One of the most common feelings I get from counselling clients, is that they somehow feel they are not doing enough. Typical examples of what they say include:
‘I feel that I only have limited time left, and I’m not doing what I want to do.’
‘I know that I should be doing work, but I just don’t seem to get round to it.’
‘I need to get more done, but I’m not doing it.’
‘I feel that life is passing me by.’
‘I feel useless.’
ANXIOUS, DEPRESSED, OR HEALTHY?
These comments and feelings come from clients irrespective of whether they suffer from anxiety or depression. They don’t seem to be thoughts common to one or the other. It’s even common to hear similar words from those who don’t feel they are formally suffering from clinical anxiety or depression.
THE NEED FOR ACHIEVEMENT (TO ‘WIN’)
There does, however, seem to be a common thread. Those who are suffering often (but not always) seem to be thinking in terms of achievement, or winning. It is as though there is a game to be played, involving climbing a league table of activity. It is as though they fear underperforming, and as a consequence getting relegated to a lower league.
Sometimes this achievement orientation seems to link to parental standards in childhood. Openly or covertly, parents or carers may have let it be known that achievement is good, non-achievement bad. There may have been report cards, marking systems, reward and punishment systems, prize systems. The rewards and punishments can be very subtle, almost unseen. In adulthood, children exposed to this can end up haunted by inadequacy, feeling that they have to achieve in order to be loved.
THE FEAR OF LOSING
Some people convert this into a fear of losing, rather than a need to win. They don’t start activities, because they fear it will never be good enough on the invisible, implied scale of adequacy. This is essentially the same as an anti-competitive reaction to the felt need to win. It’s just re-expressed as the need not to lose.
COMPETITIVE AND ANTI-COMPETITIVE BEHAVIOURS
Inner feelings of inadequacy can result in competitive and anti-competitive behaviours. In this context, by anti-competitive behaviours, I mean behaviours which seek to deal with the issue of competition by means other than direct open action (e.g. by undermining the other, by sudden withdrawal, or even by undermining the self).
Competitive behaviours can include:
- sacrificing health or happiness in the pursuit of personal goals*
- comparing personal wealth, resources or attractiveness with others
- obsessively keeping score
*Some would say ‘what’s wrong with personal goals?’ Nothing per se. But happiness is sacrificed where the goals are self-grasping (i.e. where the end game is self-aggrandisement, or the avoidance of loss).
Anti-competitive behaviours can include:
- projecting competition anxiety onto secondary objects (e.g. manically performing secondary activities such as tidying up, rather than face a socially exposing activity)
- projecting competition anxiety onto others (e.g. pre-emptively criticising others to distract from unfavourable comparison)
- avoidance of activities where confrontation or comparison is possible (e.g. staying in to avoid the gaze of others)
WHAT CAN WE DO TO STAY HEALTHY?
The self-focused need to achieve or compete is quite difficult to combat. It has strong evolutionary roots in the battle for resources and survival. But the good news is that evolution has also equipped us with brains that can escape self-interest, and be happy without needing either to compete/achieve, or to avoid competition/achievement. Here are a few ways to begin to feel enough, without feeling the need to respond to a pressure to achieve or compete.
- Take the long view of time. When training business and finance, I am fond of saying ‘Take the billion year perspective’. It’s my way of teasing achievement-oriented delegates into conceding that, in the long run, so many things don’t matter as much as we think they do. The person who takes the long view is not trapped by urgency to compete.
- Start with a small action. Procrastination is often caused by fear, and fear holds us back from even starting difficult things. Choose an initial action that is easy for you, and simple to do. It’s amazing how this can bring an initial focus which can then be carried through into greater actions.
- Pace yourself. Try to spend most of your life jogging rather than sprinting. You will find it easier to handle actions if they are done at a sustainable pace. Sprinting may look good, but it causes frequent exhaustion.
- Smell the roses. The phrase ‘smell the roses’ means to enjoy the richness of what is now, rather than worrying about the past or the future. Be content. Woods, hills and trees dress up for everyone, regardless of where they are on any league table.
- Serve others. There are so many small ways you can help others, and it is a cause of personal happiness. (See, for instance, the article by Jenny Santi in this link.)
FINAL THOUGHTS ON ACHIEVEMENT AND COMPETITIVENESS
It’s common to feel the pressure of time, the drag of procrastination, the pain of urgency, the disappointment of missing out, and the agony of worthlessness.
We can easily get sucked into a competitive quest for achievement. Our upbringing, and our society, may have primed us to think in this way.
This can cause competitive activities such as setting self-grasping goals, comparing ourselves with others, and keeping score. When that becomes too much, we can also find ourselves reacting anti-competitively: hiding in substitute activities, preemptively criticising others, or avoiding others altogether.
If this is you, healthy behaviours to work on include:
- Taking the long view
- Starting with small actions
- Pacing yourself
- Smelling the roses
- Serving others
Rather than being a winner, perhaps it is better to be relaxed and kind.