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Embracing Your Own Incompetence

Have you ever felt frustrated by not being able to do something as well as you’d like? Or anxious because you feel you should be able to do it better? Do you actively avoid situations/scenarios which might highlight your lack of skills/knowledge? Me too! All the time! And I suspect this is true for most of us.

And although we think we’re being kind to ourselves by not facing what we don’t feel competent achieving, this avoidance strategy is feeding our anxiety. So not only is it inhibiting our personal growth, it’s also subconsciously making us feel worse inside.

Consciously embracing areas of your own incompetence is a brave step, but one that can pay huge dividends to your own happiness and by proxy, that of your family.

Why Is This So Important for Parents or Homeschoolers?

I think as parents or homeschoolers, the idea of embracing your incompetence is especially pertinent. In any one day, we shift between many different identities, from maths tutor to co-ordinator of the many extracurriculars, to emotional counsellor, to organiser of science experiments, to nurse/doctor, to wife, to chauffeur, to mother, to exam co-ordinator, to social event planner, and on the list goes.

Each time we’re forced to move out of one identity into another as something more pressing grabs our attention, we leave behind much unfinished work in the last identity as we step into the new one. Seeing it like this, it’s unsurprising that we can feel overwhelmed. But it also explains why we can feel so underconfident. Undoubtedly, there are some aspects of our varied roles in which we feel very competent. But equally, given the number of different hats we wear, there will also be areas in which we’re less competent. And we may well shy away from these.

For some, this may be around organisation. Others will find guiding their children through emotional issues very difficult. Many of us struggle with teaching specific subjects and yet others might have social anxiety.

An Ever-Changing Environment

To further exacerbate this issue, each new child’s age brings a whole new gamut of educational and parental challenges, many of which we’ve never encountered before. Really, it’s like starting a new job each year, with no previous incumbent in the role to guide you!

Think about it. We valiantly adapt from the sleep-deprived days of a new baby; to the physically challenging role of an energetic toddler determined to explore every inch of the world; to the growing child with a million questions; to the emotional demands of supporting a teenager, where everything you say appears to be wrong! And as homeschoolers, we also feel accountable to guide them along each step of their varied educational journeys through life. Be that personally or finding others to help.

When you see it like that, there’s no way one person can be fully competent in all their identities as their children grow around them. Each one requires time, support from those who have gone before and lots of mistakes along the way. Along with an understanding that these mistakes are an essential part of the learning process. And yet, I think we feel we should be fully competent in each one, straight away, without giving ourselves time and space to learn.

An unrealistic expectation and yet I’m sure we all feel it at some point or another.

Also, let’s face it, with all the many responsibilities, there feels very little time left for your own self-development. But there are many benefits to be captured if we are brave enough to face up to and work on those areas in which we feel most incompetent.

Benefits to Embracing Your Incompetence

Here are a few benefits to gain from being brave enough to embrace your areas of incompetence:

  • Firstly, a decrease in anxiety and any shameful feelings or frustration at not being able to do something. Ultimately, by living in a state of denial and shying away from these areas of incompetence, you can unconsciously cause yourself pain. It feels like you’re protecting yourself from the embarrassment of not being able to do something, but actually you’re increasing the power that not being able to do them can hold over you. Without you even realising it. In extremis, this can have a physical effect on the body, such as stomach knots, chest heaviness or low energy.
  • Highlights to your family/friends not to be afraid of the unknown/things they can’t yet do. And in the process, demonstrates a lifelong approach to learning.
  • Furthermore, being unafraid to develop new skills allows you to be more adaptable to a world that is changing faster than it ever has before. A desired skill in the workplace and at home.
  • Increased confidence as your skill level improves.
  • More resilient to setbacks or rejection. Rather than wallowing in feelings of disappointment, you can knuckle down, knowing that you can learn from your mistakes or tackle new opportunities without fear.
  • Realise the value in being a beginner. Research has shown that intellectual humility is a very powerful tool as novices are more receptive of new and diverse perspectives. “In the beginner’s mind are many possibilities, in the experts mind there are few.” Coming fresh to the topic, you may see a new and better way of approaching an issue. You’re free to experiment exactly because you can say “I can try because I’m a trainee.”

These benefits make the effort worthwhile!

Two of My Own Areas of Incompetence (there are more…)

As part of my New Year’s resolutions, I plan to embrace two of my own areas of incompetence, one personal and the other more academic, both of which will benefit the whole family.

1. Being An Emotional Safe Harbour

As parents, we’re emotionally invested in the happiness and success of our children. More than anything, we want them to love life, thrive and follow their dreams. As homeschooling parents, alongside our children 24/7, these feelings are intensified further.

But we can support our children without personally living every emotional high and low that they feel. Without feeling their heartbreak alongside them. In fact, given how receptive children are to their parents’ emotions, it would be much better for them if we could detach emotionally to an extent. To be a safe harbour for them to shelter in rather than a stormy sea. To help them see the bigger picture. Their recovery would be faster.

Disengaging ourselves from this rollercoaster of emotions, a very normal part of the teenage years, to remain a neutral resource is easy to say. But very tricky to achieve!

And it’s something I find very hard to do.

Why It’s So Tricky?

It’s exacerbated by a couple of things. Firstly, I’m an empath or a highly sensitive person (HSP). It’s thought that about 15-20% of the world’s population are HSPs. HSPs are thought to have an increased sensitivity to sensory, physical or emotional stimuli.

This brings both strengths and weaknesses. For example, it might mean that I can notice when someone is feeling sad, allowing me to comfort them. But on the flipside, it’s often like I feel their pain alongside them.

Secondly, the very nature of homeschooling means that you’re personally engaged in helping them achieve all their life goals, be these academic, social, emotional, spiritual or career focused. There are no appraisals in the home ed world. But if there were, the objectives I’d want to be assessed against are how happy my children are, alongside how well they are thriving in their passions and current areas of learning. And so, it’s difficult not to get a little carried away when they achieve something they’re excited about or upset when they have a little knockback.

Last year, the children’s emotions intensified as they entered those tween/teen years. This combined with an increase in how seriously they’re pursuing their individual passions of cricket and acting, meant extreme emotions were at an all time high in our house. And honestly, I found it exhausting. I felt wrung out by the end of the year.

So much so that this year, one of my major goals is to get better at being that emotional safe harbour for my children. Absolutely still noticing what they need and supporting them but distancing myself from feeling their every emotion. Being that steady, calm place for them to recover from the demands of the world. And protecting myself at the same time.

2. Maths

Maths. It’s always been my weakest subject. With James being a mathematician, in the last couple of years, he’s taken over as our resident maths tutor. As a natural mathematician, this works brilliantly for Harry, and he thrives under his tutelage.

However, it’s also Rosie’s least favourite subject. Really, she needs more support in this area than James, with a full-time job, is logistically able to provide for her. As I haven’t been involved with her maths tuition for some years, I didn’t think I’d be able to help her. And honestly, I was scared. The thought of it gave me a panicky feeling in my stomach. But I bravely decided to embrace my incompetence and have a go.

The impact was astounding. Rosie is thriving in my incompetence. She loves to teach me complicated algebra and let’s be honest, there is no better way to learn than to teach another. Her own maths confidence has rocketed, which was all she really needed. She had the ability but lacked the self-assurance in this area. And now it is slowly rebuilding. Our time together learning the GCSE maths curriculum is her (and my) favourite part of the week. We have so much fun and we’re learning along the way.

And not only is it helping her, but I’m learning so much along the way. Slowly, slowly my confidence is increasing. And it feels really good! Puzzling out a complicated question brings me a real sense of satisfaction and joy!

So, there are my two areas to work on this year.

I’m hoping that by being open and honest about my incompetence, it might encourage you to embrace your own.

How to Embrace Your Incompetence

Ultimately, you’re working through the following four stages.

  1. Unconscious Incompetence
  2. Conscious Incompetence
  3. Conscious Competence
  4. Unconscious Competence

The first step is acknowledging the areas to work on, moving you into conscious incompetence. The next phase, becoming consciously competent, involves the hard work and perseverance of learning the new skill. Here your brain is working at full pelt, as you carefully think about each step you’re trying to master. And finally, often without realising it, you will arrive at unconscious competence. Here you’re so comfortable with the new skill, that it feels utterly natural and instinctive. Effortless almost.

Here are some steps which will help you along the way:

1. Identify one or two areas where you feel incompetent

Ones you might avoid for fear of failure. Here you’re bravely stepping into the consciously incompetent stage. Remember though that you don’t have to be competent in everything! Bringing in experts is a very valid and important part of your homeschool/life strategy (see this post).

2. Gift yourself permission to move into a learning phase

Acknowledge where you are in this skill currently, acknowledge that it’s OK to be there, and identify where you’d like to be. Remember we’re looking for growth, not perfection (read this excellent book if you’d like more persuasion on this point!). Set a realistic goal that fits in with your busy schedule.

3. Embark on your learning journey

I’d like to share a concept I read about in Jamie C. Martin’s excellent book Introverted Mom, known as being “brave and bad!” Here she shares a story in which she was feeling anxious about an upcoming podcast interview. To help her through the experience, she decided to measure her success not on how well the interview went, but just on whether she showed up. “After all, doesn’t it take more courage to be brave and bad than flawless and brilliant?” she writes. I absolutely love this concept. For me, it takes the fear out of failing. If I’m starting something new and difficult, I remind myself of this notion, accepting that I can be bad, as I’m already being brave just by being there and trying. It makes me more likely to take that difficult first step. And second. And third…

4. Treat yourself as you would a child learning to walk or ride a bike

This is a powerful analogy and another pearl of wisdom I picked up from Jamie in her Introverted Moms group (which I would highly recommend). As parents, we would NEVER shout at a child who fell off their bike whilst learning to ride or a toddler who tumbles on faltering first steps. And yet, we’re quite happy to berate ourselves if we make the tiniest mistake on our own new learning journeys. Try and keep this front of mind and be kind to yourself. Not only is this important for you, but you’re also modelling a positive lifelong learning style to your children too.

5. Ask for help where you need it

Verbally admitting that you’re working on this skill is a powerful step, albeit difficult. Be open with friends and family about your journey and don’t be ashamed to ask for support or advice.

6. Experiment and be playful

Enjoy each challenge along the way. Actively relish them! Offset any panicky or frustrated feelings, by being childlike and spirited. This is where you can learn from your own kids as you harness your inner child.

7. Take bite-sized steps

As the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu says, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Don’t put a time limit on trying to accomplish your goal and don’t tackle it all in one go. Break it down into smaller chunks, and work first towards becoming consciously competent in small aspects of the bigger skill. Eventually these will build to a big change.

8. Celebrate success along the way

Take time to stop every so often and see how far you’ve travelled. Be proud of yourself. Note those areas of the skill where you’ve already achieved unconscious competence, rather than obsessing over what you have still to accomplish.

I’ll share a personal example here. Rosie and I have been learning Spanish dancing for a couple of years. It’s a very relaxed group and my progress is slow but very enjoyable. Sometimes when our instructor is teaching us a new dance, she’ll remind us of the building blocks of steps, which we’d learned previously. Those building blocks, when I first encountered them, felt practically impossible to master. And yet now, they were part of my muscle memory. I didn’t consciously need to think about where to put my feet, it naturally happened. I’d achieved unconscious competence for those steps. Recognising this as a success is an important part of the learning process.

9. “Relapse is part of recovery

Firstly, you’ll never always get sufficient time to work on your new skill. Life will get in the way. Secondly, you may become frustrated with your lack of progress and not feel inclined to persevere. Not every week will be a great one on your road to unconscious competence. And that is not only OK, but also completely to be expected. The key is not to beat yourself up about it or feel any level of guilt. Accept it as part of your journey and pick yourself up the following week. Or whenever you next have space to focus on it.

Being Brave

So, what areas of incompetence are you going to embrace this year?

It could be something like learning a new instrument, language, sport or creative pursuit; getting better at organising your life; improving your financial/mathematical skills; developing your knowledge of a topic that interests you; or expanding your practical or DIY capabilities. Or something completely different.

Whatever it is, be brave and enjoy the journey!

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  1. What a great, thought-provoking post! Thank you for sharing. It has defnitely made me want to expand my comfort zone. I am also an empath but had not heard of HSPs… so something for me to learn more about and work on.

    1. Thank you Nicky, so glad it was helpful. Elaine Aron has written some excellent books, for example The Highly Sensitive Person and The Highly Sensitive Child. I’d highly recommend. xxx

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