Running and Competitiveness: Keeping a Healthy Balance

by Ben Heller

How do we as runners manage to balance our competitive instincts and desires in a sport fueled by “Type A” personalities? I ask you this question because I am trying to figure out that concept myself. Running and competitive running has undoubtedly changed my life. It has renewed a sense of purpose in me, gave me an outlet to strive for excellence, gave me a way to justify my self worth…. Or did it?

A question we may all need to ask ourselves at some point is what is our motivation to race, to compete? Is there something more to competition and our sport than maybe we want to admit?

In her book Daring Greatly, New York Times author Brene Brown discusses what brings out the best in humanity. Her main message is that the courage to be vulnerable in a healthy way is one of the keys to a joyful and fulfilling life. When we talk about being vulnerable, we mean the ability to really be one’s self, without having to justify self worth, without looking for approval, with being okay with imperfection… Imperfection… a tenet of perfectionism and self-worth. A-Ha! I found the needle in the haystack, and the main force behind this article…. Perfectionism.

Perfectionism, according to Brown, is “The belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. Perfectionism is a twenty ton shield that we lug around, thinking it will protect us, when in fact it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen.” Perfectionism is a symptom of the condition of hustling for our self worth. If there is one thing that Brown makes clear in her multiple books, is that hustling for your self worth is a road that only leads to harm. It is just as harmful to the Olympic champion as it is to the person who runs a 5k in seventy-five minutes. It is a road that does not really lead to fulfillment, and believe me, I would know. I have spent the past several months exploring these themes in a quest to improve my own mental health. I use the phrase exploring because I continually fall short in my journey to better my own mental health. Just like any other major life change, it is fall down, get back up, fall down, get back up. These things are always a work in progress. That’s just the nature of the beast.

Why is perfectionism unhealthy? It erodes our common humanity, and falsely creates boundaries and a hierarchy that like an acid breaks down our common bond. Think about it. When we try to be “perfect”, we do a few things. Number one, we evaluate our self worth based on our accomplishments and on how we want others to perceive us. Two, in some sense we develop envy of those we perceive as perfect. Three, as I discussed before, it creates a hierarchy because you begin to tell yourself that there are others who are superior, and others inferior. And if you begin to believe you are inferior, LET ME TELL YOU IN CAPITAL LETTERS, it is very destructive for your emotional and spiritual health.

Now you could say that maybe I am just the crazy goose in the group, but I dare to state that I think I have company. Does hitting that Personal Record (PR) or crushing our competition make our problems magically disappear? I used to think the answer was yes. Why, if only I could break eighteen minutes in a 5k, an hour and 20 in a half-marathon, or 2 hours and 55 minutes in a full marathon, well, then POOF! I would live happily ever after. I hit those goals in my running career, and as it turns out all of my problems were still there, my soul was just as unfulfilled as before, and my emotional development just as stunted. I achieved what my perfectionism told me was so important to my happiness, but I was no happier post-goal than pre-goal. If it was just me who thought like this, I would keep the thoughts to myself and talk to a therapist, but I know that isn’t the truth. Our sport is riddled with the scars of perfectionism.

Perfectionism is a driving force behind our sport. If you don’t believe me, then just take a gander over at Strava and Facebook, two arenas where our common drive for approval and admiration are on full display. I am not saying that these outlets have no useful purposes, but there is a very specific reason why we feel the need to title our runs, write lengthy descriptions, and of course follow others. Our own desire to be perfect, or maybe, put another way, to be better than our “competitors”, is an underlying theme behind these actions. These outlets provide a very easy and tempting path to live in constant comparison and hustling for self worth.

Comparison, however unhealthy, is part of the human experience. It is why one of the ten commandments plainly declares” Do not covet thy neighbor's goods.” If we didn’t practice comparing our goods to those of our neighbors and then becoming envious, then that commandment would have no need to exist. And maybe jealousy or despair over someone else crushing a workout or a PR is not the same as jealousy over a sports car, but if you start to compare, then you may start to find yourself a bit envious, and even worse, become harder on yourself for not matching that achievement. Again, I preach it because I spent so many years practicing that outlook in a very unhealthy and destructive way. You learn these things when you finally start to grow. I have to emphasize the “just starting” part as I wrestle with the scars and damage caused by perfectionism to both myself and those I hold dear in my life.

Am I making a case to cut competition out of running? Of course, I am not making that argument. I still participate just as passionately in our sport as I did before. But I do believe it is important that we try to keep ourselves in check and keep our egos and outlooks healthy. We will all meet the same end no matter what our PR is. I feel inspired to ask these difficult questions because someone has to. If we spend our lives chasing the minor victories in competition, we miss out on the grander celebration that is a wholehearted and joyful life.


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