Who are we competing against when we’re in a competition? We may think we’re competing with the other competitors, and we’d be partially correct. However, there’s a more important and interesting competition occurring at the same time: a competition against ourselves. There’s a part of us that doesn’t want to compete. It seeks comfort and does its best to halt the stress we’ll experience in competition. If we give in to this part, then we won’t give 100% effort to perform our best.

William Irvine’s book, A Guide to the Good Life, investigates how we can apply Stoic wisdom to our lives today. Stoics were aware of the limitations of this comfort-seeking part of us and sought to compete against it. Irvine says, “When doing things to cause myself physical and mental discomfort, I view myself…as an opponent in a kind of game.” Irvine calls this opponent his “other self.” He continues, “My other self is not a friend; to the contrary, he is best regarded, in the words of Epictetus, ‘as an enemy lying in wait.’” Irvine suggests that to win a competition one needs to establish dominance over this “other self,” such as making it experience discomfort, not allowing it to experience pleasure, or forcing it to confront its fears. This is a typical mental toughness approach to mental training.

Irvine uses an example in his book about a rowing competition. “When I row competitively, it may look as though I am trying to beat the other rowers, but I am in fact engaged in a much more significant competition: the one against my other self. He didn’t want to learn to row. He didn’t want to do workouts, preferring instead to spend the predawn hours asleep in a warm bed. He didn’t want to row to the starting line of the race. (Indeed, on the way there, he repeatedly whined about how tired he felt.) And during the race, he wanted to quit rowing and simply let the other rowers win. (‘If you just quit rowing,’ he would say in his most seductive voice, ‘all this pain would come to an end. Why not just quit?’ Think of how good it would feel!’)”

Next Irvine offers a compelling change of perspective in how we compete with others. “It is curious, but my competitors in a race are simultaneously my teammates in the much more important competition against my other self. By racing against each other, we are all simultaneously racing against ourselves, although not all of us are consciously aware of doing so.”

And finally, Irvine gives us an interesting perspective about winning competitions. “And it is entirely possible for someone to lose the competition against the other rowers—indeed, to come in last—but in the process of doing so to have triumphed in the competition against his other self.”

I partially agree with Irvine’s hypothesis here. We do have a comfort-seeking part that we can compete against, and we can learn a lot by not giving in to seeking comfort. I also think it’s helpful to see other competitors as teammates as opposed to enemies one is battling. Shifting our perspective from winning based on our ranking with other competitors, to whether or not we gave 100% effort gives us a new view on the competition. However, this comfort-seeking self isn’t an enemy as Epictetus called it. Rather, it needs to be directed properly. Understanding our mental dialogue can help us find out how to direct it.

Mental dialogue seems like a battle between two thinking processes within us. One thinking process wants us to engage stress to learn and grow. Another thinking process wants us to be comfortable and maintain the status quo. These two thinking processes aren’t in a battle, but rather help us achieve different ends. The comfort-seeking one helps us rest and regain energy. The one for engaging stress helps us apply our energy once we’ve rested. The challenge, though, is that the comfort-seeking one influences us in limiting ways when we’ve decided to engage stressful situations. Additionally, it tends to be stronger than the one that wants us to engage stress. Our task is to know how to guide it.

The comfort-seeking thinking process can be directed effectively if we point it in the direction of a goal. This is where climbing itself can be helpful. By its very nature, the goal in climbing is explicit; it’s arriving at the top of a route. The comfortseeking thinking process can inform us how we need to climb to achieve the goal as quickly and easily as possible. As we direct it into stress, it will seek the most efficient ways to exert effort as we work toward the goal.

Calling this “other self” an enemy is a typical mental toughness approach to mental training, which seeks to establish dominance over it by making it experience discomfort, not allowing it to experience pleasure, or forcing it to confront its fears. Instead of competing against it, we collaborate with it. This is mental flexibility. We establish equanimity with the “other self”, directing it into stress when we choose to, allow it to experience pleasure when we choose to, and confront fears incrementally so we can find the easiest ways through them. Rather than fight an enemy that is hindering us, we embrace the “other self” as an ally that helps us. Doing this engages us in more important and interesting ways and allows us to learn deeper lessons about what it means to compete with others and ourselves. We win regardless of whether or not we came in last. We win because we’re collaborating with our “other self” so we can give our best effort.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Madaleine Sorkin

    I enjoyed this shift to a collaborative approach with the “other self.” Thanks Arno!

    1. Jack Storment

      Glad you enjoyed!

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