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Relationship: From the thrill of competition to the pain of envy

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Sometimes the drive to compete and win, which can be great for helping us move forward in life, can backfire and create difficulty and distress between people who may have been lifelong friends. It can help to understand the different forms this drive can take, so we can use it to our advantage and realize when we've crossed a line that can cause us emotional harm.

Competition — We learn to compete at an early age. We learn that being first usually means we get what we want. It also feels good when we've won a game or gotten a good grade. Not a bad principle, but when competition leads to anger and trying to get even, things can get ugly. We need to teach our children and ourselves that, though a little competition is good, winning isn't as important as being fair. The idea behind competition is that it is supposed to make us better by inspiring us to try our hardest and do our best.

Rivalry — Think of rivalry as competition with a dash of antagonism. Friends can be rivals, but generally it's not a "friendly competition." There is a desire on the part of one or both to beat the other out and come away with the prize -- and we can be friends later (but only if I win). It's not a horrible way to relate, but you do miss the bond of true friendship, and reaching your goals may require some teamwork, so it's best not to alienate those close to you. If a rivalry helps you be your best and you can also maintain your relationship, that's great.

Envy — This feeling can best be described as "I want what you've got." It doesn't mean the person who envies doesn't want you to succeed; it's just that he wants it, too. Envy can actually propel us to reach new heights, especially when we have been unaware of the possibility. For example, if you never knew there was such a thing as a Pulitzer Prize, you wouldn't miss it.

Jealousy — Gore Vidal said, "It's not enough for me to win. You have to lose." And that is the essence of this most destructive feeling. Jealousy makes us think that there isn't enough to go around, so the other person has to lose — or, metaphorically speaking, die. The anxiety and anger that jealousy provokes is damaging and can be dangerous, so be extra cautious if this is a feeling that is emerging within you or someone you are close to. Do everything you can to keep yourself in check and try talking to someone about what you are feeling, it can be very helpful in this situation.

It has been said that awareness of a problem is 50 percent of the cure. Knowing how you and those around you respond to good things happening in your life will help the positive experiences continue.

Dr. Barton Goldsmith, a marriage and family therapist in Westlake, Calif., is the author, most recently, of "Emotional Fitness at Work." He also hosts "Emotional Fitness" on NPR. E-mail him at barton@bartongoldsmith.com.