The Desire For Competence

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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.

Next WeekHow To Survive A Hospitalization

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  • Constricted or inhibited ki/chi flow due to the emotional/ego/fear response or possibly minor or major stagnation of the liver gallbladder function can very well contribute to the “anger” response. Ki/Chi flow influences blood flow and blood flow influences a myriad of emotional responses including anger.

  • Great article again, Alex. I can’t help feeling you have a beautiful little therapy site going here—at least that’s how it feels for me. You are so talented at looking into the human soul and pulling out the truth. I also feel very comfortable in my competence as a physician, but much less so as a mother. Especially since I practice a very different style of motherhood than my overachiever full time stay at home mother did. I know my “desire for competence” is what sometimes triggers my anger with my mom, when once again I should see that this is more about me accepting my own personal style as a mother than it is about her. I know that when I gain more confidence in my parenting choices (which I’m not sure will ever happen!) I’ll be less reactive to comments that I interpret as passive aggressive. Thank you again for explaining myself to me!

  • I think it also has a lot to do with self-esteem. For example, you KNOW where you stand as a doctor…i.e., you have a well-developed sense of confidence and self-respect of yourself as a doctor and so it doesn’t bother you when others question your competence as a doctor. If on the other hand, you weren’t so sure….that would be bothersome then, wouldn’t it?

  • Such wisdom here, Alex. I appreciate your willingness to share your moments of feeling incompetent/powerless with us, which inspires our own recognition. My fears of vulnerability here were reinforced in childhood by not learning how to do enough things myself. I had one critical, judgmental parent and the other indulgent, protective, which limited my areas of competence to very few, carefully guarded. I have sought to be a different parent, aware of the value and pleasure of learning new things (and their absence).

  • Alex,

    I think it is greatly useful that you are putting a spotlight on both anger and ego as these are so prevalent in public discourse, and particularly this election year. I hope you continue to expand on this column idea. I am in agreement with the Dalai Lama’s teaching: anger is useless. Certainly others may respectfully disagree, and even consider that a radical statement and not useful to the way they want to live and express themselves.

    I speak now for myself. Just as filling an empty glass full of milk to the brim pushes out all of the air space, so too does filling oneself with compassion push out any space left for anger to co-exist in oneself. I believe it was before I turned 40, after much study and angry practice 🙂 I was filled to the brim so-to-speak, in my capacity to “hold and sustain compassion” toward others and toward myself … the result was it felt and looked “like I never got angry” or that I had “made a conscious choice to give up anger.”

    I know I did not even have to make an “unconscious” choice to give up anger. For what became crystal clear to me years ago—that came through the understanding I had gained of compassion—is that I truly had no use for anger, no room at all for it, that anger was(and remains) useless to me.

    What has also emerged is this: anytime there is a display of ignorance or a seeming misstep/mistake that inevitably comes from all of us just being human, whether it is displayed by others or myself, I feel no anger, rather only compassion and forgiveness. Seemingly in tandem has come the ability to also giggle like the Dalai Lama does 🙂 and not sweat the small stuff, upon my desire. That is useful to me. A good giggle is beautiful medicine.


    Giselle: Thank you for your comment. One quibble I have with it though: I think anger is quite useful—and appropriate—in a response to injustice.


  • Alex,

    Yes I used to once think that very same way as you.

    The Dalai Lama has demonstrated how this is possible: Through his path of trying to correct the injustices of the Chinese government against his own country and people, the Dalai Lama does not indulge the anger response and express it toward the Chinese. As he has said, he does express his disagreement with their positions that are unjust, but he neither feels nor displays anger.

    Much earlier than me 🙂 the Dalai Lama learned how to just “lean” into his compassion and forgiveness of the ignorance that causes those in that government to behave unjustly, and the Dalai Lama is thus able to sustain in himself this place of peace whereby he can continue to do the work of trying to lift the ignorance and the injustice.

    It’s one click to the right, of being able to hold and sustain compassion and forgiveness WHILE seeing the injustices and simultaneously doing the work to correct the injustices.

    I share my experience because I am no one special.

    What I did was intensely study the Dalai Lama’s example and teaching of “anger being useless” (and inappropriate, regardless of situation)—EVEN when faced with grotesque injustices of unimaginable magnitude. I came to see that that is what I wanted for myself. All that was required of me was practicing this spiritual lesson till it organically became FOR ME the only sane and natural response to being alive at all times. And the only way I want to live my life. Others may continue to respectfully disagree with me and choose to live with an anger response to injustice or anything else that triggers it.

    Thanks so much for this forum and discourse with you and your readers. Great peaceful fun sharing the journey.


  • I have to agree with Alex on this. Anger is a healthy emotion that is not only sometimes helpful to compel one to rage against social injustice, it can prove life-saving. During times of extreme harm, anger can propel one to fight for safety. Say, for instance, that you are cornered by someone who is violently beating you. Unable to flee, those behaviors that accompany anger allow you to fight back to save yourself from injury. Anger aids in our self-protection.

    Our emotions all have evolutionary importance in our survival. They are even necessary for rational thought (see Antonio Damasio). Anger, too, has its place.

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  • I am very comfortable with replacing anger with forgiveness. It might be heavy to hear or do but I tried it and it relieved me. What I need to know is how to stay positive with the people that made me angry, especially people that I live with that are not my relation and always show up in my life?