I am in a great relationship with a wonderful woman. We have many interests in common and we love doing sports (running, skiing, biking) together. Unfortunately, I get “chicked” by my girlfriend a lot. When she beats me in a race, I tend to get distant with her. I want her to accomplish her goals, but how do I balance her lofty achievements against my self esteem? Sincerely,
Having mixed feelings about self-esteem, relationships, and competition reflects the complexity of those issues. People sometimes feel that only when they surpass their partner in certain arenas can they be valued or esteemed. Interestingly, in some cultures there is little notion of self-esteem. Instead, people are concerned with group identity and their role within the group.
Today’s Western culture, however, promotes a view of self-esteem based on individual success. Children are raised with abundant praise for excelling, winning competitions, or standing out as being special. Ironically, excessive focus on outshining others may lead people to depend on external validation to feel good. When they don’t win or stand out, they feel empty or inadequate, which leads to feeling distant and detached from others. Thus, the way we tend to instill self-esteem can be self-defeating, because it encourages dependence on others for a sense of self-worth.
Such self-esteem arisies from continuous attempts to be special—to feel pride and avoid shame. Somebody who primarily identifies with being “special” tends to feel vulnerable when not being admired for being the best, the smartest, the most beautiful, the most skillful, etc. When we feel vulnerable, it’s easy to blame others or ourselves for our discomfort, and this creates new problems.
A need for continuous pats on the back also makes it difficult to relax and enjoy other meaningful parts of life. So exclusive focus on being special can foster paradoxical results—ambition and success, on the one hand, depression and unhappiness, on the other.
Here’s the key—praise and criticism are excessive when there’s no concern about how the individual actually experiences life.
We spend much of our lives being ordinary and doing ordinary things, many of which can give us much meaning and pleasure. This type of enjoyment arises simply from doing and being, rather than from external validation. There can be great enjoyment in bike riding, gardening, playing with your kids, talking with a stranger, or reading a good book. When you focus on your own experience of life and your connection with others, something ineffable about who you are shines through your activities, which has nothing to do with being better than others.
Ideally, you would balance the feeling of being “chicked” with the enjoyment of all aspects of life. In other words, we would balance our discomfort with someone else’s gain or winning with our individual experience of the non-extraordinary, our participation with others, and when the occasion arises, being special and admired by others
What is our self-worth based on?
Let’s take a closer look at the various sources of meaning and enjoyment so we can reconfigure what our sense of self-worth is based on. A bike competition is a good example of an event that can encompass many different layers of meaning as well as enjoyment. For example,
- the personal enjoyment of the ride
- the personal feeling of competence
- the participation with people who have the same passion
- the sharing of the experience with a partner or friend, which adds a new dimension to the relationship and a shared history
- the admiration from others for doing well
When we appreciate more layers of enjoyment in competitions and elsewhere in life, our enjoyment becomes richer and less vulnerable. When we merely focus on one part, we miss out on all the other meaningful facets. If we only value beating others in competition—or being admired by others—we’ll be disappointed often, particularly as we age. Most gold medalists and prize fighters end up having to learn that lesson.
Couples who polarize
Sometimes, one of the partners has the more noticeably “special” qualities of the couple. When one partner is known as the well-known artist or the best mountain bike rider, for example, the other has the option to rejoice in that success or to feel left behind. The feeling of being left behind can polarize the couple, exacerbating feelings of inadequacy and creating distance in the relationship.
In many places and in our recent past, men had a superior role in the relationship, while women were expected to play a subservient role. In the last fifty years we have moved away from this split in roles. This is fortunate for both men and women, for when someone diminishes him- or herself to purposely allow another to feel superior, it implies that the other’s ego is fragile and dependent on being dominant in the relationship. When self worth is dependent on feelings of superiority, a person misses the chance to experience life through expressing and interacting through his or her authentic self.
To Bruised Ego
The fact that your girlfriend does not play down her abilities indicates that she has faith that you have adequate self-respect and that your self-worth is not dependent on your bike riding. When you look at it this way, you might find it inspiring to have a partner who sees your inner character rather than simply your biking prowess. I’m sure it is also inspiring for her to be with a partner who supports her aspirations and appreciates her competitive spirit.
The discomfort you feel when she excels may be a residual reaction cultivated by our culture or your upbringing. Some people feel dejected whenever someone beats them; others react this way only when a woman surpasses them. The very fact that you are grappling with your feelings of self-esteem allows you to make a conscious decision in how to react rather than to merely react impulsively according to your current emotion. As you focus on a more multi-faceted experience of enjoyment and meaning, your feelings of unease will diminish. Good luck.
David Schnarch’s “Passionate Marriage” (1997).: Henry Holt & Co. New York, NY.
“The Voice Dialogue Series” (CDs), by Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone.