you are off the sporting field it seeps into every part of your life. I used to compete with myself and others all the time in everything I was doing! And you end up constantly thinking about what ‘the competition’ is up to in their spare time and whether they are secretly getting in more training or improving themselves to beat you. This again puts you in a constant state of anxiety and tension.
And as for the actual event, I used to get so anxious and tense before any competitive event that I would physically throw up. This eventually became normal for me but in hindsight it was my body telling me just how unnatural competition is and how much strain I had to put on myself to go through with something that did not feel at all natural to me.
Competition always involves a winner and a loser, so someone is always exalted and another is always crushed. One is elevated at another’s expense. They say the winner takes it all, but what are they getting really? A moment of elation that in my experience is fleeting at best and then you are left back in the tension of what will happen next time or how you will top your last performance. And losing, well we all know what that feels like and how demoralising that can be.
Is this comparison and competition thing really healthy? Either for ourselves or our communities? Does it bring us closer together as human beings?
In today’s modern world social isolation and separation seem more prevalent and damaging than ever before whether it be in the statistics on men’s health and suicide or to global events, so is this competition thing actually working? Or is it time to consider another model of collaboration rather than competition. Perhaps we need to support and build each other up as men rather than try and dominate, compete with or tear each other down?
So what can we do about it? How can we begin to change the competitiveness between men?
Well I would say based on my own life experience and observations that we need to start with re-connecting to who we are as men and as human beings rather than what we do. Really getting to know ourselves again on the inside and feeling the beauty that is inside every single man on this planet. Then we need to develop a way of living that supports us to consistently be settled and content in who we are. We all have something to bring to this world as a man and we all have qualities that are super precious and beautiful. None of us can bring it all but we each have an angle or quality that is unique and yet part of a whole that is unifying and equal.
When we are at ease in who we are we don’t need to be anything else or do anything special. We just simply have to be who we are. And then the need for comparison and competition disappears for we understand our own worth and we know that this is based on the quality of our essence on the inside rather than anything based outside of us. Once we understand and appreciate our own worth and value, we can appreciate others, their qualities and the part they have to play.
It has been said that all men are born equal under the same stars, however do we truly understand and live this fact and understand the power of equality? Equality brings true collaboration and co-operation and allows all of us to thrive and shine and take our place on the stage of this world. It allows us to support each other to grow and evolve and truly puts an end to competition and separation which only hold us back as a human species. Equality allows the presence of true connection and intimacy between us, which if we are honest at the end of the day this is what we are all craving the most in our lives and what we really want most.