Mental Health
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Confidence in Competence: The Second Basic Psychological Need

This is the third post of a four part series which summarizes crucial research findings about what causes most people to feel unhappy, dissatisfied, and unmotivated in different areas of their lives. As discussed in this series’ first post, there is robust research support for the notion that there are three psychological needs that humans have which, if unmet, prevent them from being happy and fulfilled. The first of these three needs is autonomy, which was discussed in this post. Today, we’re talking about competence, which is the second of these three most important psychological needs.

Several years ago in my first developmental psychology class, the professor said something that stuck with me. He said that, for children who suffer from an abusive or otherwise unhappy home life, being good at something is a saving grace. Picture a kid who grew up in poverty and was raised by a single mother who dated a series of aggressive men. If this child felt really confident in their ability to do well in school, or sports, or music, or anything that was important to him or her, this would serve as a buffer against the other difficulties he or she faced at home. They would be more likely to pursue their dreams, to go to college, etc. than a child who didn’t believe they had any particular skills or abilities.

This feeling of self-efficacy, the feeling that we are able to accomplish important tasks, is often referred to in the psychology literature as “competence,” and it is incredibly important to happiness, mental health, and motivation. But it doesn’t just matter for children who come from a difficult home life.

Think of it this way. Which student in a Physics major do you think would be more likely to study for their final: the one who believes they are capable of getting a good grade on that final, or the one who believes that they are terrible at physicals and matter what they do, they will fail? Which student would be more satisfied in their major? Which student would be happier overall?

If you guessed the student who believes in their ability to perform in their major would be happier and more motivated, you are correct. Time and time again, research on different age groups in different areas of life demonstrates that our own assessments of what we are capable of doing dictates our performance and well-being. People who feel good at exercising are more likely to exercise. People who feel good at school are more likely to study. The list goes on (and on, and on).

Competence in Your Daily Life: The Key to Satisfaction and Motivation

I encourage you now to think about different areas of your life that feel important to you. Work, School, Friendships, Sports/Exercising, Religion/Spirituality, anything that constitutes part of your weekly routine. Now, think about whether or not you feel competent in that particular area. Do you feel you are good at the tasks required for your job? Do you feel you are capable of seeking out and maintaining close, healthy relationships? Do you feel you are “fit” or “in good shape?” Do you feel you are in a right relationship in God, or are capable of upholding your religious values?

If the answer is “No” in any of these areas, this suggests you may be lacking competence in that area and, based on research, you may not be as motivated or satisfied in that domain as you could be.

How to Increase Competence in Your Daily Life

If you find yourself lacking confidence in your abilities to accomplish daily tasks, think about why that might be. Sometimes, even high achievers lack confidence in their abilities. If this might be you, try doing what therapists/psychologists call “reality-testing” your beliefs. This is the idea of holding an imaginary trial for your core beliefs (e.g., “I’m bad at my job and bound to fail”) where you try to determine if they are actually true.

In this “trial” of your beliefs, you are going to play both the prosecution and the defense, meaning it’s your job to come up with evidence for and against this belief. What hard facts (outside of your own thoughts and feelings) do you have to support the belief that you’re bad at your job? Have objective others told you that you are doing poorly? Is your performance at an objectively lower level than your coworkers? Are you given negative feedback in your evaluations?

Now, what evidence do you have that this thought is untrue, that you are, in fact, good at your job.? Have you received positive feedback? What do others say about your performance? Have you been given any awards?

It’s important to recognize that our thoughts are not always factual, and sometimes our self-beliefs are misguided. If you feel incompetent in an important life domain, but do not have any evidence for that belief, it might be time to consider your own self-esteem, self-worth, and self-view. Are you being fair and kind to yourself? These are also questions you can explore in journaling or with your therapist.

Another possibility for feeling incompetent in an area of your life is that this belief is more grounded in reality; it’s possible you may not be engaging in the kind of tasks which best utilize your skills. It’s important to recognize that incompetence in one area of one’s life is not a reflection of your overall worth or efficacy as a person; rather, it’s a reflection of the need for a change. No one is good at everything, but everyone is good at something. The brightest scholar may be a terrible construction worker. The fastest sprinters often are poor swimmers (my husband is a prime example of this one). The greatest writers may make terrible sculptors.

My point is, if you’re not great at what you’re currently doing, there’s something out there that is better suited to your skillset. Find it. It’s never too late to make a change, especially one which will lead to a greater sense of fulfillment and life satisfaction.

2 Comments

  1. Great article, Elly! I’ve never thought about this before, but perhaps part of why I am a generally happy person has to do with my feeling competent in most of the areas you listed. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad to hear that! It makes a big difference. I believe we were made to use our gifts, and when we aren’t, we feel unfulfilled.

      Liked by 1 person

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