Many years ago when I was embarking on training to be an antenatal teacher, I studied a module about listening skills.  I read Pete Sanders’ book First Steps in Counselling and came across an explanation of learning that I have used ever since.  It is the four stage model of competence.  It illustrates our learning in the following way:

  • Unconscious incompetence – we don’t recognize our lack of skill and we probably don’t recognize our need of the particular skill either
  • Conscious incompetence – we move to a stage where we’re aware that the skill is needed, but we also recognize that we lack it. At this stage making mistakes is integral to learning the new skill
  • Conscious competence – we begin to be able to exercise the skill but it requires care and concentration to do so
  • Unconscious competence – we are so practiced at the skill it becomes like second nature

The reason I like this model is that it helps those of us who tend towards perfectionism.

Perfectionism can be unhelpful because the need to get things right first time can paralyse us and stop us from trying anything new.

Perfectionism can also lead to feelings of guilt and shame.  If we have to do everything right we are setting ourselves up to fail.  It’s unrealistic to expect ourselves to succeed at everything we do and this expectation can be a heavy burden to bear.

We set a gold standard that we have to achieve – perhaps based on messages we received as children – and then we are cross with ourselves when we are unable to attain that impossible standard.  We use our failure as a stick to beat ourselves.  We prove to ourselves that we are no good, were never any good, and might as well give up now.

This doesn’t just apply to academic learning.  Over the years I’ve worked with people who are learning skills in:

  • Making friends
  • Applying for jobs
  • Living with a new life partner
  • Becoming parents
  • Adapting to chronic illness
  • Transitioning to retirement

Recognizing that developing expertise in any skill takes time and practice lets us off the hook of perfectionism.  When we make mistakes it shows us that we are actually learning.  We are in the stage of conscious incompetence but through our awareness, our experimentation and our mistakes, we are moving forward to the next stage.  So don't give up - those mistakes are valuable!

It helps to remember at this point that we are not one-dimensional.  There are many other areas of our lives where we are competent.  We often take these things for granted because we are unconscious of them.  We forget we are highly skilled in certain areas.  As I start a new business I feel my incompetence in business skills keenly, forgetting that the basis of my business is listening and in this area I have a lot to offer.

So it helps to remember that we are multi-dimensional and have many facets of our personality that help us and are appreciated by others.

However, the overriding thing to remember is our shared humanity.  We are not worthy because of what we do.  We are worthy just because we’re here.  We didn’t ask to be born, we didn’t choose the circumstances into which we were born, and there is no need to define ourselves by the virtue of our family or our achievements.  We are simply here and our very existence is something to be treasured.

I talked about guilt and our humanity in my live feed this week:

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