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January 8, 2019

Competition Avoidant Disorder: In Search of a Cure

Okay….you got me.  There’s no such thing as Competition Avoidant Disorder (CAD).  I made it up, but hear me out.  It’s not (yet) an official DSM-V diagnosis, but over the years I’ve been able to identify several diagnostic criteria I now submit to the universe for both consideration and feedback:


  • Active avoidance of activities that involve ranking, an outcome with “winners” and “losers,” or whereby one team is pitted against another.
  • Feelings of anxiety and/or irritation when competitive activities are unavoidable.
  • Lack of true or sustained effort when forced to engage in competitive activities, such that any subsequent “loss” can be directly attributed to the lack of effort.
  • Dropping out of activities once the element of competition has been introduced (e.g. bowing out of a friendship or relationship when it becomes clear someone else might be interested).
  • A pattern of downplaying and/or truly doubting one’s own worth in a variety of competitive arenas.
  • An assumption that the outcome of competition, were one to engage in it, would not be favorable.


Sound familiar??? (Please tell me I’m not the only one…)


I became interested in this (totally unscientific, completely anecdotal, population of one) research project after noticing—on more than one occasion, over a period of decades—my visceral reaction to competitive activities:


Wanna go for a run?  Yes.

Wanna see who’s fastest?  No.


Wanna hit a tennis ball back and forth?  Yes.

Wanna play for points? No.


Wanna work out at the gym? Yes.

Wanna play on a competitive sports team? No.


I took ballet for six or seven years as a girl, but lost interest the moment adolescence took hold and the body comparisons began. In college, I yearned to join the school’s a cappella group but couldn’t submit to the vulnerability of tryouts. Finally, in my senior year, I convinced a friend to come with me and (surprise!) we were both accepted into the group. I wanted to kick myself for the years of fun I’d missed.


This pathological avoidance often extends to my role as a parent, as well. While I’m perfectly content for my children to engage in team sports, as their skills improve my anxiety grows–heaven forbid they make it to the dreaded “travel team” level! I shudder at the mere mention of auditions, playoffs, or tryouts, and find myself longing for the “pay to play” days where everyone was new and rankings had not yet been introduced. I’m aware that this attitude threatens to condemn both me and my children to a lifetime of mediocrity, and yet I struggle to push past it.  What am I so afraid of?!?


The interesting thing is that I’ve married a man whom most would describe as a competition junkie.  For him, an activity is made more enjoyable by the presence of competition; it’s almost not worth doing, otherwise. How does he do it? Where on earth does he get the moxie? Is my aversion to competition a matter of temperament, or conditioning? Am I the victim of some childhood trauma (a poor performance in a game of playground kickball, perhaps?) that continues to fester just below the level of consciousness? Honestly, I don’t even care; I just want to know: how do I treat it? What is the cure? I don’t want pass this condition on to my children, and I don’t want it to continue to hold me back from pursuing would-be goals (submitting pieces of writing to online magazines, for example).


Clues to treatment might be found in the way I’ve approached my professional life—the one area in which I’ve never been afraid to put myself out there.  If there’s a job I want, I go after it–hard. In the pursuit of my graduate assistantship (which I won, by the way), my mother told me they would either have to hire me or take out a restraining order. I can think of at least five positions that, once secured, literally felt as though I’d won the lottery.  If the competition was truly that intense, how had I been able to move forward? For one thing, when it comes to our careers the stakes are often quite high. Work takes up a good portion of the day and accounts for income, health insurance, social standing, and a sense of identity.  Second, unlike travel soccer, work is not optional (at least not for me). It simply must be done. Finally, there’s a comforting level of anonymity at the onset of most job searches.  We click “send” and our resumes/credentials disappear into the ether. We don’t have to bear witness to anyone’s disappointment or criticism, and usually only get feedback if an employer is interested (at which point we can move forward in the knowledge that we are, at the very least, legitimate contenders).


Could I—could others–benefit from approaching our hobbies in the same way we approach our careers? What if, in addition to income and health insurance, we placed a high value on creative expression, effort, improvement, bravery, and vulnerability? What if we approached this kind of personal striving as non-optional? What if the “winning” was simply in the doing?


Clearly, I’ve decided to push past my comfort zone and put some of my stuff “out there.” Many thanks to those of you who have already left flattering, thoughtful, and encouraging comments.


Is there hope for me? Can I be cured?  Only time will tell, but for now I’m gonna follow this new regimen and see where it leads.

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Allison Banbury  |  Contribution: 11,500