Is Competition Holding You Back from Greatness?

Anyone who has known me well enough for long enough knows that I can be a little bit of a meathead at times. If I see some good odds, I’ll throw down a bet. If you challenge me in a sprint or to see who can jump higher, I’ll puff up my chest start talking smack. Want to see who can hold their breath longer? Hold my phone and my keys for me- I got this.

I mean…competition can be fun… and it can be helpful sometimes for us to push ourselves past our limits, to try new things, to have a good laugh, or even just as a way to measure how far we have come in a particular practice- be it a career, a sport, a skill…anything really.

But what I’ve found, which in today’s world has become more the rule than the exception, is that competition ALSO feeds a subconscious and double edged belief of inferiority and arrogance. Because if I am always trying to be THE best- it means that my happiness is reliant upon the outcome where I am the winner, and everyone else is the loser.

When I officially stepped back into a CrossFit gym after taking a serious hiatus for a few years, I had to come to terms with the fact that if I wanted to become the best version of myself, than I would have to starve my ego whenever I was there. I would have to lift lighter weights than everyone else in the class, I would have to move slower when movements felt harder, I would have to be okay with coming in last sometimes, I would have to hide my eyes from the imagined (or maybe real) looks that said “You’re a coach, and you didn’t RX the workout?”…and that I would have to do that without beating myself up mentally with the “What the fuck, Kristen… you suck.”

And while this has been an ultimately humbling process that has allowed me to grow again as an athlete and as a person, it has taught me a lot about myself and how I used  to use competition to either build myself up, or tear myself down. How being the “best”, or at least attempting to- caused me to overtrain, lift weights my body wasn’t ready to lift, move in unsafe patterns… I became so fixated on being “better than” that it was at a detriment to my health. I wasn’t trying to be the best version of myself anymore, I was trying to be the best version of everyone else too.  And when the wheels came off and I crashed and burned, not only was I no longer a candidate for first- I couldn’t even be in the race anymore.

And if we are placing our worthiness in the hands of whomever is crowning the victor, we most definitely can NOT afford to be out of the race.

But we don’t just do this in sports, or in the gym, or in our careers- it leaks into every aspect of our lives. We compete to get the most attention in our families, or from the object of our obsession for the moment. We compete to be the smartest in the room, and (if we’re in the right rooms) when we’re not, we feel like failures. We try to be the best mom at the playground, or the sexiest woman at home so our partners ONLY find us attractive. We find ourselves racing to be right at all costs, or the most hurt at all costs…or whatever example of having to be the “est” you could think of…there isn’t an aspect of our lives where SO MANY of us aren’t spinning out of control hustling and competing for our own worthiness.

Jesus- my mind is spinning just typing this. Its so exhausting… competition is so exhausting. Pathological, unchecked and untempered competition does NOT breed greatness… no, it breeds something that we all hate to feel so badly that it’s no wonder we try to outrun it in every race we enter: inadequacy. The feeling that somehow, for some reason, our best effort on that day somehow doesn’t measure up…and therefore, WE don’t measure up.

BUT…

What if getting off of your couch and stepping onto the track made you enough? What if your commitment to being the best version of YOURSELF bred happiness and joy, and sometimes winning was a part of that, and sometimes it wasn’t. But what if that didn’t matter, anyway, because you being enough was just a fact that nothing outside of you could touch? What if, for one day, you stopped labeling yourself as the “est” anything- and just gave your 100% , whatever that looked like, and went to bed feeling accomplished?

I might get a lot of flack for this…because most people feel they do their best work when the pressure of competing is on them. And I’d agree…put a timer up and superb athlete next to me and there is not a single doubt in my mind that I will perform better than I would have without a clock and without a “competitor”. But here’s the thing… sometimes the form something takes has nothing to do with it’s meaning. Sometimes it isn’t WHAT we are doing, but WHY we are doing it that can be helpful, or it can be caustic.

What if I used that athlete and what they were capable of, as a marker to see if I was capable of pushing myself as hard as they could that day? What if halfway through our test of fitness, I realize I am about to burn out, so I slow down and finish 45 seconds behind them? OR What if halfway through I realize I could actually push harder, and I finish 30 seconds ahead? How I feel about myself after I finish that final rep in either of those situations  is what determines whether I just entered into healthy competition- or I just served my ego; and it is only ever doing one of two things. It is either lashing  out at me, making me it’s whipping post, or it is hoisting me upon it’s shoulders to look down on everyone else.

Now, if I can fall to the floor and laugh saying “Holy shit- that was intense! Thank you for the push!”, exchanging a solid high five, regardless of the outcome- than I know my worthiness wasn’t hingeing on an outcome. If I’m bitter, or I’m better than- well, by this point in the blog you know what I’m going to say.

Using others as barometers of our own capacity is a wonderful tool in many practices. The people ahead of us push us to move forward, and the people behind us follow in our footsteps picking up our slack… but none are better or worse than you. Every day that you step into your own personal arena, you acknowledge your own adequacy. And once you realize that your happiness, your worth, your credibility, whatever it is you’re hustling for- is not contingent upon anything outside of yourself, you become so focused on enjoying the race, that it really doesn’t matter what place you come in. And yes… some times, on some days, in some groups of people, for some set of tasks assigned to you- you will come out victorious and “win.” But don’t forget to high five all the people around you who pushed you and helped you get there…because the better they get, the better YOU get. And tomorrow with a new set of tasks and a new set of circumstances, chances are, you may have to abdicate the throne anyway- so it’s a good idea not to piss everyone off while you wear the crown.

Photoshoots, RBF and self acceptance.

So I had a photo shoot this past Monday. Like, a real photo shoot. Where my “not good enough” ego takes it’s favorite place centerstage. Right in the spotlight. Which causes my face to rest in some weird “I kind of have to poop and I kind of hate the world” way, along with causing my body to move like Mr. Universe trying to do yoga.

At least, in my mind that’s what I think I look like.

So somewhere in the beginning, I make (what I meant to be) a self deprecating comment. I say, “I just feel so masculine all of the time.” At which point, April, the photographer, moves the camera away from her eye and holds it a bit lower, pointing the lens to the floor. She looks at me for a moment. I anticipate her to bat this comment down. To give me the expected “No you’re not!” fluff that other people usually throw my way. Haven’t we learned to reject people’s assertions about themselves (unless of course they’re utterly positive in nature) in an effort to make them “feel better”?

When she opens her mouth next, I don’t hear fluff. I don’t hear compliments. Instead I hear, “Tell me about that?”

So I explain it to her. I can’t remember exactly how. But I’m sure I referenced feeling bulky and bigger, or not wanting to wear heels to the shoot as my “girly” friends suggested, or not feeling feminine in any way shape or form at all.

You know, the usual ways I explain away and justify my own self loathing. When I say I feel masculine, what I mean to say is, “I don’t think I am beautiful.”

Again, a moment of silence.

I am paraphrasing here, because I don’t remember word for word how she said this, but what she said in response stunned me for a moment. She said, “Then own it. That’s who you are. Trying to be or come off as anything else would be inauthentic. Masculine energy in a feminine woman is a beautiful and powerful thing.”

And without skipping a beat, she pulled the camera back up to her eye and resumed shooting.

I’d love to say I carried on channeling my inner Tyra the rest of the shoot, but I didn’t. Though April’s words stuck to me that day and followed me home. They played over and over again in my head and they begged of me one simple question: Can I accept myself and love myself fully- exactly as I am?

My mind raced back to a conversation a week or so earlier, as I met with a friend for tea. I remember her telling me how she had always tried to be the funny one in her old group of friends. How her humor was  full of sarcasm and self deprecation too. How she tried to be social and energetic and the life of the party so she could fit in and be accepted…and how over the years and through self-growth, she realized- she never really liked to be the center of attention. How she prefers tea with close friends or nights in reading a new book. How when she takes the self-shaming out of her humor, she isn’t “the funny one” anymore.  How she didn’t want to be if it meant she had to put herself or others down. How the mask she had lived in slipped away and how when she wasn’t covering up she could finally feel the sunlight on her face again.

I sat in my room…staring across my bed to the mirror hanging up on my door. I saw dark circles under my eyes, I saw a face that was rounder than I thought it should have been, I saw lines around my eyes when I tried to smile and teeth that weren’t perfectly straight. I heard a thousand reasons why I should wish I was different than I was.

I  shut my eyes as hard as I could, and told myself to look deeper. So I did.

This time when I opened them I saw a different woman. This time I saw eyes that were tired. From restless nights. From hiding all of the time. From the stress of trying to figure it all out. From too many losses to count in the last few years. From letting herself down. From the grind that she’s in every day to try to grow, let go, and move forward. I saw a face that carried the weight of years of owning someone else’s problems. And years of mustering up the courage to be strong.  A body that held all of her hateful thoughts about herself inside, storing them for later use, when she needed another beating. I saw a woman who was weary of her own lashings. But a woman who kept standing up no matter how tired she was, no matter how many times life knocked her down.A woman who desperately needed to take ownership of all the wonderful things she was, before she buried them so deep with food and alcohol and self deprecating humor that she may never be able to uncover them again.

And I saw beautiful too. Eyes that sparkled when the light hit them just right. An energy that, yes, felt kind of masculine…but in a strong way. In a way that meant she wasn’t frail anymore. In a way that meant some gusts of winds have hardened her skin, but she would not be pushed over by senseless blows. A masculinity that felt…beautiful and…feminine. I saw beauty in her furrowed brow as she analyzed life at every turn. I saw a body that has been used as a whipping post for her own belittlement, that now deserved to be loved, just as it was in this very moment- because all it had ever done was what she had told it to do.

And in that moment- for the first time in a long time- I realized I could stop trying to be something I wasn’t, even if that truth settled in me only for a moment or so. I knew it would come back. That the universe would send me more moments, more Aprils, more tea dates with friends, more smacks about the head reminding me to embrace the circles of my own trunk. And I felt relief. Because the only circles I had ever accepted were the ones I was running to get away from the simplest truth that’s taken me almost 31 years to figure out:

We are who we are, and thank God for that…because (and I say this in my most assertive, strong and femininely masculine voice I have) – that is fucking beautiful.