The trap of apparent competence

What is apparent competence?

You just got home from work. You’ve put in a full day of bubbly interaction. You have gotten stuff done, and you’ve done it well! You are truly competent at your job, and your skills are real. They matter. And yet, you feel like a fraud. No one has any idea how much you’re struggling. Your despair is just beneath the surface, threatening to overwhelm you.

Your partner says, “How are you?” And you respond, “Ah, just a little stressed.” You put your characteristic smile in place, and you trudge through the evening. Are you in despair? Loads. Do you feel like you’ve asked for help? Maybe. If you said you were stressed, you may have hoped that your partner would pick up on how you felt.

And yet, your partner read your nonverbal cues. The cues that keep telling people, “I’ve got this. I’m okay!”

You have learned to act as if things don’t affect you as deeply as they do.

But things do affect you. You do need help. The fact that you can manage your day does not mean that all is well. The fact that you smile when you communicate distress does not mean that you’re happy. The fact that you have a professional, clear demeanor when you tell your therapist that you’ve been considering self-harm does not make your distress any less.

But it does make it harder for you to be understood and to get the help and validation you truly need.

Apparent competence is something we can learn when we’re young. If you learned apparent competence, it comes very naturally to you to act perfectly professional. Maybe you’re even the shoulder other people cry on. Apparent competence is a great skill that often has a great deal of heartache beneath the surface. We develop the mask of “everything’s fine” when we learn, at some level, that to show that we aren’t fine wouldn’t be okay. We learn to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” to “just move on already,” that “it’s not such a big deal; quit crying over spilled milk.” When you’re deeply sensitive and you receive these messages as a child, you wisely learn to start masking your emotions. Even more harmful, you might have learned to invalidate your own emotions, telling yourself things like, “I should be okay! I need to just stop being dramatic — it’s no big deal. I’ll fake it till I make it. It’s fine.”

Apparent competence can help you to get through some very hard times. It can even help you to put a calm enough face on that  you can communicate in ways that maximize your chances of getting help.

On the other hand, you may also accidentally confuse yourself and other people. You may be stunned and feel rejected to find that, when you say you’re really upset, no one seems to care. Your voice is so calm, so measured, and maybe you’re even joking — they don’t hear distress! You’re smiling, though, and your makeup looks so perfect — they don’t see distress!

But your pain is real.

“So what can I do if I have this apparent competence thing?”

First off, awareness is a great first step. It’s not enough, but it will help you! If there are people in your life who are supportive of you — a therapist, a partner, a close friend – Explain apparent competence to them. You might say something like, “You know when I say I’m really upset but I act like things are okay? Well, they’re not really that okay. But I feel like I’ll burden people or something if I act as scared or sad as I feel. Can you ask me about it if I say I’m upset?”

Notice your apparent competence. Notice those moments when you feel awful, but you may be projecting something different. Sometimes, this skill is a big help, like if you’re in a class or at work and you need to keep things together for that moment to keep your job or participate in the class. At other moments, like with your partner or therapist, it may not be so good, because your needs aren’t being met or heard.

Experiment with dropping your mask a bit, in a place where it’s safe to. Maybe you work on not smiling or doing that “super polished delivery” next time you talk with your therapist or friend. Maybe you let yourself feel a bit more of what you’re saying. This involves taking a risk, being a bit more open with your true emotions and the depth of them. It can be a very rewarding risk to take, as you find that people hear you more clearly.

Use your apparent competence on purpose to pull you out of despair.

Yup, your apparent competence may sometimes be your best friend! Let’s say that you feel awful, but there’s no help available right now. You’re at home, and you’re miserable. You’re having terrible thoughts. No one close to you will be available until tomorrow. Well, one option is to acknowledge your own emotions, do some self-care, journal perhaps, or meditate. But what if the emotions are too hard to be alone with? Well, if apparent competence is one of the ways you’ve learned to cope, you might, for a short time period, want to get into a situation that will cause you to “act okay,” just to give you some breathing room from emotions that might overwhelm you. So go to a meetup, even if you don’t feel like it, knowing that your apparent competence has your back and will make it possible to socialize and have some fun amidst some truly lousy feelings! Or go to the grocery store, knowing that just seeing the cashier will pull you into a “happy face” for at least a moment.

This is not an ultimate solution. This is not invalidating the level of despair you really feel. This is a way to use your skill to get yourself some breathing room for emotions that are a little too hard to face head-on just yet.

Over time, the solution to apparent competence is to realize that it’s a skill you learned when you were young, but it’s one you can start to override when it’s safe to, and when it would be more helpful for someone to see what you’re really feeling.

It will take time to feel like it’s okay to express your true emotions. You may feel “dramatic” or “overemotional” on your first try or two, or feel stilted because this way of expressing yourself is new. Be gentle with yourself. Know that your emotions are worth tending to, that there are people who will accept you for who you are, and who really want to know if you need help or support. Realize that some of the people you’ve felt invalidated by may have accidentally invalidated the wrong part of your communication, and that this may have been an honest mistake — they didn’t know how upset you truly were.

You can learn to communicate in a more authentic way. As you learn to acknowledge your emotions for what they are, you’ll be able to take much better care of yourself, to start to befriend your emotions, to be able to see when they’re too upsetting to face head-on, and to see when they are appropriate to communicate. Your communication may be “dramatic” for a little bit, because you’ve pent up so much pain for so long. Work to be specific in your requests, to ask for help that others are likely to be able to give, and to learn tools to manage the level of distress you’re really feeling.

This will get better, over time.


Author: Michaela Lonning

I'm a counselor in Corvallis, Oregon, and I work mostly with intelligent and sensitive people who are struggling with a sense of connection to themselves or in their relationships. Near Corvallis? Come see me. Not near Corvallis? I work with clients around the world via Skype: Come see me.

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