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Competitions that emphasize sportsmanship and fairness have had a long history of acceptance in our society. But competition becomes something else when it starts to send the message that winning is all—in any way you can—and at any cost to another. That kind of competition crosses over to become a form of bullying or “killer” competition.

There are scores of articles about the positive value of competition. It is seen as being important in building and succeeding in business; acting as the core driving force of all athletics; providing a motivating factor for activities that form the basis of our various cultures; even naturally—between living organisms which co-exist in the same environment. But these articles are defining competition as contests that reinforce learning, allow for moving forward, and even enhance survival. The essence of “killer” or destructive competition is an exact opposite, reaching into all facets of our social interactions. It appears in one form or another in business, family dynamics and all forms of sports activity.
For example, there was a report earlier this year that a winning professional football team rewarded its players a bonus if members of the other team were attacked with enough force to not only cause them to leave the game, but possibly be out of play for a longer period of time. There are current reports about questionable business practices by large corporations trying to gain a competitive edge bordering on “killer” competition.
I have also found this negative form of competition between and among family members to be particularly damaging. Over the years I have worked with a number of individuals who had been caught in both overt and covert patterns of competitiveness, resulting in enduring issues of poor self-esteem, low self-worth and confusion about their ability to perform any number of tasks. A father who destructively competes with his son sends a message that the son had better not win the competition. It may start at first with games and sports—then continues into adulthood, thus guaranteeing that the son will not reach a higher—or even equal—level of success than his father has achieved. The mother (or step-mother) who needs to be “the fairest of them all” does not make an exception for her young daughter. Just think of what Snow White had to endure.
The first-born child in a family, feeling no longer special with the arrival of the new baby, can play out those feelings by having to consistently best the younger child. This pattern is particularly damaging to both children if the parents choose not to intervene. It sends a message of support for the older child’s bullying behavior and a message to the younger child of being less important. Cousins can get caught in acting out competitions among themselves that represent the issues that stir their pot as well as being the issues of the competitions among the adults in the family. And adults in a family can get caught up in both the competitions among themselves as well as the unresolved issues of previous generations.
If you have struggled with issues of self-worth or have become aware of something in your history that seems to gnaw at your gut, check your family’s interactions for obvious as well as hidden destructive and bullying competitions between and among the adults, as well as the children. If the quality of your life has suffered, ask yourself if you had permission to win a competition—or were you the designated “loser.”

This blog was written by Ditta M. Oliker, PhD, author of the book The Light Side of the Moon