A little over a year ago my husband called while I was at work. He called to let me know his grandma had passed away and that the funeral would be sometime later that week. I immediately started crying upon hearing the news. My eyes filled with tears and I felt like I could hardly catch my breath. It was only a few moments later that I realized how emotional I was and remembered I was at work. I had a client that was already in the waiting room and our session was supposed to start in five minutes. Quickly I thanked my husband for calling me and let him know I’d talk with him more after work. I then wiped away my tears, looked down the hall to make sure no one was there, and hurried to the bathroom. Looking in the mirror I wanted to make sure no one could tell I had been crying. Thankfully my eyes don’t typically get all red and splotchy when I cry so I was able to put on my pretend mask, greet my client with a smile, and proceed on with the session as if everything was okay.
While I had successfully deceived my client, I felt so disconnected from the present moment. I had so many judgments about myself and how I handled the passing of my husband’s grandma. I told myself things like, “It’s not even your grandma.”, “You’ve only seen her around the holidays and special occasions the last couple of years.”, “At least she is no longer suffering and in a much better place.” As these thoughts ran through my head, I could hardly focus. I didn’t know what to do.
After the session, a co-worker of mine came into my office and noticed something was off. My eyes began filling with tears again as I shared the news. Grabbing a box of tissues, she asked what my plan was for the rest of the day. I shared how I had back-to-back clients and then a group. Looking at me and in the most firm, caring way she said, “I love you but no. I will call your clients to reschedule them and we will find someone else to lead the group. Right now you are not in a state that will be helpful for anyone and need to be with your family.” I tried arguing why I wouldn’t be able to reschedule these clients and needed to just power through, but she was firm in her stance, and deep down I knew she was right.
I have run into so many clients like myself who struggle with being emotional around others. Some have worn their masks so long, they forget they are even wearing one. To others, these individuals “appear to be able to cope with situations and problems on the outside, but internally [can] experience extreme distress (Petroziello, 2020)” or display difficulties in relationships. We call this apparent competence and in my experience, many who cope this way don’t see an issue with it.
Individuals who display apparent competence in session may have been referred by a family member, friend, or boss who noticed their performance slipping. Or they noticed their performance slipping and are coming to therapy to get the step-by-step on how to get back on track. These clients may find it annoying or uncomfortable to sit down and process past trauma. They may say things like, “Dwelling on it isn’t going to do me any good.” They don’t see the point of getting all worked up about something that has already happened, especially if it happened a long time ago. This is what we call minimization and/or avoidant behavior and is what contributes to individuals continuing to feel lost and disconnected.
Apparent competence is a learned coping behavior and one that oftentimes can be very beneficial short term. For example, being able to get all your school work done while going through a breakup. Or an emergency personnel being able to jump into action without hesitation when someone’s life is on the line. Short-term apparent competence is a way to get things done. People feel productive and appreciate the distractions. But that’s the problem. This behavior involves a lot of distractions and if you are always distracting yourself, you are essentially distracting yourself from your own life. Apparently competent individuals can find themselves feeling disconnected from others, unsure of what to do when they feel emotional, and sometimes unaware of what is causing them to be so emotional. It’s not uncommon for me to ask clients what I can do to help and all they can say is “I don’t know.”
As a wise monkey named Rafiki once said, “The past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it (Allers & Minkoff, 1994).” I say let's learn from it. For apparently competent individuals to feel more connected with those around them, they are going to have to learn why they cope the way they do and why they feel the need to put on this mask when things get difficult. A common question I might ask my clients is, “What’s the threat?” They may be worried that others will see them as weak or overdramatic. They may equate being emotional with being out of control. They may value being independent and not needing to rely on others. One I struggled with is not wanting to be a burden to others. Regardless, we were never created to live independently of one another, but rather we are called to keep the unity of the holy spirit. Apparently competent individuals must learn what their limits are and how to ask for help when it’s needed.
In addition to asking for help, apparently competent individuals also need to learn how to identify and sit with uncomfortable emotions. Believe it or not, emotions serve a purpose. They give us information about how our current environment is impacting us and they help us to connect with others. When individuals ignore these emotions or aren't able to be authentic with how they feel, they take away opportunities for others to fully see them and the pain they are experiencing. They can feel isolated and alone. When individuals learn to sit with uncomfortable feelings and listen to what their body is telling them, they typically find the answers they need to move forward and heal from what has been keeping them stuck.
I still struggle with apparent competence from time to time. As the oldest child in my family, I’ve felt the pressure to be a good role model for my siblings. As a therapist, I’ve felt the pressure to be on top of things for my clients. As a wife and mother, I’ve felt the pressure to keep up with everything at home and be present for my husband and kids when they need me. It’s in these moments that I remind myself I’m not going to be as effective or helpful as I want to be if I neglect my own needs in the process. It’s when I put the mask aside, find comfort in those around me, and trust in the Lord’s plan that I find true healing and not just a short-term solution.
Anna Jett, LMFT
Ephesians 4:1-6 - As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Allers, R., & Minkoff, R. (1994). The lion king [Film]. United States; Buena Vista Pictures.
Chapman, A. L. (2018, April 6). Apparent competence. DBT. https://dbtvancouver.com/apparent-competence/
Petroziello, A. (2020, March 10). Understanding Apparent Competence & DBT therapy: NYC therapist. Empower Your Mind Therapy.