The Desire For Competence

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Synopsis

Why does feeling incompetent often provoke anger?

Other than my autonomy, there’s nothing I dislike having challenged more than my competence. I like to be good at things, and I don’t like it when people think I’m not. I know this because when my competence is challenged in an area in which I think I’m competent, I get angry.

I don’t mind making mistakes. But that’s only because mistakes don’t necessarily imply incompetence. In fact, competent people make them all the time, whether due to lack of attention, working too fast, or being too tired. But one thing competent people don’t do is make mistakes because they don’t know what they’re doing.

Which is where my ego gets involved: I don’t like people to think I don’t know what I’m doing when I think I do. If I have no expectation that I do know what I’m doing or should know what I’m doing, then having people perceive that I don’t doesn’t bother me at all. I’m not at all bothered, for example, that no one thinks I can fly an airplane. Interestingly, I’m also not bothered if someone thinks I’m a lousy doctor—mostly, I think, because I know exactly how good a doctor I am (not by any means the best, but far from the worst).

I’m bothered when I fail at something—even something small—that I didn’t think I should. It’s thinking I shouldn’t fail, not failing itself, that triggers my anger when my failure is criticized. Because it turns out that I don’t just desire competence; my identity depends on it.

I find this rather inconvenient. I screw up in minor ways all the time, which only multiplies the number of opportunities available for someone—anyone—to beat my self concept around a little. This happens, it turns out, mostly with the people whose opinion matters to me the most: my wife, certainly. My parents. Some of my close friends. It sometimes makes me surly, reminding me that no matter how strong a person I’ve become, the people I love most still have power over me.

Which, in the end, I’ve realized, is what the desire for competence (not to mention autonomy) is all about: the desire for power. Why does anyone become angry when their competence is questioned? Because anger makes us feel strong. And if we can’t make ourselves feel strong by experiencing competence, we’ll make ourselves feel strong by experiencing anger.

Which is clearly a suboptimal strategy for garnering power. Not only does anger threaten the health of our relationships, it causes us to become angry with ourselves for being unable to control it, which then risks self-deprecation and even in extreme cases depression.

A better answer than anger to having my incompetence exposed, then, lies in recognizing the desire for power as a fundamental need and in taking a careful look at what maladaptive behavior it may be creating. For only once we identify that behavior and its cause can we take steps to change it. Which is why I try to remember whenever I get angry at someone that I’m most likely getting angry at myself. Rather than do that, I try to remind myself, I should be turning my energies toward learning whatever skill I need to become competent in the way I want.

Tags: competence, education, failure, learning, power, psychology, work

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