Building Mastery to feel competent
One of my biggest fears used to be being found to be incompetent. It’s not a rational fear. There was so much self-judgment living inside me that I often had the thought that if you discovered the things I was not good at, you would dismiss me and I would be ruined. I’m not even sure what that last part really meant for me, and it was still real. Today's skill is the opposite of this, it's doing things that reinforce a sense of competence and confidence.
Our histories (life experiences and our perception of those experiences) have large impacts in how we live our lives. Many of us live almost unconsciously, acting out automatic thoughts and behaviors that may or may not help us. Getting stuck in patterns of unhelpful thoughts (‘if they find out what I’m not good at, I will be ruined’ is one example) creates intensetly uncomfortable and unhelpful emotional reactions. Those patterns of thoughts and behaviors make it more likely that we will have intense emotional experiences and end up doing things that make our lives worse, hurt relationships, and end up feeling ashamed, guilty, or embarrassed unnecessarily.
We are not, however, stuck with all of that. One of the ways to combat some of that is with the skill Building Mastery. We do this skill to feel competent. ‘Feel’ here is used to describe an overall experience and not an emotion.
When I look at picking behaviors that will make me feel competent, they actually range from some very basic tasks to some much harder ones, depending on where I’m sitting emotionally and in connection with others. So, wander through this with me, if you will. In picking something to do to make me feel competent, I want to make sure I do something that is a bit challenging so I get the benefit of accomplishing it, but not so challenging that I set myself up for failure.
Some days, doing a single household task is enough to make me feel competent, especially if it’s laundry. My wife and I both hate laundry. I’ve shared this example many times in the skills classes I’ve taught over the years. Folding a basket of laundry is sometimes enough to bring about a feeling of competence. It’s like I’m doing something adult and not avoiding so I get some benefit there. Just moving clothes to the dryer and starting another load won’t do it for me. I guess there is not enough effort there for my brain to think it counts.
Other times, it needs to be a bigger thing. I’ve always wanted to teach or do trainings. Five years after I got my MSW, a friend of mine got an opportunity to teach at the school we had both attended. She wasn’t sure she was going to do it. I asked her to do it and have me as her TA so that I would have an ‘in’ and possib
ly get my own class the next semester. It scared me AND I also knew that it was something I needed to try. Wandering through that experience created a sense of competence in me. I then got my own section of the class to teach and did that four about 4 years. So, that was a BIG thing that helped me feel competent.
This skill is in the Emotion Regulation section of DBT under the subheading of skills to reduce vulnerability to emotion mind. So, doing som
ething that makes us ‘feel’ competent can help ward off dropping into emotion mind. If you are anything like me, emotion mind often ends in regret or apologies or both of those.
I think one thing that is important about this skill is that the same behavior won’t always work. You might devise a small list of go to things to make you feel competent, and you do one and it might not work. This might mean that you need to do something that is slightly harder to get the benefit.
The other night I folded 5 loads of laundry and felt the sense of competence and accomplishment. If I had folded 2, I don’t think it would have been enoug
h because 5 loads had been washed and needed to be folded. It’s a slightly silly example, and it’s important to make sure that we assess our current situation and do a task that is hard enough to feel like an accomplishment and easy enough that it’s doable.
In addition to our functioning level having an impact on what is hard enough, we also will need to increase the difficulty of things over time. If we aren’t d
much, then a little thing can be very helpful. As we become more functional and effective, the little things that used to help a lot to combat the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness will need to be ratcheted up a bit. Don’t worry, it’s a helpful process and it leads to feeling better about yourself much more often.
Today, sitting down and writing this is making me feel competent. This is a project that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time and I’m not sure I’m going to get it done well, so just writing is the competence I need for today. At some point, the thing that will make me feel competent will probably be publishing it. We will see.