The Newport to Ensenada Race is coming up, and again this year, I’ll assume my position somewhere near the jetty to enjoy the sight as hundreds of boats of varying shapes and styles unfurl their sails.
Once again they’ll blossom out of the harbor, into the open sea, and head south. Onboard, sailors get a sense of the morning’s wind and go over last minute details with their race crew. And I’ll develop a headache.
When my husband and I were first dating, he invited me to come along on a sailing race. I knew he had been a professional sailor, but his accounts of the vast loneliness of Pacific nights during the Trans Pac failed to impress this city girl who thought boats were like cars: you just got in and turned something on and off you went.
Since reading “Moby Dick” was my only previous experience with sailing, I knew only enough to stay out of the way of shouting, running, sheet-pulling men, and found a safe area on one side of the boat. Well, of course, in a race on a windy day, there is no safe area. Mix six men with highly competitive urges to win and a land lubber sitting on just the exact winch handle thingy they needed, and there erupts emotional combustion worthy of Captain Ahab himself.
All these years later, it’s just another often-told funny story. But at the time, the level of aggression and agitation these grown men exhibited was baffling, and, I thought, permanent. I was genuinely surprised at the laughter and bon homie afterward, but my husband explained that it was just that they were very competitive and the yelling and cursing was all part of…wanting to win.
Psychologists know that the urge to compete and to win are hard-wired into our brains as remnants of the need to establish ourselves at the top of a hierarchy in order to survive. The instinct has persisted over eons, and we all retain differing levels in the strength of the urge to win. Competition through athletics and sports is one of the healthiest ways we have to express the urge to be the best, to win against peers (as in sailing), or against nature (as in sailing).
Competing in athleticism and sports are healthy and creative ways of expressing the self and increasing self esteem. When I was young, my parents instructed us to be to “good winners” and “good losers.” What they meant (aside from that we should quit hitting one another whenever we lost) was that we should feel complete and competent enough to tolerate the occasional loss without attributing negative meaning, such as, “Maybe I’m a loser. I can’t succeed at this.” And then projecting the negative thinking to, “You think I’m no good at this. When you win, you act so superior.”
Competition gets us in trouble when we start putting it to use in other arenas, such as marriage or friendship. A love relationship that has a dollop of competition gets rocky pretty quickly. We have to scan the horizon for times when we mis-perceive a compliment given to a friend or spouse as something that’s been taken away from ourselves. If someone compliments my husband’s cooking, it doesn’t mean that mine’s not that great (get the words, “So what am I, chopped liver?” out of your head). I can just relax and think how great it is that he’s just gotten kudos for his hard work.
Sometimes, instead of competing, remember that we need to click together—it’s not always about doing a solo. Don’t steal the thunder of others, and try instead to blow their horns.
Give credit to your lover, your workmates, your neighbors, and see the power you feel from those “wins.”
Ruth Wimsatt is a clinical psychologist practicing in Newport Beach and can be reached at (949) 222-3285 or at [email protected]