Learning Competence


There are people I know who seem naturally confident, competent and self-assured. They seem completely sure that their decisions are absolutely right, and that they will succeed in every venture they set their minds to.

I think for many of us, however, competence is something we learn through trial and error; through constantly pushing our self-doubt away; through giving it a go despite being convinced that we will fail.

I am someone who tends to give her power away to other, more dominant, characters. This I freely admit. I assume – or am told – that I cannot do certain things, and, in the past, have given up at the first gate.

These grim assumptions concerning my level of competence have proved to be wildly inaccurate, however. I am more resourceful that I think. Many of us are.

Once I stopped panicking, I was able to fill in the dreaded forms with relative ease – and that skill (honed during thirty years as an English teacher) came back quickly. You see, sometimes we watch other people’s anxiety concerning life tasks – and, if we privately see the other as a stronger person than us, we can take on his/her struggle as our own through a kind of negative osmosis. After a while, we forget that this is something we actually can do, and the other person’s anger and fear in the face of this thing makes us think, ‘God, if he/she can’t do Task A, I most certainly would fail dismally…’

We can bend the truth in order that we do not threaten the other by being more capable in certain areas than he or she is. We play dumb, or stupid, or unable to understand, or physically weak, in order to please, to stroke another’s fragile ego.

I think this behaviour is particularly true of women. Men often feel that they should be the strong, capable, physical ones. This can be a strain on them, and can also mean that they find it hard to cope with partners who show signs of being more able to cope with some of the traditional male chores.

Women often feel that they have to be girly and childlike, to ask for help in matters which, actually, they could do standing on their heads with eyes closed. They often feel that pretending to be useless and weak is flattering to men, and gets them more Brownie Points in the great Attraction Game.

But, women can dig themselves a deep, almost inescapable, hole by adopting such tactics. It is all too easy to actually become that drooping, clinging, princess-like little woman that one pretends to be; all too easy to allow one’s competence to be questioned, undermined and, finally, stolen altogether.

It is like any muscle. If we don’t use it, it withers, becomes flabby, is no longer fit for purpose. We have to learn competence, men and women alike, and to practise its many skills.

And, if we are women, we have to stop telling ourselves that being incompetent, being unable to cope with certain things, makes us more attractive, more loved, more wanted. We also, I think, have to face another truth: Men do not have to be the all-knowing fixers and providers in order for us to love and want and desire them.

Being able to change a tyre, or fill in a form, does not make a woman any less feminine, sexy or desirable; the inability to do these things does not make a man unmanly, weak or effeminate.

Competence is vital for all human beings irrespective of their gender and sexual orientation – and we do ourselves no favours by faking a lack of it to be popular.

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