Living at the Edge of our Competencies

Ug. One of those days. Where every task I undertake feels clunky. Where nothing flows. Where I feel at the edge of my competencies.

Sounds familiar? We all get moments like this. We feel like fish out of water. We feel frustrated with ourselves. We long to retreat to a place, an activity, where we feel able. Where we feel able to breathe, able to pass as competent human beings… able even to succeed!

Many of us are living in a culture other than the one (or ‘ones’!) in which we were raised. We are called Cross Cultural Kids, Third Culture Kids, Expats, Immigrants, Global Nomads, and many other things besides. We are competence tight-rope walkers. We are familiar with borderlands, with the edges of our Selves.

We are marginals, drawn to the edges of our competencies. We seek out new challenges, excited by the novelty, the stretch we feel in our characters and abilities. Yet as stimulating as these spaces are, we can easily tip from thrill to spill as we dance on the edge of situations that we feel ill-equipped to handle with grace.

But here is the thing, it is normal to feel at the edge of our competence when we are being challenged. The discomfort is more often a sign of what we are doing right, how we are growing, than it is a sign that we are truly out of our depth and sinking. But while it is normal, it can also be deeply uncomfortable.

I have chosen to put myself in many situations that stretch me recently. A new relationship, new ‘old’ friendships (practising the challenge/joy of staying in friendship!), learning new business skills, instruments, and taking driving lessons to number only a few of them… What are your challenges that keep you at the edge of your competencies?

While I have chosen these challenges, it’s nevertheless important that I manage the discomfort well when I feel I’ve run out of my own resources. When at the edge of our competencies, it helps me to think SERAPHS. Well, not the angels themselves, exactly, but:

S – Slow down my breathing

When the panic and frustration starts to rise, when you feel yourself as out of control and incompetent, your adrenaline rises and somehow seems to internalise its energies against you. Take a deep breath… in and out… get your physical body slowed and calmed. It’s hard to tackle unhelpful thoughts when tensed up. Head up, shoulders down, and breathe.

E – Environment

Look around you. Notice one thing about your immediate environment. Notice something about the people around you. Look up and side to side. Find something beautiful to look at. When we start to feel overwhelmed by a sense of our own incompetence we can get stuck looking inwards. All we can see is our mistakes, our limitations. We can forget that we exist as part of a bigger picture. Just noticing our environment can draw our gaze away from our own faults.

R – Recall

Recall to mind a time when you did feel competent. A time when you felt you knew exactly what you were doing. Now, if you can, recall a time earlier today when you felt competent. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, but just something that made you feel at home in your own skin, something where you felt able.

A – Acknowledge

Now come back to the situation at hand… the one making you feel at the edge of your competencies. Acknowledge the challenge it presents. Chances are that you are finding it difficult because it is difficult. You feel at the edge of your competencies because you are. You are learning something hard, and new, and it’s okay to find it stretching you to the limit of your resources.

P – Patience

Having established that you feel at the edge of your competencies because you are at the edge of your competencies, is it possible to have a little more patience with yourself? You are still learning, so it’s okay to not feel completely able yet. Give yourself more time. Have patience.

H – Hope

Remember all the competencies you recalled earlier? You were able then, and you will feel able again. After all, improvement is inevitable with enough time and effort.

S – Smile

You’ll perhaps feel silly doing this, but voluntarily feeling silly is a wonderful antidote to taking yourself too seriously! Smile at yourself – in a mirror if needed but even visualising an internal smile is good. Smile at the you that is trying, the you that is sitting bravely, tenuously, at the edge of your competencies. And then remember your environment, the one you spent time noticing earlier? Smile at that too. Smile at the beauty that surrounds you – either in people or place. There is always beauty, if we look hard enough.

Dancing at the edge of my competencies keeps me growing, stretching, and excited about life. But it’s not without its challenges. So when you, like me, feel at the edge of your competencies, remember the SERAPHS

Slow your breathing, Environment, Recall, Acknowledge, Patience, Hope and Smile.

Happy tight-rope walking!

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