But I still don’t ‘feel’ confident

So you’ve finally graduated but thinking about going back and learning more – enrolling in another course or specialty because you still don;t feel like you have what it takes? If so, you are not alone.

It’s intriguing how we as humans like to judge our performance by our feelings. Whether we feel something went well or not. Whether we feel confident or not. Whether we feel we are good or bad at what we do. 

But the problem is feelings are not facts. 

Feelings are very strong and influential though. Feeling are hard to ignore. Feelings can hold useful information about the world – but they can also lead us astray. 

I know this. I’m a person who has been blessed with strong feelings and been forced to learn how to interpret them and manage them – both in personal development work – and at a theoretical level in studying behavioural science. Learning to interpret, manage and use emotions is otherwise known as emotional regulation and it;s a really useful skill.

So recently we discussed how feeling a lack of confidence about your own competence can indicate that you might actually be a top performer according to the Dunning Kruger effect. The emotional regulation nuance here is that knowing facts about how humans work can help us interpret in a useful what is happening. So knowing that feeling incompetent or like an imposter is an indicator high performance is something I remind myself about all the time. It helps me say “Maybe I’m better at this than I think I am”. 

Today I want to take a different perspective and discuss how our feelings change throughout the learning cycle – and again how we can intepret uncomfortbale feelings in a more positive way.

So have a look at the diagram below and we’ll talk our way through this bit by bit.  


So, what this cycle shows is a demonstration of how we are likely to feel at different stages of learning. Clearly this is a generalisation – but probably most people can resonate with the example of learning to drive and some of the emotions associated with that. 

Unconscious incompetence is where we all start when faces with new knowledge or skills. It’s a space of blissful ignorance. Consider your avaerage teenager learning to drive – how hard can it be – all you need to do is press the accelerator and go. There’s no way you can really explain to a non-drive all the myriad of things they need to pay attention to at once – so they stay happy an ignorant until their first time behind the wheel. Then, the shock of insight hits – and they move to next phase…

Conscious incompetence – here we have a new and sudden realisation about what it is we didn’t know. We simply didn’t know what it felt like to make a car move – how much pressure to put on the accelerator – how to come to a stop smoothly – how to turn a corner – when to start braking at a red light. As well as being associated with shock – ‘Oh my goodness – I had no idea’ – it can be associated with some fear and uncertainty. The task ahead suddenly can seem really daunting. So we are faced with a choice …back out now and put it in the too hard basket – or actively choose to move through the discomfort because driving is something you really want and need to learn how to do. So having chosen to proceed – we set out minds to learning new skills and knowledge and arrive at….

Conscious competence – this is a really interesting space. Because at this level we have developed enough technical knowledge to say pass our driving test – but we might still need to consciously think about certain things. For example, managing gear changes at corners, coping in unusual traffic conditions such as a sudden storm and generally operating a car without someone sitting next to us. It would seem that after passing an exam or test it would be expected that confidence is automatic – after all now you have a licence (or letters after your name) etc. I’m sure some people do automatically feel confident. But many people rightly recognise that passing a test or exam is really only a starting point for learning. It’s about foundational safety to build on. By no means does getting a licence (or medical fellowship for that matter) imply expertise and mastery. 

At conscious competence, you might have the tools in your toolbox – but you’re not really a Jedi yet. So staying in this space takes concentration and cognitive effort and holding on to the tension of often not knowing immediately what to do. It can feel uncomfortable here – and here is where knowing that our feelings are not good indicators of our actual performance (as discussed previously)  we can hold onto the tension without interpreting it as bad. It allows us to turn on curiosity and optimism as we set about practicing so that we will finally reach….

Unconscious competence – this can be a lovely space. Things that were once to hard for us are now a good match for our skills and we can enter into flow – a great space that is good for our wellbeing. In flow we lose track of time and get completely immersed in what we are doing. Things feel ‘easy’ and we make them look easy to do. However, and there’s always a but, being in this space can easily lead to complacency and returning to unconscious incompetence. Because if you are not actively growing, you are probably going backwards. That’s why it’s important, if you want to keep actively growing and learning, you need to engage in deliberate…

Ongoing reflection and learning. Reflection is a metacognitive skill that comes more easily to some than others. In the context of reflecting on practice in a confidence building way it’s important to think about how you are doing in terms of carefully set goals that are trackable so you can assess how you are doing and see progress. That means not only looking for errors and flaws – but thinking about what went well, why it went well and what your contribution was. Clearly in this space there is a range of emotions that might be felt. There can be tension in confronting a learning edge – there can be curiosity as well – or even excitement at the opportunity to learn something new. Perhaps there’s pleasure in learning and seeing progress. And perhaps there’s even a new confidence at last even in uncertainty.

So thinking about our feeling of confidence through this perspective helps us understand ourselves a bit better and can help us from getting sidetracked by feelings. Instead, we can use our feelings as a guide as to understanding where we are at and why.

I’m interested in hearing about your direct experience with conscious competence and how you felt.

Book in now if you would like to start working on building your confidence and getting better at emotional regulation at work 


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