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Selective Competence


Selective Competence - The practice of demonstrating different levels of intelligence or ability depending on the situation or environment.


We have all experienced times when our ability to perform a particular task has been greatly enhanced or significantly hampered by our level of motivation, confidence and conviction. This is normal.

Personal variations in skills and abilities are also normal. Not everyone is great at everything. A person who is a great piano player may be terrible at cooking.

Variations in competence become dysfunctional, when there is a clear contradiction within a person's demonstrated skills and abilities and these contradictions become chronic, destructive towards self, friends and family and extend beyond the normal ebb and flow of coping with life's "ups and downs".

For some people with personality disorders, unregulated emotion can lead to extremes or systematic levels of selective competence or incompetence depending on the task at hand.

Examples of Selective Competence:

  • A man who is a successful business manager at work but who cannot successfully balance his check book at home.
  • A woman who can organize a wedding with 500 guests but who claims she can't arrange a birthday party for her children.
  • A man who is an expert at fixing cars and motorbikes who cannot find a job.
  • A teenage girl who is habitually late for school but who never misses the start of her favorite TV show.

Selective competence often appears similar to hypocrisy or laziness. And sometimes it is. We are all capable of hypocrisy and people with personality disorders are no different from the rest of us in that regard. Most people draw the line on hypocrisy and laziness at the point where they think they will no longer safely get away with it.

However, when you are dealing with a person who suffers from a personality disorder, you will occasionally discover examples of where their selective competence cannot be rationalized away simply as selfish behavior. When behavior becomes self-destructive or clearly destructive to one's own interests, it can more easily be recognized as dysfunctional selective competence.

Examples of Selective Competence with no selfish motive:

  • A man will suddenly not allow himself to eat a food that he usually loves, because he believes it will make him sick.
  • A girl has trouble remembering certain teenage years although her childhood is easily remembered.
  • A woman is afraid to ride in green cars.

Selective competence which can't be explained just by selfishness is an example of dissociation; when a person’s feelings about a situation takes precedence over the facts.

What it feels like:

When a person you are close to exhibits selective competence, the most common reaction is frustration, anger and accusations of fraud. You may be tired of making concessions for a person who appears to be quite capable of understanding reality, yet seems to choose another way.

Coping With Selective Competence:

It's important to understand that personality disorders are real mental health disorders. If a person is dissociating and believing things that you know not to be true, the temptation may be there to "talk sense into them", argue with them, try to rationalize or debate with them, reason and cajole. You may bring all of your powers of persuasion to bear on the situation, because you believe it is "good for them" or you believe their beliefs are dangerous.

One danger is that this can cross over into Thought Policing or Mind Control, which is not a healthy solution. Imagine if someone started trying to convince you that something you knew to be true wasn't true. You would perhaps become defensive, indignant, scared, annoyed. The same goes for people who dissociate. They have feelings too and will not respond well to being told what to believe.

People need to be allowed to believe what they want to believe and think what they want to think. You don't have to agree and you don't have to control them.

What NOT to Do:

  • Don't try to control another person's beliefs or thoughts. That's their property and their right to think and feel what they want.
  • Don't allow that person to control your thoughts and beliefs. That's yours.
  • Don't use ultimatums, threats, violence or any other form of dysfunctional control strategies to try to control that person.
  • Don't ignore threats to your own safety and the safety of any children present.
  • Don't make yourself responsible of fixing the problem of what another person believes about themselves. That's their job, not yours.
  • Don't entrust your own wellbeing in the hands of a person who is not reliable, or make your own happiness contingent on a mentally ill person "getting better".

What TO do:

  • Protect yourself and any children first. Remove yourself from any threatening or dangerous environment.
  • Assert your own right to your own beliefs. Say "I will respect your beliefs about this and you must respect mine"
  • Separate the person from the problem. Say "I don't agree with you but I still care about you".
  • Take care of yourself in such a way that you will be OK no matter if this person gets better or not

For More Information & Support...

If you suspect you may have a family member or loved-one who suffers from a personality disorder, we encourage you to learn all you can and surround yourself with support as you learn how to cope.

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