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The Right Way to Channel Your Competitive Streak

A little friendly competition can boost your health, creativity and relationships — if you do it the right way.
Image: Pulling a rope
Unhealthy competition causes tension in friendships.VasjaKoman / Getty Images

Even if you don't consider yourself a competitive person, chances are you've found yourself in a situation with a friend where you felt that competitive spirit bubbling up. Maybe it was as innocent as racing your buddy back to the entrance of your local park after the two of you finished a run. Or you're in an unspoken competition with an old college friend who pursued a similar career trajectory — which you're reminded of whenever bonus time rolls around at your respective companies.

It's true that a little friendly competition doesn't hurt — especially when it's all in good fun. But at what point does competition between friends cross the line into more harmful territory? Knowing the benefits and pitfalls of competition among peers can prevent it from hurting your relationships, and enable you to use it to your advantage.

What’s Fueling Your Competitive Spirit?

The thing about competition is that it doesn't exist unless both parties involved care about winning. When it comes to the things that most friends compete over, Marina Lenderman, a psychotherapist practicing in New York City, says that the scenario we're trying to "win" at will vary by friend group depending on what it is that's important to the two people involved in the friendship.

"Friendly competition is at its best when both parties are working to push one another toward a similar goal."

"Friends compete over areas of life that are in line with their values," Lenderman says. "For example, if within your groups of friends you value status, then competition may center around things that are perceived to have status such as your job title, proximity to influential people or even objects that the group believes have value, such as name brand clothing. Competition typically comes from a place where someone is looking to make themselves stand out and the vehicle for doing this is to obtain as much of the desired thing as possible and to make sure that people know that you have acquired these things."

Using Friendly Competition to Your Advantage

The term "competition" insinuates that there's a clear winner and loser involved. But Lenderman says that friendly competition is at its best when both parties are working to push one another toward a similar goal, regardless of which person comes out on top. "Healthy competition can drive friends to work out together and therefore improve their health side by side," she explains. "This lighter form of competition can involve checking in with each other about how many times you went to the gym that week. In this sense, wanting to 'out-do' each other is channeled into working out more frequently and both parties can reap the rewards of this competitive spirit."

For competition to be healthy for a friendship, it's also imperative that the main objective isn't winning, but wanting the best outcome for your friend. "A healthy competition between friends inspires both sides to do their absolute best," says Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi, psychiatrist at Doctor On Demand. "You should motivate each other, cheer each other on and never walk away with hard feelings. In a situation where you and a friend are both vying to solve a complex problem at work, a healthy competition can lead to improved focus on the task, help you think more creatively about the issue at hand and encourage more cooperation with colleagues — all positive skills. This type of healthy competition can also lead to an invaluable connectedness in the relationship by virtue of the fact that you are helping each other grow."

The ideal type of friend to compete with? Dr. Frieda Birnbaum, PhD and research psychologist, says you'll want to make sure you're respected by the person you're competing with for best results — and that the feeling is mutual. "Competition between friends can be healthy because you both already have a foundation of respect for each other," Dr. Birnbaum says. "With that respect, you'll likely give your best and challenge each other in ways you wouldn't normally do to another person. Also, when you or your friend are the victor, you can expect support and congratulations."

Image: Marathon Runners.
Healthy competition can drive friends to work out together, improving their health side by side.vgajic / Getty Images

When Competition Does More Harm Than Good

The occasional Fitbit step challenge probably won't harm your friendship. But if you find that you're competing with your friend more often than not, it can cause a rift in your relationship. "Unhealthy competition is when the majority of the relationship revolves around comparison and trying to out do the other person," Lenderman says. "This is typically seen in relationships that are less intimate and where the mutual appreciation has been lost or was not fully developed. It negatively impacts friendship because these types of friendships do not make one feel supported and appreciated. Instead, there is a concern that you need to be on edge for the next great thing your friend does and be able to match it. In the long term it leaves people feeling exhausted and stressed in exchanges with this dynamic."

"At its worst, unhealthy competition can feel like a threat you have to defend yourself against."

Even if the competition you're having with a friend centers around a positive change for both of you (for example, a fitness challenge), it can enter into harmful territory if one friend starts to feel jealous toward the other's success — to the point where outdoing the friend becomes more important to them than the friend achieving his or her goals. "Unhealthy competition is solely focused on the goal of winning for winning's sake," says Dr. Benders-Hadi. "At its worst, unhealthy competition can feel like a threat you have to defend yourself against."

Back to our fitness example: Say your friend logged more steps than you did — for the third week in a row. Instead of feeling proud of him or her for exceeding their weekly goal, you start to spew reasons why you weren't able to hit that same mark. And, just to make sure you come out on top, you call out the obligations your friend wasn't up against that you know are a point of contention — like pointing out to the single friend who won the challenge that you've been too busy wedding planning to hit the gym as much as you would have liked. "The impact of this type of relationship can be long-lasting feelings of inferiority that have a negative impact on self-esteem and can lead to depression," Dr. Benders-Hadi says.

Shift Your Competitive Edge from Harmful to Healthy

If you're noticing these harmful competitive patterns in your own friendships, the first step toward making the shift to a healthier way of competing is to acknowledge it. "Healthy competition is when friends are aware and transparent about their competitiveness," says Lenderman. "Comments like, 'I have a really hard time admitting that I may not be the best at everything' go a long way to defuse the competitive energy and demonstrate that a person is aware of the potential down sides of competitiveness. This awareness also keeps the competitiveness from getting out of control and helps someone keep the larger goals of maintaining closeness in the relationship at heart."

Unhealthy competition causes tension in friendships, and can end up being exhausting for both parties involved. To alleviate this, Dr. Benders-Hadi suggests talking with your friend about the impact it's having to help both of you recognize the pattern, and work toward a solution. "Pay attention to the toll the competition is taking on your friendship," she says. "Are you enjoying spending time with your friend the same as before the negative pattern started? Is there an uneasiness or negativity surrounding the relationship? Try having a talk with your friend to put everything out on the table and understand each other's' feelings."

Spending time with a friend should be enjoyable — so if that's no longer the case, Dr. Benders-Hadi says being mindful during your next friendly hangout will help get you back to that place. "Find the joy at the core of what you are doing," she recommends. "Whether it is a game of tennis, dancing or creating something new, when you are happy and enjoying yourself the competition becomes less about winning or losing and more about enjoying time spent with friends."