The Toxic Trend That Started In My Childhood (That I Still Can't Get Rid Of)

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sad lonely girl sitting staring out the window

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“Whether you realize it or not, you’re competing with Alyssa*,” my female relative said. Oh, I was well aware.

At the time, I was 14 years old and was studying at one of the most hyper-competitive schools in the state. This was a school where people would have breakdowns over getting a 92. If you weren’t the best, you were nothing to everyone around you.

I didn’t like Alyssa. In fact, I resented her deeply. At 14 years old, it seemed like Alyssa was always there to steal my thunder no matter what I did. And the worst part? She followed me from my first middle school to my high school.

If I got an A, she’d get an A+. I had one friend I had to sleep with to keep around, while she was one of the most popular in school. While I sucked at sports but occasionally managed to do something not entirely useless, she’d score that final win.

At one point, I had a total meltdown because I went to a beauty pageant to try to raise my dead-in-the-dirt self-esteem, and guess who was there…Yep. Alyssa. To rub salt in the wound, Alyssa won the award I was expecting to win.

It felt like I could never cut a break with that girl around.

I just wanted one win against Alyssa — something to make me feel like I wasn’t a complete failure when pit against her by the school and our parents.

After a certain point, I started crash dieting to beat her at something. To get specific, I went vegan and very low-calorie to get a hotter body. Her weight was the only thing that was considered to be less desirable than mine. What could go wrong?

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I figured this would give me something to cling to, just to feel a little better.

That went well until I turned purple-white and my heart stopped during school due to my protein and iron deficiencies going off the rails.

Honestly, I don’t remember much of that day. I had been feeling oddly sleepy and dizzy. So, I decided to go to the nurse’s office. Then, I slumped over in a chair and the nurse decided to take my pulse. Then I felt like I was falling, or like I was dipping on a roller coaster.

She called 911 as I blacked out.

I later found out she couldn’t feel anything when she tried to take my pulse. In fact, not even her stethoscope could hear my heartbeat. All I remember was her trying to get me to eat something, telling me to stay awake, and me just falling asleep. 

When I woke up in the hospital, my blood pressure was 20/0 and a banana bag was attached to me. It was then I was told that I need an unusually high level of protein, folate, sugar, as well as a crazy amount of B vitamins (and other crap) to stay alive.

The ER doctors told me that veganism and vegetarianism were basically no-go’s for me. Welp, there goes my diet. And, more importantly, there went my goal-setting. I felt like an idiot and my parents were pissed.

Just like that, I almost killed myself competing against someone who didn’t give a crap about me.

I don’t think Alyssa ever realized how much she drove me to hurt myself. It’s not like she did anything on purpose. She was just being herself and I hadn’t quite found my calling yet. She simply belongs in the circles I don’t.

This story came to my mind while I was talking to a friend about competition.

We were hanging out today, and she just piped up about a recent interaction she had with some women. Each of these girls was gorgeous-looking. They all had degrees and careers that would make me turn green with envy.

And yet, they all were absolutely miserable.

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This bevy of women were all doing that competition thing that we are often so heavily encouraged to do. They were pitting themselves against each other, constantly trying to outdo one another in anything from weight loss to careers to kids.

“I don’t even think they like each other,” my friend mused. “They just hang out together because their families all know each other from decades back.”

“I mean, isn’t that just how things are sometimes?” I asked. I wish I could say I couldn’t relate to that feeling of being pitted against others, but I’d be lying.

“Imagine if they all were just happy for one another and stopped trying to measure up against whatever is the new flavor of the week!” she said.

For many of us, myself included, the first time that we heard someone honestly say they were happy for us was a shock. Like, it didn’t really register for me that someone could be happy for a friend’s accomplishments until later in my life.

Part of that shock was because I was raised in a culture of toxic competition — and I’ve noticed it’s an American phenomenon.

American culture is one that tends to prize competition winners above all else.

Did you ever hear someone say that #2 just means you’re the “best loser?” 

Yeah, I think we all have.

There are very few cultures that tend to treasure competition as much as the United States. While other cultures, such as Korea and Japan, are famous for competing when it comes to work ethic and looks, America goes hard at everything.

We are told we fail if we don’t get the best toys, the flashiest positions, the most well-paid endeavors, and also keep ourselves looking great. We’re told we need to “have it all,” even if we don’t actually want what we’re supposed to want.

Americans, especially when it comes to matters of career and social standing, tend to fall into the “victory at all costs” mentality. We’ve all heard of people sabotaging others at work, or throwing a wrench in a happy couple’s life. It’s toxic competition above all else.

This is a phenomenon that I call “toxic competition,” and it’s something that we’re not ready to address as a culture. After all, naming the elephant in the room may end up making people question why they did half the things they did.

Toxic competition can ruin your life pretty dang quickly.

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Healthy competition is fun and brings out the best in everyone involved — like the Olympics, or even a simple fundraiser event where you’re trying to do something for a good cause. After a healthy competition, you feel refreshed and proud.

Toxic competition consumes you. It’s when you place your entire value on how well you do, not the impact you have on others. Toxic competition makes you greedy, jealous, and insecure.

And sadly, we as a nation have slowly slid into a toxic competition spiral.

I’ve seen way more relationships destroyed by competitive jealousy than I have from things like bad in-laws or religious differences. After all, if your entire goal in life is to be better than everyone around you, you’re not going to have much focus on how your partner feels.

I’ve also seen many, many nonprofits, households, and great companies go under because so many people were stuck trying to outdo one another or keep up with the Joneses. And for what? To say you’ve one-upped the guy next to you? Cool. You also threw your goals under the bus for that.

Despite how bad it can make us act, we as a society still encourage it. Winning isn’t everything, yet somehow, we forget that when we’re trying to raise kids that champion everything.

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Hell, look at what happened to me. I was ready to literally die of starvation just to have a one-up and prove to someone, anyone, that I had been elite enough in one arena of my life.

I really wish someone told teenage me that I should have just competed with myself.

Ossiana at 35 years old, 208 pounds
Photo: Courtesy of the author

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Looking back, I can’t believe that I spent so much time agonizing about being the bottom rank on everything in high school. Honestly, I feel like the amount of pressure people put on me in my school years to be competitive backfired.

If most of the people in my life had told me to just “run my own race” and choose a scholastic track that made me happy, I would have never gone to my high school. I would have probably gone to an art school, had more confidence, and maybe befriended Alyssa.

I had to learn not to look at what others accomplished to be happy. It was a process because I had to start focusing on how to do better than myself — rather than what I lacked.

I wish I didn’t resent Alyssa as much as I did back in the day. It wasn't her fault.

Wherever you are, Alyssa, I hope you’re doing alright.

*names have been changed


Ossiana Tepfenhart is a writer whose work has been featured in Yahoo, BRIDES, Your Daily Dish, Newtheory Magazine, and others. 

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.