Let’s face it: we live in a culture of competition. So many of the concerns people bring to therapy invoke images of opposition. Most of us can relate to the ideas of “not measuring up”, or not being “good enough” – statements that imply an inability to “keep up” with the herd. Then there are common terms like “struggling with depression”, “battling anxiety”, and even “fighting cancer”. There is an ever-present black-and-white split between dominance and defeat, and no one wants to fall into the latter category.
Some of these phrases are so much a part of everyday speak that we totally take them for granted. Even I, someone who pays a lot of attention to the ways people talk about things, catch myself describing experiences in these terms. That’s not to say that I’m special. Rather, it shows that competition-oriented descriptions of experiences are almost part of the air we breathe, and as such, we rarely stop to think about the implications they hold for our lives and identities.
The Problem with Competitive Language
While competitive language is particularly common for describing negative or adverse experiences, it also poses some major problems. Although we may not always realize it, the paradigms these descriptions invoke can actually contribute to an increase in our sense of distress. Three big concerns I have with using oppositional descriptions of problems are:
- They take things out of context;
- They put us at odds with legitimate emotional responses to events;
- They set us up to be “losers” or “failures”.
Taking Things out of Context
If you had a nickel for every time you heard someone say they or someone else “struggles with depression/anxiety” (or something similar), you’d probably need a bigger piggy bank. When we make statements like these, we imply that the feeling is the problem. Depression, anxiety, or whatever else you’d like to fill the blank in with becomes our adversary, and the focus is on our minds and emotions, not the context or circumstance we’re responding to. You can read more about these ideas in this blog post.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
Let’s say you work under a manager who is often cruel and unkind. You do your job to the best of your ability, but no matter how well you complete your tasks, you never receive a word of thanks or positive recognition. Your strengths go unacknowledged and your so-called shortcomings are pointed out at every opportunity. Your manager is hyper-critical of even the smallest oversights, and never hesitates to humiliate you in front of your colleagues. After working under these conditions for months, you notice that you feel pervasively unhappy (especially when you think about work), you have difficulty falling asleep (with your mind focused on the injustices you’ve been subjected to and how to avoid further mistreatment), and you feel increasingly worried and uneasy from the moment the alarm clock sounds in the morning to when you walk in the door to begin your shift.
If we were to describe ourselves as “struggling with depression and anxiety” based on this scenario, we would omit all the contextual factors contributing to our emotional responses. A competitive description is more likely to invite us to try to “beat depression/anxiety”, rather than creating a solution that addresses what’s actually going on in the space we inhabit. A more contextually-informed description of the problem might be, “I struggle with working under an abusive employer”. This paints a clearer picture of what’s really going on, and holds the manager to account for their mistreatment of us.
At Odd With Our Emotions
This point is closely related to the one above. When we talk about being at odds with emotional responses like anxiety, depression, or grief, we run the risk of denying their legitimacy. Not only do these kinds of descriptions take our suffering or distress out of context, they problematize understandable, potentially unavoidable emotions.
Looking back at the scenario above, if we were to say, “I struggle with depression and anxiety” without acknowledging the bigger picture, we’d be implying that anxiety and depression need to be overcome – not the context that supports us in feeling unhappy and unsafe. We feel our emotions for very good reasons. Could you imagine experiencing a situation like the one above and not feeling any sense of distress, discouragement, or worry? Our emotional responses say a lot about our values, and feeling disheartened, angry, or fearful in response to mistreatment at work says a thing or two about our preferences when it comes to how we’re treated.
Because we live in a society that often pathologizes and medicalizes emotional distress, this is not always easy, but I encourage people to consider how they might see their feelings as allies, rather than adversaries. After all, when we look at the context, we get a better sense of why we feel the ways we do, which can illuminate the very helpful nature behind most (if not all) emotions. In a situation like the one above, depression might nod toward a sense of dissatisfaction with being treated unkindly, while anxiety might relate to the legitimate fear of being publicly humiliated.
The Winner/Loser Binary
When we position ourselves as being at odds with our emotions or our suffering, we enter into a winner/loser paradigm. If the focus is on “beating” or “overcoming” our responses to adversity, someone has to come out on top – and therefore someone must be on the bottom. Our competitive culture places heavy emphasis on winning, and often sees losing as shameful. In many circumstances, this can set us up to fight a losing battle against understandable (and potentially unavoidable) feelings.
The winner/loser binary is apparent when talking about both mental and physical wellness. The notion of “beating cancer” is a popular one, and I’ve heard plenty of similar references to depression. In fact, just the other day I saw someone post on social media about how a friend recently “lost the battle against depression” in reference to someone’s suicide. Not only does a statement like this obscure the context, these competitive terms bring to light images of strength versus weakness, and victory versus defeat. This holds potentially negative implications for our dignity and identities.
Alternatives to Competitive Descriptions
Rather than using competitive language to describe our experiences of suffering and distress, I encourage people to use the richest, most contextually accurate terms they can. These alternatives help paint a clearer picture of what our suffering is really about, without pathologizing our emotions or talking ourselves into a winner/loser paradigm.
Here are some examples of what I mean:
“I’ve been feeling really anxious about _____________”
“I’ve been really fearful of _____________ happening”
“I feel a deep sense of despair when ______________”
“I have a real issue with being treated that way”
“I’ve been struggling with a situation that I feel really down about”
“When I think about what happened, I can’t help but feel terribly unhappy”
These statements, as simple as they may be, acknowledge context and place the focus accordingly. They position feelings as responses to events, not as problems to be overcome. While it's not always easy to catch ourselves using competitive language, when we can avoid it, we can give ourselves and others a fair break.
What are your thoughts on using competitive language to describe our concerns in life?
Do you think there are times when competitive descriptions of issues are more or less fitting than others?
Are you struggling with a challenging circumstance? Feeling distressed more often than you'd like?
Do you wish you had someone to talk about it with?