“What if everyone wins?” is something my clients hear from me a lot. It’s because I see so many people squelching their own voices, surprisingly, in response to the condition of scarcity. As humans, we are steeped in the feeling that in any situation, big or small, there has to be a winner and a loser. It’s based on the sense and our experience that there isn’t enough—of attention, love, time, money, resources—for everyone.

When I talk about winning here, I’m not just talking about sports, games, or other arenas we normally recognize competition. This can show up in the smallest things, like deciding where to go to lunch with a friend. Some people always need to go to their favorite place, and others say, “I don’t care where we go. I just want you to be happy.”

There are several basic ways people cope with the feeling of scarcity:

  • I have to win everything.
  • It’s not safe for me to win at all.
  • I have to let others win everything.
  • I am in a constant tug of war between needing to win and needing to let others win.

These ways of coping or surviving are set up early in life. In the womb and until the age of 2 1/2, we absorb how it feels to be human from how those around us feel being human. What we absorb allows us to fit well and survive with our early surroundings, and this absorbed feeling becomes our sense of self. Beyond the age of 2 1/2, the sense of self generates every moment of our lives, so we keep experiencing moments in which we feel that to survive, we need to be that same way that allowed us to fit well with our early surroundings.

This whole winner/loser mechanism gets in the way of people expressing themselves in the world, especially for those who don’t feel safe in winning or who always need to let others win. They continually squelch their own voice, opinions, desires, and talents in the name of survival.

When I’m working with a client with one of these very common patterns, I might ask them, “What if everyone wins when you openly express what really matters to you?” I know that I’ve hit a nerve if someone either starts laughing and says, “Yeah, right, Sara, like that could be true!,” or if they start feeling a bit nervous when they consider this question. This tells me that survival has required them to essentially keep themselves hidden from the world. But, each of us is here to express something unique in the world, so when we hide what really matters to us, we deprive the world of something vital.

What’s usually hardest for my clients to believe is that they could share something negative and have a win-win result. A good example is a client who is getting ready for a big move with her husband in eight months. They need to downsize more than ever before, so she wants to get started now. In previous moves, my client’s husband has left a lot of detail to the last minute and that has been incredibly frustrating to her. She has felt that she wasn’t heard when she asked him to start preparing sooner and that what she wanted didn’t matter. Several weeks ago, she spoke up and told him just how angry, upset, and demoralized she felt through and after these past moves. He was very surprised and sad to hear this, and he has made a big effort to start preparing now and stick to the schedule that she thinks will allow things to go smoothly. He told her that he’s really glad that she brought this up, and is looking forward to having a move that they’ll both feel good about.

How do you deal with this realm of winners and losers in your relationships, your job, your community, or even in little everyday things like driving or shopping? Do you see ways in which your coping mechanism gets in the way of expressing yourself? When we all express our uniqueness, the world we live in will be made of all our diverse views, talents, and desires. When we do that, everyone truly wins!

Sara Avery helps people get unstuck in their relationships, health, career, and self-expression. Learn how she can help you tackle your biggest challenges.