Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Competition, Comparison, and Self-Acceptance: Adding One More Step to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs


We value competition in our society. When businesses have to compete for our money, we know that we’re going to receive higher quality products and services. When two well-matched sports teams face off against each other, we know that we’ll see a good game. Ultimately, it seems like we benefit from competition. The question I want to pose is, Where would we be if we didn’t compete?

Take a look at your own attitudes and habits. What area or areas of life do you compete in? Again, we could mention sports or business, but let’s take it to a more personal level. If you’re a student, maybe you compete academically with your classmates. Maybe you compete against your coworkers for that promotion or most-favored employee status. Maybe you compete with your group of friends in order to be the most popular, or to be the funniest, or the best looking, or the person with the nicest things. You don’t have to be conscious of it, but the truth is that you can look into almost any area of your life, and if you’re honest about it, you can probably find a competitive attitude lurking somewhere just beneath the surface.

So again, the question is, Where would we be if we didn’t compete for those things? Would our hobbies cease to be enjoyable to us if we didn’t compete in them? Would we cease to be funny or witty or charming or pretty if we stopped competing with other people for those titles?

Competition is simply a way for us to play the comparison game. When we compete, we’re comparing our talents, abilities, looks, possessions, our personality, our very selves to other people. Some people enjoy the comparison game. They find that they usually come out on top. That’s good for them. We should be happy for those fortunate people among us. But what happens to those people as a result of winning the comparison game? The answer is that all too often those people begin to feel superior and more important and more deserving that everyone else. In short, the danger is that they will become prideful and will distance themselves from the “losers”. Competition distances people from each other. Now these winners in the comparison game have moved into a higher bracket of competition. They’re not competing with everyone now; they’re competing with the other “winners”, and so the competition and the comparing become that much more intense. As the competition increases, so does the pride and the resulting bitterness between potential rivals.

The “losers” In the comparison game have meanwhile become no less bitter than the winners. They have learned to have a poor opinion of themselves and yet continue to compete amongst themselves in order to avoid the title of “biggest loser”. In either case, the competition never really ends.

So what if, instead of competing against and comparing ourselves to others, we simply tried to be our best, our personal best, and didn’t worry about how good someone else was in a particular area?  I’m talking now about the psychologist, Abraham Maslow’s, highest need category, self-actualization. Maslow pointed out that all humans generally have certain needs, the lowest and most primal of these being physical needs, followed by the need to feel safe and accepted by others, on up the scale to self-actualization. Self-actualization is the state of being in which a person has met all of their more immediate needs and has now met his or her full potential. Self-actualization is a personal phenomenon. It is not measured in relation to anyone else’s achievements. It simply challenges the person to be the best that they can be. If I use my ability as a writer for an example, then the only question I would ask is, Do I feel like I’ve achieved my best? What I’ve written doesn’t have to be good. I don’t have to be a better writer than anyone else. As long as I’ve done my best, I’m self-actualized. What good would it do for me to compare myself to another writer or to feel like I’m in competition with another writer if all I can do is my best? I’ll just end up making myself miserable with no way to relieve my problem.

But what if I’ve self-actualized and I still am not content with myself? What if I’ve stopped comparing myself with others and I’ve done my best, but my best just isn’t good enough to satisfy me? You see, I don’t believe that self-actualization actually brings contentment. There needs to be at least one more step beyond Maslow’s hierarchy for us to ascend to. I call this next step self-realization. We reach this step when acknowledge and accept the fact that we have, indeed, reached our highest potential. It’s when we no longer feel the need to change things about ourselves (spiritual issues aside). It’s when we no longer need to like ourselves even. It is when we can simply be. It is when we have learned to accept ourselves as we are.

If we keep comparing ourselves to others, we’re going to make ourselves bitter and prideful. If we can’t find contentment within ourselves and be content with reaching our potential, we’re still going to be miserable. We need to put an end to our competitive attitudes, our competitive spirits, and embrace the freedom that can only come with self-acceptance.

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