The Myth of Competence

According to dictionary.com, to be competent means: “having suitable or sufficient skill, knowledge, experience, etc., for some purpose; properly qualified.” I would say that I definitely have sufficient skill at life. I have a good job and own a house (whether or not I feel “properly qualified”). In my free time I do things like go to CrossFit, bake, hike, prep meals, play the cello, and make my own kombucha. I say this not to boast about myself or my skillset, simply to say that from the outside, I look like I have things pretty much together. I’ve got that strong, independent woman persona down pat.

However, I’ve found myself saying lately that I wish I wasn’t so competent. Don’t get me wrong: I am certainly proud of all of my accomplishments, and hobbies and skills I mentioned above. But I feel like all this perceived “competence” means my struggles and needs often go unseen. There are a ton of people whose needs are more urgent than mine. People whose struggles and pain are a lot more obvious. It often feels like I’m so good at keeping it together that no one would have a clue what is going on inside.

Reality? Behind that independent woman façade is a girl who was having a bad day, whose therapist bumped her appointment 2x in a row because more urgent people came up, who tried to find a screwdriver to fix something on her fridge then inadvertently sliced her finger and nail open on a sharp blade hidden in a toolbox pocket, started crying in her kitchen, and gave up (true story). But you wouldn’t know any of this from looking at me, would you? You wouldn’t know that this strong, competent woman has been having a bit of an anxious week, despite what my so-called competency would suggest.

You know what makes my competent façade even worse? When you couple it with a long-time difficulty in asking for and accepting help. It’s a mix of pride (can’t damage that independent woman image) and my own fear and anxiety that stop me from asking. Anxiety keeps me alone, thinking I’ll do fine on my own, and that’s easier than asking anyway.

Not asking for help is a bit one of a one-two punch when it comes to maintaining the competent thing. First of all, (and this is obvious to say when I’m written it out, but you wouldn’t believe how not obvious it sometimes is inside my head), if I don’t ask for help, how will people know I need help? My friends and family have busy lives, and especially since I live on my own, they might not see what’s going on.

Secondly, by not asking for help, I’m refusing to be vulnerable and admit weakness. My pride is keeping me hidden, and keeping the competency myth alive. Further still, it’s keeping me from letting other people in to what’s really going on, and potentially deepening relationships and connection.

So what’s a competent (but anxious) girl to do? I’m still trying to figure that out, but I’ve got a few ideas…

Not surprisingly, asking for help is at the top of the list. One thing I’ve learned over the past few months is that reaching out, while it can feel super scary, can also make a big difference. Also, I’m realizing lately that it doesn’t have to be absolutely terrible horrible times before I reach out. Actually, if I reach out when I’m having a bad day or a bad week, that can help prevent things from getting to that terrible horrible dark place.

And when you ask for help? Stop the guilt. This is another lie that I tell myself: that people are too busy. That me and my problems are “too much.” That I’m being silly. Overreacting. That I’m not important or worth someone else’s time.

Just. Stop. It. You’re not too much. Or silly. If you are feeling or experiencing something, that makes it valid. And you are most certainly worth someone else’s time (I’m saying youhere because I’m writing for an audience but I am 100% preaching to the choir).

Know your safe people. Asking for help doesn’t mean talking to anyone who will listen. It means knowing who those friends are who you can just text and be like “I’m not having a great week right now.” They don’t have to be able to solve your problems. But just knowing they are there, in your corner, can mean a whole lot. And just by asking for help, look at that: you chipped away just a bit at that competent exterior.

BrenéBrown has this cool idea to write yourself a permission slip. What do you need to do to succeed? What is stopping you? Is it pride, rules, other people’s perception? Something your parents told you? I will admit I haven’t tried this one yet. But my permission slip might say “I give myself permission to ask for help.” Or maybe “I give myself permission to admit that I don’t have it all together.” Or maybe if I’m feeling really crazy “I give myself permission to do something irresponsible for a change.”

So, this isn’t one of those “happily ever after, easily resolved” kinda things (the older I get, the less life seems to be that way). I am still going to look pretty competent on the outside. But I’m working to let more people in. To ask for help. To reach out on bad days. And as I do this one day at a time, I celebrate small victories. Because I know that beyond just being competent and good at things, that I matter. That I am worth it. And I’m pretty sure you are too, competent or not.

 

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