Apparent competence

I’ve been wrestling with the concept of “apparent competence.” In basic terms, it is appearing to be competent or doing well when that is not the full reality.  It’s a term from DBT that is most often used by therapists as a frame of reference when working with clients. Or in my case, my therapist brought it up during an individual session because it’s one of my ongoing patterns.

I like the description from this website: “Apparent competence refers to outwardly being able to cope and seeming in control, while inwardly being completely lost, or mentally unwell. It does not necessarily have the ability to span all situations however, people may be able to shake off depression one day and but not the next. It is inconsistent. It can be dangerous as you as well as others may fail to recognize what it happening for what it is, false competence, until it is too late and things blow up in a crisis. Since others cannot always understand or appreciate apparent competence, cries for help are often ignored and people are assumed to be incorrectly ‘quite well’ which further complicates the risks that are associated with this situation.”

For me, it could look like this:   I look like I’m doing better than I am. Or I  look like I’m doing really well when I am also struggling with something. In some cases, it could mean I’m literally unwell and appearing otherwise.  In could also mean I am doing well and also actively struggling and my wellness comes across more strongly.

Apparent competence can be helpful in the short term, like showing up to an interview or public event where looking like I am doing and feeling well will benefit me. But keeping it up on a long-term basis is exhausting.

It has also looked like this:  I overcome a bunch of obstacles and am thriving.  Many people exclaim about how well I’m doing, how far I’ve come.  I believe it, too.  When I start struggling with something that I seem to have overcome, it looks like I’m falling backwards.  In the past, it has seemed like I’m caught in a constant pattern of rising and falling.

In states of crisis, it has looked something like this:  One day, I break down in tears and seem inconsolable, desperate, bereft.  The next day, I talk about how determined I am to meet my goals and talk about what needs to be done that day. I act pragmatic and self-directed. I may still appear sad, but I more or less continue as though the previous day didn’t happen.  I imagine this could be incredibly confusing from the outside.  It’s certainly confusing from the inside.  When I had a more intense breakdown, people did not seem to be convinced that the situation was as dire as it actually was.

I think that part of my inclination towards apparent competence could be due to an ongoing pattern of proving to myself and others that I was good enough.  If someone expressed doubt about my abilities or amazement when I succeeded, I was determined to show them how capable I was.  I learned to demonstrate my competence and how well I was doing.  Even if I was incredibly overwhelmed or sad, I often pushed through the situation anyway and came across as successful.  And I was…but often hid what was going on underneath.  That built up over time.  At several points in my life, this pattern contributed towards burnout or depression when I collapsed because I was appearing competent at the expense of my own life force. It wasn’t my intention to be dishonest or inauthentic, but yet it’s sort of like I tried to fake it until I made it…and didn’t always make it.

At times, I may unintentionally deceive myself as well as those who are trying to help me.  I could analyze this until I end up spinning in circles.  So…how can I be most effective?  By being attuned to my emotions, through acknowledging my thoughts, actions, and reactions.  Through growing awareness.  Through acknowledging that I have this coping mechanism because it has helped me in the past, and being compassionate with myself when I recognize it in the present.  Through actively sharing my process.

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