This is the sixth in a series of articles that draw on the field of schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.
Ever felt stupid? Not just like you did something stupid, but that you are stupid, can’t learn, are incompetent, are talentless or useless? That you in a basic and profound way are just not up to the mark?
Most of us feel some of that at least a few times in our lives, but people with the incompetence schema feel that way every day. On a basic level, they feel as though they’re not good enough. If this feels like you or sounds like someone you know, learning about this schema might come in handy for you.
How incompetence schemas work
Incompetence schemas usually develop in childhood, when parents or other important figures in a kid’s life start telling them–whether in so many words or through attitudes and actions–that they can’t hack it, that they’re not up to the challenge.
Studies of randomly-generated praise have shown that when someone is doing a task, even completely meaningless, computer-generated encouragement tends to improve their mood and make them feel more competent. I suspect on some basic level it’s built into us to need a certain amount of encouragement. Some of us eventually internalize that encouragement and can provide it for ourselves, mentally telling ourselves “You’ve got this!” and “You’re going to kick butt!”
People with this schema never got enough of that encouragement in their formative years and therefore have trouble generating their own encouragement or believing other people’s. This can lead to expecting failure, fearing challenges, and shying away from anything that might “prove” the incompetence.
Getting past an incompetence schema
How do you get the best of an incompetence schema? Well, external encouragement may help, but there are two things that have to happen inside a person for a real change to emerge over time: acceptance that failure is a normal part of life, but also understanding that one failure doesn’t doesn’t define a person. A person can fail without being a failure. People who have failed once may very well succeed when the next challenge comes along. Thomas Edison claimed famously that he had thousands of failed attempts before he came up with a working light bulb.
In terms of broken ideas, an incompetence schema can show up in a variety of ways: all-or-nothing thinking (“I’m completely incompetent at math.”), overgeneralization (“The woman I asked last year turned me down for a date, so I’m obviously not desirable”), mental filtering (“Winning that poetry prize was a fluke; the judges probably just felt sorry for me”), fortune telling (“I know I’m going to screw up this project”), and so on. Each of these ideas can be detected and repaired on its own, slowly breaking away the barrier of feeling incompetent and revealing the truer, brighter possibilities behind it.
Photo by Paul in Uijeongbu