Elizabeth Day: The person I compete against most? Myself

The older I get, the more I realise that life is a constant navigation between ‘should’ and ‘want’. There’s the nagging feeling that I really should go to this social event because, after all, I accepted the invitation and I must therefore carry out my duty like a Christian martyr refusing to reject her faith while being burned at the stake.

Photo: Jenny Brough. Hair: Fabio Nogueira. Make-up: Ruby Hammer. Styling: Holly Elgeti. Dress, Stine Goya, Fenwick.co.uk. Jewellery, Alighieri

On the other hand, do I want to go to a party where I won’t know anyone and be forced to make small talk with a man called Freddie about his latest ski trip when I secretly think skiing is one of the most overrated hobbies of all time? No, I do not.

It feels as though every day is a battle between the warring factions of should and want – the things I think I must do out of some nebulous sense of obligation and the things I would rather be doing. As a woman raised in the 1980s, I have been trained to believe in the necessity of putting others first. My inner critic (her again) tells me that my own needs don’t matter when someone needs something from me, and besides, who do I think I am scheduling in an evening to go to bed early after a long bubble bath – Mariah bl**dy Carey?

Of course I’m aware of the logic of conserving one’s energy and practising self-care, even if self-care sounds a bit like the thing creepy older men in raincoats used to do in the back rows of cinemas. But the should versus want dilemma extends to concepts as well as should as practical decisions. There are the things I know I should think, compared to what I actually think.

I was reminded of this when I came across one of those pseudo inspirational Pinterest quotes online. ‘Collaborate don’t compete’, it said in sparkly millennial pink. Yes, I thought, that’s absolutely right. There’s room for all of us. A rising tide raises all boats. Go, women!

But at the same time, I can’t deny that I am competitive. Rabidly so. My other half finds it hilarious and now has to avoid telling me what his personal bests are in the gym in order to stop me causing myself an injury attempting to beat him.

Competitiveness is in my nature. It has given me drive and ambition and the ability to sit exams.The person I’m most fervently competitive against is, and has always been, myself. It doesn’t mean I wish other people ill. Quite the contrary; I rejoice in the successes of friends, revel in the achievements of women who are worthy of the accolades. (Bogus ones who don’t put in the work but get rewarded are flies in the ointment, but we can’t have everything.)

Being competitive doesn’t mean I can’t be collaborative. The old-fashioned notion of competitiveness relied on a dog-eat-dog view of existence where only the fittest survived. I came of age in a world that was still shaped in favour of men. When I started out in journalism, I was a young woman in a male-dominated environment and I felt I had to be better than anyone else to earn my place.

But our thinking has evolved since then. I think my competitiveness has matured, too. I realise now that for me, it is not about trampling others to get to the top – rather, my competitiveness comes from a desire not to be left behind. I am the younger of two sisters and spent my childhood in awe of my sibling, who seemed so perfect I couldn’t hope to emulate her. I ploughed my energy instead into achieving different goals, and I became competitive in order to be noticed.

So I am going to stop telling myself I shouldn’t be competitive. It is part of who I am and it doesn’t make me selfish. I can compete against myself and support other women, too. I might even find time for that bubble bath.

This week I’m…

Reading

Untamed by Glennon Doyle. A brilliant memoir-slash-essay collection about what it means to be a fully realised woman.

Watching

Shrill on BBC iPlayer. A delightful, wry comedy about Annie, a larger woman who decides to be more than society’s expectations of her.

Saving

My winter-dry skin with Weleda Skin Food. Vegetarian and gentle on your complexion, it’s the most moisture-filled moisturiser ever.