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How knowing the 4 stages of competence can help you navigate change in the therapy process

When in graduate school and learning about psychology, we learn various theories which equip us with the knowledge to help clients change. There are the five stages of change, the four stages of grief, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and then there are the four stages of developing competence, among many others. In a previous post I speak about the stages of change, but what happens when you finally do decide to go to therapy and focus on change? Within the therapy process there is an evolution as well.

Today I focus on the four stages of competence. This can be applied to any new skill that you undertake, but here I am focusing on the therapeutic process. In the advent of social media and instant gratification, I find that many clients get frustrated with the process of change because change is not happening as quickly as they would like.

You feel defeated and upset. You see and hear others on social media who have changed their lives in the seeming blink of an instant and you wonder why you cannot also find success and/or happiness in your own journey. Or you’ve been struggling with an issue for the longest time and been hemming and hawing about going to therapy for months or even years and then when you finally decide to get into therapy, you want the relief to be instant.

By arming you with some information, you can develop better expectations and work to stick things through when things get hard. Because this is life, things get hard and there may be times when you want to give up continuing in therapy. You may feel like everything you are trying is not working or isn’t good enough. Or things are starting to get too painful as you talk about issues that brought you to therapy. Or issues come up that they weren’t expecting. Sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better.

It can be disheartening to have an expectation, to be vulnerable and to perceive that you are putting in a lot of work into something and it feels like you are not making any progress. Ask anybody who has started a new diet and how much they work at it, only to lose 1 or 2 pounds. No one shares the journey they took to get to the end result, but in the realm of mental health, the ups and downs of the process are necessary for lasting change to occur. If you know this going in, hopefully you can continue in your therapy process and not give up. Below I will explain the four stages and offer tips to support your journey.

The Four stages

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence — This is the phase where you don’t know what you don’t know. What you do know is that you want to change and get on the happy train so you decide to make change, seek out a therapist or overhaul some parts of your life. We are blissfully unaware as to what therapy entails, we just hear “go to therapy” and your life will get better.

We go in with certain expectations and we may not want to or need to know the details of what therapy entails, we just know we are doing it and expect it to change our lives. We think that we will be in and out of therapy in 10 sessions or we think that you have found a person who will tell you what to do and solve all of your problems. The first few sessions of therapy may feel enjoyable because you get to talk to someone in a safe space and you feel motivated and inspired by the process.

Conscious Incompetence — This is the stage where we realize there is a gap between what we thought was going to happen and the reality of what is happening and you start to freak out. The first few sessions were helpful in that you talked about your goals, you identified your strengths or you feel good talking about the struggles you have endured. You may have begun to talk about your family, friends, work, etc. You like your therapist, and you are learning to trust them.

And then the therapist starts asking you difficult and painful questions. They start to bring to your attention parts of your awful life and shine a light on the fact that you have contributed to the struggles you are dealing with. It’s not just “their” fault, but you are asked to recognize YOUR part in a situation and even worse, YOU are being asked to change some of your longstanding beliefs, values and behaviors. And while initially you are angry at your therapist, it starts to sink in that things you believed or thought to be true may not be. You don’t want to believe or deal with things. You beat yourself up for making poor choices.

This is the phase where you are most vulnerable because you now have greater insight and awareness into your dysfunction. You feel hopeless about what to do. Or you recognize that you continue to falter and try to get back up and continue to falter. You may want to quit therapy altogether or start looking for another therapist because this is not what you expected.

And while you are at your most vulnerable and sad, this is also the greatest time for progress. You are at a crossroads. If you can come to terms with your ignorance and incompetence about the blind spots in your life, you can make a decision to take responsibility in certain parts of your life and just focus on growth. The biggest thing that you can begin to accept is your own mindset and accepting that you are wholly responsible for how you think.

As a mindfulness-based therapist, this is where mindfulness is crucial in the therapy process. This is the time to accept what is, to not focus on the past and not worry about the future, but rather putting one foot in front of the other and take the steps towards the promised land. This is where I will also do oracle card readings with clients as I will try to reinforce for them that they have the internal and divine guidance to do the hard things and to get through.

This is the stage to lean in and begin the journey of change. You acknowledge the gap and become intentional about learning and changing.

Conscious Competence — This is where the learning begins. Conscious competence is the stage where you are actively working on your thoughts and your behaviors but it is foreign and sometimes uncomfortable. But you are trusting the process. Your therapist will offer you some tools and/or insights. You will try some things, you will fail, you will succeed, you will learn some lessons and you will try again.

The therapist will process with you how these techniques are working in your life and why things might be working or not working. You begin to trust your instincts and make decisions from a place of intention, not just reaction.

With every misstep or action step, you keep getting better. Your competence grows slowly but surely but it doesn’t come naturally yet. You still have a ways to go before you start to become a different person. You become more empowered to embrace your purpose. You learn to set boundaries and ask for what you want cautiously but consistently. You deal with the consequences of change and you navigate them in therapy. And as you get better at things and you see the benefits, you continue to keep going. The key here is to be persistent and determined and not giving up.

Unconscious Competence — The final stage where you’ve embraced and mastered a new thought pattern or behavior to the point that it’s instinctual. You aren’t practicing anymore. This is where I will say to a client “can we stop and talk about how far you have come? Six months ago, that would have never come out of your mouth and you would have never done that”. And the client says back to “oh wow, you’re right, I didn’t even realize that”.

You may still be learning and growing, but you’ve established something so deeply that you can focus on another area of incompetence. Ironically enough, this would be the moment to reflect and explore termination from therapy, but I have found that clients want to explore and tackle other areas of suffering. And we navigate this cycle all over again.

So as you engage in your therapy, or any other life skill really, give yourself the grace and compassion to fail and to keep going.

So in conclusion, recognize that the process of change can be bumpy and often uncomfortable, but what awaits you on the other side will be worth it.

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” - James Baldwin

My name is Eddie and I am a mindfulness-based therapist in Bordentown, NJ who specializes in trauma, anxiety and Mom stress. I provide online counseling throughout the state of NJ and specifically in Mercer and Burlington County, NJ (Bordentown, Chesterfield, Robbinsville, Hamilton and Princeton). Find me on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.

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