How to Cultivate a Healthy Competitive Instinct

Some people naturally possess a strong competitive instinct, and enjoy a healthy relationship with it.

Aside from that clear-cut case, there are various skewed manifestations of a competitive instinct.

One of those is the dormant, or repressed, competitive instinct – where people have retired a competitive instinct too early on in life. (Now that’s what I would call an unhappy retirement.)

This post is about how to be comfortable with the need to compete, and how to cultivate a healthy competitive instinct.

It’ll be the most relevant to you if the volume dial on your competitive instinct is set to low. However, it may also be of use if you sit at the opposite end of the spectrum.

What is a competitive instinct?

I am sure you already know what it means to be competitive. But given competitive behaviour is generally vilified in our culture, I thought I’d provide a neutral account of what it means.

To be competitive means to be ‘I’ or ‘me’ centric in your worldview. A competitive person’s main focus is on personal advancement. In the Graves model of human development, it is level orange, which is a relatively advanced level.

The core values of a person with a competitive mindset are achieving potential, not being limited by anything, success and creativity.

A competitive instinct isn't the sole province of corporate culture Click To Tweet

Competitiveness can also be seen as a driving energy that whispers in your ear to do better and to go beyond your boundaries. It is a feeling of being propelled forward.

What a competitive instinct is not

The opposite of being competitive is being collaborative. This is a more ‘we’ centric worldview.

A person operating out of a mostly collaborative perspective isn’t generally thinking about personal advancement, but what is going to be overall good for the group.

Some of us are inherently more collaborative due to our personalities. Even those who are naturally competitive tend to enter into a collaborative frame in later life, once they have achieved everything they want to achieve.

The two perspectives aren’t exclusive of one another – we can use a competitive instinct within a mostly collaborative frame, or vice versa. But you’ll be more one than the other.

Sometimes we need to be competitive, other times collaborative Click To Tweet

You’ll know which is the stronger value for you from how you tend to behave when your interests and those of the group are in conflict. (Your immediate family unit is an extension of you, so that doesn’t really count as the group.)

If your inclination is to think ‘well it’s me and mine, first’, then that is a competitive instinct talking.

When is a competitive instinct needed

Generally speaking, a competitive instinct is needed for the second, third, fourth and fifth decades of life. During our twenties, thirties and forties, we tend to be concerned with:

  • Pursuing goals in our careers.
  • Building wealth and earning potential.
  • Securing partners and establishing our position in the community.
  • Physical fitness.
  • Beginning creative or entrepreneurial endeavours.

Once competitive aims have been achieved, a more collaborative frame can come into focus. That comes in useful as people assume positions of leadership.

How competitiveness can look

Although a relative few of us is actually juiced by the idea of competition, striving to be our best and self-checking is a part of all of our hard-wiring as humans. It is traditionally how we became indispensable to the tribe, and assured our safety within it.

We all wear our competitiveness differently. Some people thrive on conventional competitive scenarios. Others shy away from overt competitiveness with others, but are extremely competitive with themselves.

Figure out what inspires competitive feelings in you Click To Tweet

There is no superior way to be competitive. The point is to be aware of the situations that tend to produce competitive feelings for you. This will help you to know yourself and your truer motivations.

Here are some common motivations:

  • Strong need to beat your own personal bests.
  • Need to supersede standards and expectations.
  • Feeling competitive about a certain cause/passion and desire to do something of value.
  • Conquering the challenge of mastering new skills.
  • Being the absolute best at what you do – your job.
  • Winning arguments/intellectual debating.

‘I’m not competitive’

If you are genuinely struggling to identify with having competitive feelings, then you might be repressing this aspect of yourself.

People hold negative beliefs about being competitive. They judge it as a bad thing to be unashamedly pursuing advancement. In reality, only in relatively rare cases do people pursue their own gain at the expense of others.

‘The Shadow’ is the term for the part of your psyche the winds up hidden from awareness. Competitiveness is in many of our Shadows, and for women especially. Girls are generally judged more harshly for displays of competitiveness.

A big tell that competitiveness is a part of your Shadow is getting irritated by displays of competitiveness from others.

Feeling cynical, jealous or denying what you want are signs of a repressed competitive instinct Click To Tweet

Feeling cynical at such displays, or frequently experiencing jealousy or envy, or denying what secretly matters to you, are other clues indicating hidden competitive feelings.

Ask yourself whether a competitive instinct might be a part of your Hidden or Shadow self, and recognise the potential impact of that on your potential.

Competition is not a dirty word. Consider the philanthropic activity of individuals such as Richard Branson, Oprah and Bill Gates – all highly competitive – and then argue that being competitive is bad.

Distinguishing competitiveness from insecurity

If you find yourself constantly comparing yourself to others and wanting to compete for the sake of it, then it isn’t a true competitive instinct. It is insecurity.

A healthy sense of competition has a sense of perspective. It isn’t obsessed with checking what everyone else is up to. The question is more ‘how can I make myself better’ – not ‘how can I win at all costs’.

If you think that you are driven to over compete out of insecurity, then consider adopting the suggestions below.

5 stages to performing a CPR on your competitive instinct

Here are the five largest impact things you can do to integrate competitive feelings, and cultivate a competitive instinct in your day and life.

1. Accept competitive feelings

The first thing to do is practice accepting competitive feelings when they arise.

This advice would sound weird to those in touch with their competitive feelings: it sounds strange not to accept something that can be so useful. But for the reasons mentioned, we know it happens.

To face competitive feelings more honestly, remember that feeling competitive is not about letting the emotions take over, or ruminating in negative thoughts. It is about experiencing competitive feelings fully when you notice them, and moving on with your day.

The point of correctly processing competitive feelings is that it’ll lead you to take more intelligent and insightful actions. Read an in-depth guide to practising acceptance here.

2. Figure out the thing or things worth fighting for

Not everyone wakes up at 6am, dons a suit, chugs down a freshly prepared green juice and marches into the office to achieve fifty things before 8am.

Do not seek to manufacturer competitiveness about stuff you don’t give a toss about. Competitiveness is not the exclusive province of corporate culture.

Figure out what it is that you actually care about. It has taken me years to get a clear lens on those things for myself. If you feel like you have no idea, then my advice is just to pay more attention.

Figure out what you care enough to be competitive about Click To Tweet

I am not competitive about being the best editor in the world. I would take being a slightly above average editor. Being a slightly above average personal development blogger, however? This is less satisfactory to me.

As my former blog partners would tell you, I became very competitive with myself about the quality of this blog. This led to some quite out of character behaviour from me when we started the blog, because I am naturally more collaborative in the rest of life.

Something (or in all likelihood, many things) will stir that inner tiger to roar. Commit to noticing what those things are.

3. Have goals that are dependent on behaviour, not outcomes

Do not resist the use of benchmarks for putting into effect your competition-driven goals. Not being especially goal-oriented, I can be slow to implement targets. But when it comes to staying competitive, we need benchmarks.

I suggest making your benchmarks more about your own behaviour and actions than outcomes.

For example, when I was putting into effect my competitive goal to write a book, the benchmark was working on the book for an hour per day, rather than the outcome of getting the book published.

Benchmarks for success help focus the mind. Rather than coming up with reasons why we can’t do something, we find motivation to do what it takes to reach our benchmark.

4. Spend time around those with a competitive mindset

I honestly think this is one of the most important things you can do if you are very out of touch with your competitive instinct. Having friends that approach life through a competitive frame will rub off on you.

By the same token, don’t spend so much time with those who have given up on life and who are not fighting for anything better for themselves.

If you currently do not have many competitive friends to spend time with, then I recommend that you use books and podcasts.

Highly competitive people will help you to get your instinct out of hiding Click To Tweet

Competitive people can also model for you a skilled use of benchmarks to support progress. (They tend to use self-tracking and monitoring more than those for whom competition is less of a dominant instinct.)

5. Compare yourself to others strategically

True, comparison can be the thief of joy. But not neccessarily so.

Comparing yourself with others can support you in recognising your unique strengths as an individual. Used wisely, social comparison can really help you to distinguish your skills and the value you can add.


Tapping into your competitive fire doesn’t entail a cut throat attitude. The greatest competition is with ourselves: to become the best we possibly can be. The world needs more people in competition with themselves.

Even if you have a stronger value on collaboration in life – and I share that value – consider that if you have met personal targets, your collaboration potential and strength are more powerful.

Most importantly, used constructively, a competitive instinct can be a deep source of motivation.

I encourage you to coax that hidden tiger out, and let it roar.