Three fundamental human needs (Part 3): Being competent

One of the reasons why many of us are reluctant to try new endeavors is our need to feel competent. Especially if you are used to feeling competent in different domains in your work, relationships or leisurely activities it is uncomfortable to take on something new which will make you feel not so competent.

I am sure many expats can relate feeling incompetent when they find themselves struggling with the easiest tasks in their new environment. Again there are numerous examples in the tales of women told in the Expat.

An American woman who moved to Bangladesh shares her frustration in her search for a blanket. You might think how frustrating can it be to find a blanket?! But if you’re not sure where to shop for one on top of having to sleep in layers of clothing and still feeling cold night after night – it can be frustrating!

Or consider another American woman who took a teaching job in Japan struggling to get her students to discuss the readings in class. Of course, I’m not even going to get into the whole language issue again – who feels competent while trying to express oneself with language capabilities worse than a 5 year old’s! The frustration accompanies feeling incompetent in areas that you are used to being competent – shopping, doing your job, expressing yourself…

But as important as the emotional costs, the expectation of feeling incompetent has other equally, if not more, serious consequences as it represents a major obstacle on the way of self-development. Sometimes we pass some potentially life-enriching opportunities because we don’t want to feel incompetent.

Achieving the sense of competence is one of the important developmental criteria starting from our early years in life. Erik Erikson – a prominent developmental psychologist – contended that each stage of life has its own “psychosocial” task, a crisis that needs resolution. In his  model of social development he suggests the critical stage between 6 years to puberty to be about competence. According to him toddlers who have tackled the trust, autonomy and initiative issues by that time now strive for competence, feeling able and productive. This forms the foundation of our sense of competence which gets tested over and over again throughout the life span.

As adults we’re also in an on-going journey from incompetence to competence. Realizing and acknowledging that it is a process makes it easier understand the reluctance when it comes to learning a new skill – may it be a new language or a new career. Knowing the stages involved in the process will further help us make a more accurate assessment of the situation.

The Four Stages of Competence Model
Also called the Conscious Competence Learning Model, this model nicely acknowledges that learning is essentially a journey that involves moving from incompetence to competence.

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence ~ I don’t know what I don’t know
This is the stage that could be summarized as the bliss of ignorance. You’re living in your home country and don’t have a clue about the challenges of daily life if you were to move to a new country. And it doesn’t even matter because it’s not relevant at this moment.

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence ~ Now I now what I don’t know
This is when you realize that you need your neighbor’s help to buy a blanket or understand your electricity bill. It is also the stage you find yourself when you change your career and become aware of your novice status. A lot of us get overwhelmed at this stage with the daunting task in front of us. The danger of giving up is a real risk especially if you don’t recognize that learning is a process and there are two stages ahead.

This is also the stage when your self-limiting beliefs (see post on 2009-06-12) interfere the most. With the shaky sense of competence it’s easy to start questioning your confidence, abilities, potential and the plausibility of reaching your goal. It is vital that you persist at this stage and that you can rely on that self-control muscle you’ve been exercising (see post on 2009-06-23). It will require quite a bit of self-control to continue your learning despite feeling incompetent and self-limiting beliefs. But remember, this is only the 2nd and the most uncomfortable part of the process – it will get better! Having your vision to keep you on track also is vital to move on to the next stage.

Stage 3: Conscious Competence ~ I know what I know
Once you persist in Stage 2, you build of a sense of competence as a result of learning. You are aware of possessing some expertise while still doing conscious thinking when you apply that expertise. Now you know where to shop for blankets among other things and rely much less on your neighbor’s help with day-to-day tasks. Until we gain complete mastery the process looks like a tennis game between stages two and three. You are comfortable in using your newly required skills with enough concentration and focus, however you still run into situations where you find yourself in Stage 2.

Stage 4: Unconscious Competence ~ I’m not aware, and I know
This is when your expertise or skill flows naturally. You don’t need to concentrate hard on what to do next – you leave the house without carefully planning every step of your shopping trip! You engage in the necessary actions without much thought. You no longer think the past tense for an irregular verb – you just say it.

A lot of the times the difficulty of learning a new skill, being in a new context, or going through change is due to not realizing or acknowledging that these are processes that take time and follow a pattern. This awareness alleviates the feeling of being stuck – generally at the Conscious Incompetence stage.

Self-reflection into where you are in your learning journey will benefit you in several ways:

  • it will give you the control over emotions associated with feeling incompetent – recognize and label the emotion (i.e., “I am feeling frustrated /impatient/upset because…. ) and acknowledge it is normal and part of the process and it will change.
  • it will give you chances to celebrate as you move forward in the process. This is something most of us neglect to do – just like you acknowledge emotions do the same for your successes. Don’t be too modest or normalize them – take credit for them!
  • you’ll be better in managing the swings you experience between stages two and three. You wouldn’t feel like all your efforts are gone astray just because you run into difficulties.

Finally remember to compassionate towards yourself. Recent research shows self-compassion to be as valuable a resource as self-esteem. Ask yourself how you would react to a friend when she’s experiencing ups and downs in her learning process – you’d champion her when she feels incompetent and you’d cheer for her when she succeeds, even when she is being modest. You deserve the same treatment for yourself!

This entry was posted in Automatic processes, change, competence, expatriates, expats, fundamental needs, language, learning, self-awareness, self-compassion, self-control, Self-limiting beliefs. Bookmark the permalink.

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