How to cope with being a ‘neurotic competitor’

A valuable trait in business can wreak havoc in one’s personal life

C. Knight Aldrich | Feb 21, 1963

The long-running Selected Papers series features notable work by University of Chicago faculty and other business leaders. This essay is an edited excerpt; the original was presented at a luncheon in 1963.

Before hazarding a few generalizations about the psychology of a specific type of successful businessman, I want to clarify what I mean by the adjective “neurotic.” 

I associate the word “neurotic” with evidence that emotional conflicts that belong to the past and have never been solved are substantially affecting a person’s current functioning. Actually, our lives and the civilization in which we live are so complex that none of us grows up without some residual unsolved conflicts, and all of us have some areas of our lives in which we demonstrate neurotic behavior.

There is a wide range of the amount of neurotic behavior that is consistent with “normal,” and an even wider range of types of neurotic symptoms. Most of the types of neurotic symptoms are uncomfortable or handicapping to some degree and hence hardly can be considered assets in business or home life. 

On the other hand, some symptoms do pay off, in one way or another, and the payoff reinforces the symptoms. Perfectionism, for example, within reasonable limits, pays off in several kinds of work. You want your accountant to be more a perfectionist than average, and the same applies to your secretary. In medicine, the operating room nurse, the laboratory technician, and the research scientist all need to be perfectionistic to a degree that might handicap the administrator or the salesman.

So if everyone is preoccupied to some degree with past conflicts, and in some circumstances and within certain limits the preoccupation can be put to constructive uses, the next question is: Is there any type of neurotic behavior that is particularly useful to the businessman, always provided that it is kept within reasonable limits?

Neurotic competition

The essence of business, at least as it appears to this outsider, is competition. A business progresses to the extent that it makes a better product, does a better selling job, or hires better people than its competitors. An employee gets ahead within a business to the extent that he works harder, produces more, sells more, or makes better decisions than his associates.

If all other things are equal, the man with the greatest competitive drive, again within certain limits, becomes the greatest success. And so the man whose past unsolved conflicts add a “neurotic” component to his basic “normal” competitive drive has an advantage over his associate. If, like the perfectionist who is nervous when things aren’t perfect, he is nervous when he hasn’t won the competition, he will work at it night and day and over weekends while his better-adjusted competitor relaxes with his family. Provided that he can restrain himself when being openly competitive would be impolitic, and provided that all other considerations of integrity, tact, intelligence, influence, and so on balance out, the man with single-minded devotion to competition wins.

His neurotic traits, therefore, pay off in the currency of the American ideal. For that reason, the neurotic competitor resists any change in his way of life. If you tell him to take it easy or to rest, he says, “Nonsense; not resting has gotten me where I am; if I rest, my competition will catch up—and besides, rest makes me nervous.”

Problems of the neurotic competitor

Our hypothetical successful neurotic competitor, however, may have trouble using authority, once he has arrived at a position of responsibility. Since he sees everyone, including his subordinates, as competitors, to delegate authority or to support wholeheartedly the progress of a gifted subordinate may represent a dangerous weakening of his defenses against the competition. He also may balance his success in business to some extent by difficulties in his personal life, particularly with his body, his family, and his old age.

First, a word about his body. Constant competition requires constant tension, and constant tension increases the wear and tear on certain parts of the body, notably the stomach lining. Although the association between competitiveness and ulcers is not as clear-cut as it once appeared to be—relaxed, dependent types have ulcers too—the competitors have more than their share, and when they have ulcers, they don’t take very good care of themselves. The neurotic competitor is too busy looking back over his shoulder to see where the opposition is to baby himself. He’s also ashamed of anything that resembles weakness, and so can’t let himself give in to being a patient. The competitive pressure may show in other areas of his body as well; sometimes the two packs a day, the two martinis before lunch, and the other methods he uses to counteract the constant inner pressure to compete also take their toll.

The second area of possible trouble is in his family. Home, for the neurotic competitor, represents either no competition, which bores him; a handicap to his competitive efforts, which makes him nervous; or an alternative competitive field. To some extent, he avoids the boredom by long hours of work and evening meetings, and he may express his tension by irritability. His domestic competitiveness, however, is more complicated. His wife often seems to represent a beautiful and talented prize he has won in competition with other men; once he’s won her, he’s not so sure he knows what to do with her. He is uncomfortable about competing with women, but he has been too busy competing with men to have time to learn any other type of relationship. When children come, he competes with them for attention and care from his wife; in this area of competition, however, there is too much of the dependency he is ashamed of for him to be able to acknowledge it to himself, and so the competition is carried out in such subtle ways that often no one in the family recognizes it as competition.

The third area is retirement. During his active working years, our subject never takes a vacation from competition; either he brings his work along, or he spends his vacations in strenuously competitive golf, fishing, bridge, and poker, buoyed by the thought that he is recharging his batteries for the more important struggle back home. So long as he has the real world to compete in, he is all right, but when he closes up his desk for good and retires to checkers or to bowling on the green, he has nothing to substitute for real competition, and he becomes bored and depressed. He is not interested in the solutions that people recommend for his boredom; they tell him to find a hobby, but hobbies are for kids—they don’t provide the kind of challenge to which he has geared his life.

Causes of neurotic competitiveness

Commonly it is assumed that an intense competitive drive stems from a feeling of inferiority, perhaps a result of an impoverished background, membership in a minority group, or some similar circumstance. Although these circumstances may make their contribution, I think that a more important contributor is a fairly typical series of events in the early years of life.

This series of events starts with the battle practically all children put up to maintain the prior claim on their mothers’ interest and affection that their helplessness as infants has appeared to give them. As the child develops and becomes less helpless, he begins to perceive that his mother has other interests, many of which revolve around his father. If he has any spunk, he puts up a fight for what he considers are his rights. Ordinarily as he continues to develop, he finally begins to see things in a more realistic perspective; he realizes that he can’t be top dog in every arena, and he more or less gracefully retreats.

At the beginning of this struggle, the prospective neurotic competitor is no different from any other little boy, except that possibly he is an unusually vigorous fighter. The difference arises when something in the situation, usually an attitude or a combination of attitudes on the part of the family, encourages the boy’s competition but discourages his goal—the goal of being mother’s No. 1 boy in all things. The result is that instead of looking at the situation realistically, and philosophically accepting his place in the scheme of things, he keeps on competing furiously, but conceals the real goal from himself so he never can be satisfied.

The uses of insight

It might seem easy to solve the problem simply by explaining its source, but insight into the causes of an emotional problem does not automatically solve it. Instead, relief, at least on a permanent basis, usually requires a long, tedious, and customarily painful procedure, psychotherapy, and as I have already pointed out, the fact that society rewards the neurotic competitor so lavishly certainly does not encourage him to undertake a long, tedious, and painful procedure, which, if successful, will reduce his rewards.

Insight into the nature of the problem, however, can be used to modify life patterns. If, somewhere along the line, the neurotic competitor stops, takes stock, and looks at his goals to see whether he is competing for an attainable goal that he really wants or is competing just for competition’s sake, it is usually possible for him to modify his goals, recognize and accept his need to be competitive, and harness the need to the modified goals. He then must constantly reinforce his new patterns, assuming that any move he starts to make back toward the old patterns is a rationalization unless proved otherwise.

So far, the prescription sounds a little like a sermon. Perhaps I can bring it down to earth if I describe its application in three specific instances of neurotic competitors, all of whom worked out solutions to their problems without psychiatric assistance.

The thing that brought Mr. X up short was an ulcer. He knew that his tensions had something to do with his ulcer and that his competitive drive had a lot to do with his tensions. In the hospital, he started out by competing with the doctor for control and by refusing to accept any treatment recommendation that resembled “babying” (this category includes, unfortunately, most aspects of ulcer management—“drink your milk, eat your mush, don’t smoke, don’t drink, take your nap,” and so on). This kind of competition, an extension of patterns that had been successful in business into his relationship with his physician, was not likely to encourage healing of his ulcer. But instead of doggedly pursuing the familiar course, Mr. X realized that he wasn’t getting anywhere and decided to modify not his competitiveness, which he knew he couldn’t eliminate, but his field of competition. Instead of competing with the doctor for control, he decided to compete with him for knowledge, and at the same time he competed with the doctor’s other patients. He set about to learn as much—or more—about ulcer management as his doctor knew, and to follow the best possible routine so closely that he would get well faster and stay well longer than other patients. In this way, he turned a struggle for control and against dependency into a race for clinical cure.

I am not suggesting that his approach is foolproof, and certainly I am not suggesting that it makes doctors happy; given the limits of the situation, however, it is better than the available alternative. And so far Mr. X has evidence of success; at least he has had no recurrence of his ulcer.

Mr. Y began to wonder what was really going on when his son passed up his advice in an important matter in favor of the advice given by a much less well qualified and somewhat depreciated assistant scoutmaster. When Mr. Y finished blowing his top about the incident, he discovered that there was more to it than the usual case of a prophet being without honor in his own bailiwick. He found that his son thought his father resented and disliked him, and on that basis, he distrusted his father’s advice.

At this point, instead of brushing aside the boy’s complaints as ridiculous nonsense, Mr. Y took stock. He realized that he resented his son as an irritating incompetent who took valuable time away from more important business concerns. He may not have identified as evidence of competition his view that his wife spoiled the boy, but he was able to recognize that the alliance he saw between them was at least in part the result of his lack of interest in them. He faced the fact that business success did not automatically ensure success at home, decided that he wanted the rewards of being a good father and husband as well as the rewards of business competition, and set about competing with fathers and husbands as well as with executives and managers.

His road was not as easy as Mr. X’s. First, he had to find out how to be a good father and husband, and this educational enterprise required him to listen to criticism of his past performances, which aroused his anger and almost upset the apple cart. Second, he found that his sudden change of attitude did not immediately win over his son, who met his initial overly hearty efforts with suspicion and reserve. Mr. Y did not let his discouragement get him down, however, and resumed his campaign on a more modulated note.

Although for a while he suspected that being a good husband somehow meant relinquishing control of the whole family, he persisted, and eventually he began cashing in. He still cannot avoid the competitive element; he continues to see as his goal becoming a better father and husband than other fathers and husbands. The assistant scoutmaster, however, has lost out.

Mr. Z’s day of insight came when his illusion of indispensability was punctured. He had assumed on no more evidence than his own illusion that his company would naturally waive the mandatory retirement age in his case. Fortunately for him, this illusion, which is by no means uncommon among people in the “normal” range, did not persist until the day of retirement but was sufficiently jolted two years in advance so that he no longer could support it.

When he first recognized that he was actually expected to retire at the usual age, he was angry and depressed, and even considered resigning and taking a job with a less unappreciative firm. He soon realized, however, that other firms were equally unappreciative, and finally facing the full measure of reality, he began to reappraise his potentialities in retirement. He knew he could not enjoy life without some kind of significant competition, and he recognized that his chances of continuing his successful competition in business after retirement were limited. Once he could abandon the conviction that the only “real” field of competition was for personal financial reward, a whole new set of competitive opportunities opened up in political, charitable, and artistic arenas. He could run for local office, or work for his party; he could compete for the community’s contributions on behalf of the agency or fund in which he was most interested, or he could develop their public relations program for them; he could compete for support of a musical organization against the rest of the artistic community.

As he became convinced that these areas of competition were significant and productive, his interest in all of them rapidly developed, he began to be impatient with his lame-duck status in his company, and by the time his retirement date rolled around, he was eager to make the transition.

Modifying patterns

The happy endings of the problems of Messrs. X, Y, and Z required a good deal of flexibility on their parts, flexibility that is by no means always to be counted on. Any kind of reorientation that requires the abandonment of well-established emotional patterns is difficult, and the fact that the old patterns are not consistent with the best interests of self or others does not seem to make it easier to abandon them. On the other hand, as Messrs. X, Y, and Z demonstrate, at least in some individuals, old patterns can be modified to a degree sufficient to make the difference between a comfortable and an uncomfortable existence, and this modification can be accomplished without psychiatric treatment.

I am not suggesting that psychiatric treatment is not useful as an antidote for neurotic competitiveness. The men I have discussed might well have adapted more rapidly with a gentle psychiatric nudge. I am suggesting, however, that people are not necessarily helpless in the grip of neurotic manifestations. Some people can do a lot on their own about some types of neurotic symptoms, once they stop rationalizing that this is the way they are and no one should expect them to be different. On the other hand, if they have recognized the problem for what it is, have made a serious effort at adaptation, and have failed to bring about the desired modification, it is time to seek some professional help.

C. Knight Aldrich was chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Chicago. He died in 2017.