“Conscious Incompetence” sounds like one of those whack psych terms that I am convinced psychologists make up so that they sound more scientific and complicated than they really are. Bear with me. All conscious incompetence really means is stuff you don’t know that you don’t know you don’t know.

For example. I know that I don’t know how to speak Dutch. That’s conscious incompetence because I know I don’t know how to do it. Unconscious incompetence would be not knowing that I don’t know how to speak Dutch. In that example, it seems rather far-fetched that I could be unconsciously incompetent about anything. But you’ll be surprised how many things there are in your life that you don’t know you can’t do.

Like I didn’t know I couldn’t judge how much food I should be eating each day. I didn’t know that I couldn’t feed my body adequately. I didn’t know that I could not trust my lack of hunger cue. Etc, etc.

Anyhow. Using the four-states of competence model in eating disorders can be useful as it shows how behaviours have to first be made conscious before they can be changed.uc-1-consciousunconsciouscompetence1

For those not familiar, the four-states of competence was introduced as a learning model by a bloke named Noel Burch in the 1970s. Then it was a model used to describe the process of learning a new skill, but I use it to describe the process of recognizing an already present behavior. It’s not particularly complicated to understand, but it does help when looking at the stages of processing (or not) information and recognizing behaviors.

Unconscious Incompetence

This sounds really rather mean, but this describes how most humans are oblivious of their incompetence. It makes sense if you think about it, as for most of us as soon as we realize that we don’t know something, we change that by finding it out. In my work as a software marketer, I’m always trying to work out what we don’t know we don’t know about our target audience. That is the hard part, as soon as we know what we don’t know about an audience, finding the information is as easy as doing some research. But when we don’t know what we don’t know, we can’t research it!

Unconscious Incompetence and Eating Disorders in Adults

I’m keeping this about adult sufferers of eating disorders, as children have their parents and caregivers to point out odd behavior to them. Us adults usually have to try and discover it ourselves (and we are prone to not listening when others point out our flaws if we don’t want to!).

Here’s what unconscious incompetence was like when I had Anorexia nervosa.

  1. I didn’t know that I had Anorexia Nervosa.
  2. I didn’t know not to trust my own feeling of lack of hunger
  3. I didn’t know that I could not properly judge what was an adequate amount of food to eat.
  4. I didn’t know that my own brain was working against me when it came to food.
  5. I didn’t know that I had to learn not to trust my own thoughts around food and exercise.

Basically I lacked the skills that are required by a human being in order to properly feed oneself. But I didn’t know that I didn’t have these skills.

Why not?

Well, first off, I had had those skills since the age of dot perviously, so why would I think that I no longer had them?

Second, all humans have these skills, right? (Wrong — not humans with eating disorders!)

Eating disorders don’t happen all of a sudden like most physical injuries do. They develop gradually over time, so it is not as if I woke up one morning and thought: “Gosh, I don’t know how to eat anymore!”

Unfortunalty, this is the hardest stage for people to recognize in the workplace or any other learning situation. The stage of unconscious incompetence can linger for years. In order to learn a new skill, it is important for a person to recognize his inability in order to perform a skill perfectly. So imagine how hard it can be for a person with a mental illness to understand that they are unconsciously incompetent in terms of some basic human capacity that they had been competent in for years!

Conscious Incompetence for Adults in Recovery from Eating Disorders

So imagine if one does finally grasp that they are unconsciously incompetence when it comes to knowing when to eat, and knowing how much to eat. What to do to fix this?

This is where we need help and assistance from other people. People who are competent in these skills. True at school, true at work, and true for eating disorder recovery. This is where evidence-based treatment comes in. In children, Family-Based Therapy (FBT) works as the parent takes on this task, In adults who are recovering. We need to find someone whom we can trust to not give in to our eating disorder and truly help us re-learn how to feed ourselves.


Why Understanding Unconscious Incompetence is Important when Overcoming an Eating Disorder

As a person with Anorexia Nervosa. when I know that I can’t feed myself adequately I can solve the problem. I’m a really good problem solver, and if you have the genetics for an eating disorder I bet that you are too. You are the type of person who can always work out how to do something if you put your mind to it. I know you are this type of person because we are similar in many ways.

Conscious Incompetence in Eating Disorders is a wonderful thing! You know what you need to know in order to work out how to make yourself better. This goes for all those little eating disorder behaviors that you will have. It is also why working with someone else to recognize them is crucial.

I’ll write about the next stages in the four-stage competence model next week.



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