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As a young woman, Shirley was happy and confident.  When she graduated from high school she knew she wanted to be a secretary and went to work for a small company where she made herself indispensible.  She married her high school sweetheart and had children.  She did everything expected of her in these roles. 

She thought she would enjoy feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction.  Instead, she began to feel empty and depressed.  Her decisions had felt right when she made them, but as she matured, she realized that she wasn’t living the life she truly wanted.  Her earlier decisions had been influenced by others and were based on false beliefs. This discovery devastated her. She realized that she didn’t know who she was anymore. 

Although very painful, this awareness was a positive development. Shirley had moved from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence.  These are stages one and two, respectively, of the Four Stages of Learning.  Contentment with the status quo, a feeling that everything is fine, characterizes unconscious incompetence.  Internal dialogue will discount any discontent, saying “I am in control here and I can improve things by doing x, y or z.” Conscious incompetence is the awakening to one’s new state of mind.  Stages three and four are conscious competence and unconscious competence.

Awareness is usually the result of a wake-up call, something that forces us to take in information that we have denied. A wake-up call flicks a mental switch. In the resulting light, we become aware. We see what was there all the time.

Many problems lend themselves to denial because you are either not ready to face the truth or you doubt you can manage or survive any change in the status quo.  For instance, you think you were on the fast track at work, but suddenly comprehend that you are at a dead end; you were blind to the fact that your daughter is a bulimic or your husband a compulsive gambler; you kept looking for approval and validation from others until it hit you that approving and validating yourself was the only way to get those needs met.

Startled into awareness, you may feel as though your world has been turned upside down. You have become consciously incompetent.  You are in shock and may wonder, “What am I going to do now?”

Take stock. Tell yourself the truth because unless you come to terms with this awakening you can’t move forward.  Some of us can do this quickly; some of us need time.  You might even return to unconscious incompetence and go back to a state of denial. 

When you are ready, talk to someone who can help.  Perhaps see a career counselor, or find a therapist, financial advisor or support group.  Get as much information as you can.  Talk to people who have been through the same or a similar experience or ask friends for recommendations. This is not the time to isolate yourself.  You will learn that you are not alone. Others have survived and moved on to become stronger and happier than they were before.

Decide on a new direction. Begin the next stage: conscious competence. You may feel awkward.  You might have to think about everything you are doing because it doesn’t feel natural. You start and stop, advance and retreat, or practice extreme behaviors until you find a middle ground.  You want to give up because you fail as often as you succeed.

Unconscious competence is the new normal that comes when your new beliefs, thoughts and actions have become natural to you.

Shirley decided to go back to school.  When she went to fill out the registration form for her first class she broke down in tears.  She asked a trusted friend to accompany her when she enrolled.  With each new accomplishment she overcame her fear and started feeling happy and confident again.

Are you due for a wake-up call? What stage are you in?  Acknowledge your fear of moving forward. Know that others have gone through these stages, and trust that you can do it, too.


Barbara Plasker, EdD

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