I think family members consider me a competitive person. Perhaps I am. But I also know that fear of competition causes me so much stress that I can hardly function, and as an older adult, it is interesting to watch this happen once again, and realize that it’s time to finally work on this issue.
My sister and I have always been competitive. My insecurities have flourished in this atmosphere — she shows me what she’s doing, I want to prove myself independent, but also don’t want to miss out on anything good that she has or she’s doing. Although I think I’ve gotten better with age, it still comes up in weird ways, maybe some of it is just habit.
My father is extremely competitive, and is often very successful in his competitions. He certainly works hard enough, almost obsessively on whatever is his interest at the time, and he expresses what he learns and believes through his writings, lectures, and discussions with others who are interested in the same things. Even though I feel proud of all his accomplishments, I often shrink away from this aspect of him, because in my mind I have felt like I could very rarely come up to par, and it was hard to feel (in myself) like a failure. Not really his doing, all comes from my own insecurities.
Now I have a partner who is also competitive, and also very good at everything she does. She works obsessively and with diligence on whatever she is interested in, and if you are a person who compares yourself to others often (and I certainly have been that), you will almost always come up short when comparing yourself with her. But for some reason, I have not felt threatened in this relationship by competition the way I have felt it in almost all others. For one thing, she is very kind, and makes it clear that she is the way she is, strictly for herself, it’s not about outdoing others EVER. For another thing, she is ALWAYS extremely supportive of whatever I do and however I do it. I never feel less around her, even if she can learn guitar in one month, and it took me many years. Even if she can memorize the words to a whole album of Steeleye Span, and I have trouble remembering the words to the songs I write. Even if she wins Best in Show for the yarn she’s spinning, and I am just learning how to fix the many mistakes in my knitting. We do our projects side by side, and we both always feel comfortable. We have very different styles, we appreciate each other, and don’t have any need to be like or outdo the other. Thank goodness for that, because I need at least one place to be completely happy with myself, and my relationship is the best place I can imagine.
So why can’t I always feel that way, why do I have to be so affected when I am in other arenas? Why can’t I always have the self confidence that I sometimes have?
Well, a little tiny bit of it might be the other people, who want or need me to be like them. But then I get caught up in that and become miserable. So it’s mostly something in myself that must have been developing since I was very young. For some strange reason, I always felt I wasn’t able to do something as well as the next person, and I either had to prove myself by getting a good grade or whatever, or feel bad about myself and give up altogether. I just heard a talk on public radio from a psychiatrist in Canada, who says he believes that sometimes strategies we use for survival at some point in our lives (certain “states” of being) continue on in the rest of our lives and become “traits”, even when they’re not needed anymore. We need to learn to eliminate them so that they don’t poison our bodies, because he believes that the body is a bio/psycho/social/spiritual being, in other words, interconnected in all ways. I have to agree with that. So maybe what I’m working with is a trait that developed for some reason that I can now let go of. That seems reasonable.
I have tried to have jobs where I have had a modicum of independence, because then I don’t always feel in direct competition. In teaching, you have your own classroom. When I co-taught with my friend, we had our own niches, and thus we could work well together, each accomplishing our parts of the job and doing good work. I’ve taught myself so many things like knitting, guitar, fiddle, whatever, so that I don’t have to be in a competitive- feeling class, or with a teacher who has certain expectations, which I may or may not fulfill.
Now I find myself in a google+ group for songwriting, so that I can post my songs and get feedback to improve them. I am absolutely terrified! I listen to other people’s songs and invariably decide that they are better than mine, more interesting words, better tunes, better production. I become afraid to post songs, afraid that mine won’t get as many comments, that they’ll be too weird, that they’ll get negative comments, even! For a while, when they were assignments for my class that I was completing, I wasn’t as nervous, I was just caught up in the learning. And then I got caught up in the passion of writing the song, it became an obsession, playing it over and over, dreaming about it, singing it in my head when I woke up, thinking about it on the dog walk, trying to figure out just the right word here or there, the right melody, the right key to sing it in. As soon as I think it’s time to show it to someone else, terror. As soon as I get some critical comments, I’m almost ready to give up. My passion dissipates, my stomach hurts, I’m constantly agitated.
I let criticism by others take up too much space in my mind. I want life to be filled with praise, although I know that praise is very nice but not necessary. Most important is how I feel about something, have I done my best, have I utilized all my knowledge? Especially since I’m really writing (or doing whatever) for myself. Since when did the opinions of others become so all consumingly important? Well, for me, it’s been a very long time. And now it’s time to change (one deep breath at a time), for my physical health, if nothing else. When I get anxious about someone else’s opinion, it’s time to get back into the song, back into the very thing I love, so much so that everything else disappears. That’s my newest resolve, I’ll let you know how it works out. Also, I know that when I’m nervous, my work isn’t as good, but when I’m just into what I’m doing, my stuff can definitely stand up to others’ (at least some others’). And perhaps it’s like appearances — it’s not how much you weigh or what you’re wearing, it’s how you carry yourself, how confident (yet humble) you look, how interested and passionate you feel about life. So it’s not so much about the product, it’s about the excitement in creating it, and I need to put out that I’ve worked hard and really like it (and don’t mind hearing constructive comments about how to improve it).
Ask my sister, who kindly accepted all manner of strange things I created and gave her, including a dreadful shirt on which I had painted various objects. I loved the painting of it, but oh my god, it was an awful present for anyone. She knew that process was more important than product, because she actually gave me art materials specifically to feed my passion. It’s finally time to realize that I’ve made many awful things, and haven’t died because of embarrassment yet, and in fact have improved on many of them because I’ve kept practicing. And there’s always going to be someone who’s better than me at something, that’s the way it is. But there just might be a niche for my kind of thing, somewhere, somehow. And there’s always going to be people who like what I do and am, and people who don’t. That’s the magic of diversity. I just need to do what I want to do, finally, as an almost 60 year old, and then let go of what happens next. I think I can do that, at least I can practice doing it.