Competence & Building a Self

Competence is on the list of universal human needs and I hear it used often.  But people are rarely referring to a need for competence when they use it.  Competence as a need arises in the moment when you are attempting to complete a task and you don't have the knowledge and skill to do so.  Often in the very next moment an inner critic arises and gets on your case.  The inner critic doesn't just criticize your lack of skill in the moment, but usually goes on to question your worthiness as a human being.  The need for self-acceptance then becomes the primary need in the situation.  Self-acceptance is the need that people are most often referring to when they use the word competence.  

If your inner critic is talking frequently, either consciously or unconsciously, self-acceptance becomes a tenuous thing that is easily threatened.  In the face of tenuous self-acceptance, you might attempt to "build a self" around competence.  This looks like taking any opportunity to say what you know and show off your knowledge or competence.  Sometimes it looks like criticizing or making fun of others for not knowing something that you know.  Other times it looks likes interrupting someone else's sharing to insert your related story so others can see that you know all about that kind of thing.  It can also show up as pushing someone else aside to take over a task or solve a problem.

If you are on the receiving end of this behavior, you have a sense that there isn't much room for you in this person's world.  You notice that this person rarely gets curious about your experience and if she does ask something about you, whatever you say becomes a launching pad to share more about herself.  You also might start to have the sense that you have to fight to be seen for the knowledge and competence you bring.  You might suddenly find yourself insisting that the other person recognize that you were right.  You are disturbed to find yourself in a competency competition.

Perhaps the most tragic thing about building a self around competence is that it leads to empty disconnect.  You are a complex and dynamic living being.  Any attempt to build a one dimensional, permanent sense of self blocks access to your aliveness.  For you, there's this emptiness that can't be filled.  For others around you, relating to you is like relating to a mirage.  They have trouble finding you behind the false self you've built.  A sense of disconnect is present on both sides.

At one level, building a self around competence is simply a habit.  Like any habit it can be changed by mindful reflection that allows you to notice when you are doing it, pause, and do something different.  At another level, this habit is attempting to meet a need for self-acceptance, so changing it means finding another way to meet this need.  Being able to rest in a sense of self-acceptance is a intricate journey. 

For our purposes here, I'll name a simple step on the journey.  Reflect and look for an experience in which you had a felt sense of your own goodness.  For example, for me, two experiences stand out.  One is when I was about four years old.  I am outside with ducks, geese, horses and the splendor of nature all around me.  I am alive with the goodness of life and I am not separate from it.  Another is when I was a young adult beginning to sit meditation retreats.  At the end of the retreat I am standing in front of a bright red Japanese maple tree with sun streaming through the leaves, and in that moment nature reclaims me and I know my beauty is not less than the maple tree.

Experiences like these are your touchstones that bring you back to a felt sense of your own goodness.  Each time you interrupt yourself in the habit of building a self through competence, come back to this touchstone and breath into it for one full inhale and one full exhale.  Then see you if can bring a sense of curiosity to the person with whom you are interacting.

To begin a practice with this habit, become familiar with everything that is happening for you when are trying to build a self around competence.  Ask yourself the following:  What is happening in my body, in my energy, in my thoughts, in my emotional tone?  Are there particular images or impulses associated with this behavior?  Knowing a habit intimately allows you to see it coming and interrupt it before it gets rolling.  Getting to the point of interrupting a habit usually requires reflecting on it many times of after you have already played it out.  Once you are able to interrupt it in the moment, follow the steps outlined in the previous paragraph.