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I confess: The reason I choose the treadmill next to yours when others are empty is so I can sneak a peak at your speed and incline settings. This isn't to critique your performance but to improve mine. I know myself well enough to realize that I push a little harder and work a little longer when I'm competing, even if I'm the only one aware of the contest. Sure, I could save $50 a month by running outside, but with no one to "race," I'd walk the hills and quit after the first mile.
And yet I've never run an actual race. While competition secretly motivates me, I'm uncomfortable with open challenges. It's an aversion many women share, says Stanford University economist Muriel Niederle, PhD. In one of her recent studies, she had men and women solve simple math puzzles. Despite the fact that the women scored on a par with the men, when Niederle offered everyone the opportunity to enter a tournament with a big payout for the winner, just 32 percent of the women signed up compared with 75 percent of the men. Okay, so maybe you run 5Ks all the time or would put your long-division skills up against anybody's, but chances are you've struggled with some aspect of competition. Even women who've played sports can have trouble transferring the confidence and drive they developed to other areas of their lives. "Sports are games with rules, so it's easier to learn how to compete in that arena," says psychologist Sylvia Rimm, PhD, coauthor of the book How Jane Won (Three Rivers Press, 2001). Off the field, where the tenets are unwritten and the stakes may be higher, you might refrain from competing entirely or limit yourself to sure bets -- applying for a promotion only if you're positive it won't ruffle anybody's feathers or sticking with your (boring) beginner step class because the people at the next level are so much fitter than you.
"Women still aren't taught how to function in competitive situations," says Rimm. "We feel terribly sorry for girls when they lose, so they learn to feel terribly sorry for themselves, which makes them less resilient," she says. "At the same time, we praise them effusively when they win, putting pressure on them to perform flawlessly to gain love and approval."
But some women do get competition right -- and enjoy the process. According to Rimm's research, more than 40 percent of women who rate themselves as happy both personally and professionally named "winning in competition" (all kinds -- academic, athletic, artistic) as their most positive past experience. Honing your competitive instinct will help you improve your performance in any number of situations. Winning increases self-assurance, but losing is just as valuable because you learn how to pick yourself up and try again. Here, five rules for facing competition with aplomb.
Don't get sidetracked by envy: Make sure the things you're competing for are the things that you value, says Betsy Cohen, author of The Snow White Syndrome: All About Envy (MacMillan, 1987). If you covet your friend's new Mini Cooper, pause before you race to the nearest dealership, and consider: Is it the car you desire, or do you wish you felt as happy and self-satisfied as she does? "Often it's the latter," says Cohen. "Ask yourself: What would make me feel that way? It may be something entirely different from what you've been envying."
While this seems like a no-brainer, the reality, says Rimm, is that many women downplay their talents to avoid making others feel bad or resentful. "A big part of the female identity is caring for others, so women may have doubts, and even some shame, about putting self-enhancement first," says Carole Oglesby, PhD, a sports psychology consultant at California State University at Northridge. Yet to achieve any goal, from sinking a basket to landing a client, you must be unambiguous about your desire to succeed, she says. Doubt can lead to hesitation, which can cause you to falter and ultimately fail if you are in a high-performance situation.
One of the benefits of competition is that going up against talented people often leads us to sharpen our skills and raise our own performance bar. Capitalize on that by thinking of your objective as "improve my personal best" rather than "kick her butt." According to Oglesby, research shows that taking this approach can make the contest more enjoyable by dampening anxiety and enhancing your focus, which means you'll learn more from the experience. If you're vying with a colleague for your company's top salesperson slot, for example, don't focus on beating her numbers; concentrate on bringing in 15 percent more business than you did last month or last year.
Women tend to attribute their victories to luck or other external factors yet blame their failures on personal shortcomings, says Anna Fels, MD, author of Necessary Dreams: The Role of Ambition in Women's Changing Lives (Vintage, 2005). Consequently, you may shy away from competition because any loss threatens your self-esteem. But the more you experience and rebound from disappointment, the more resilient you'll become. Start by competing in situations where you don't expect to win and that aren't overly important to you, so any loss won't be ego-crushing. If you've just started dabbling in photography, enter the community newspaper's photo contest. Dust off that 12-speed bike in the garage and register for a charity bike race.
It sounds stereotypical, but studies show that some women tend toward covert competition -- gossiping about, ostracizing, and withholding information from those they perceive as professional or personal threats. For example, according to research by Judith Briles, PhD, 75 percent of women said they'd been sabotaged by another woman in the workplace. What drives this tendency? "An increasingly competitive culture that nevertheless still tells women it's inappropriate to compete openly for status or recognition," says Briles, author of Woman to Woman 2000: Becoming Sabotage Savvy in the New Millennium (New Horizon Press, 2000).
You're more likely to default to sabotage when you don't acknowledge, even to yourself, what you want in the game, says Briles. For example, you'll question the qualifications of a colleague who applies for a promotion without expressing your own interest in the position, or undercut a woman who's flirting with your current crush when you don't have the nerve to ask him to coffee.
If you find yourself treating someone unfairly behind the scenes, consider: Are you and she competing for power, position, popularity? If so, admit it, inwardly at least, says Briles, and resolve not to engage in backstabbing. "Sabotage may be effective in the short term, but it usually comes back to roost," says Briles. "If you get a reputation for being two-faced or undermining, no one is going to want to share confidences with you or keep you in the grapevine." Indeed, more than a third of respondents in eight of Briles' studies said they'd prefer not to work with women.
Do you instinctively deflect praise for everything from your great fashion sense to snagging the corner office because you're afraid of being seen as having a big head? Get out of the habit. "Acknowledgment for the things you've accomplished is crucial to identity and self-worth," says Dr. Fels. She suggests that you put yourself in a position to be praised. Identify your strengths and talents, then find places where they're likely to be valued. If you feel your skills are wasted or unappreciated on the job (or, if you're a stay-at-home mom, unappreciated by your toddler), put them to work for a volunteer, school, or community group. Then accept, without apology, the kudos you score.
Granted, replacing a knee-jerk "it was nothing" with "thanks for noticing" will initially require conscious effort -- and a willingness to override any consequent discomfort. But just being aware that, as women, we have difficulty accepting accolades can help, says Dr. Fels. Think of recognition as essential to your well-being -- akin to proper nutrition and exercise -- and embrace your hard-won rewards.
We all know somebody who turns life into a contest. You join a gym; she hires a personal trainer. You say you're swamped at work; she claims that 13-hour days are normal for her. While you can't control your friend's behavior, you can change the way you respond to her, says Ruthellen Josselson, PhD, coauthor of Best Friends: The Pleasures and Perils of Girls' and Women's Friendships (Crown, 1998). Try these strategies.
Originally published in Fitness magazine, January 2006.