You’re not failing, you’re just learning

There are 4 important stages in learning new skills that we all must go through. Failure to understand (or know about) these steps often leads to unnecessary feelings of shame and lower self-esteem.

In some cases, it can lead to people abandoning the learning process, with thoughts that they are stupid or poorly skilled. But the truth is that they’re just going through the normal process of learning.

Whenever I teach a new therapeutic approach, I make sure that people understand the four stages of learning. If you keep these in mind when you’re learning any energy psychology method (or any other method) you’ll be able to learn faster and with much more comfort. 

Stage 1 Unconscious Incompetence

This is the stage where you don’t even know that you don’t know. You’re blissfully ignorant. You might be very competent in some other form of therapy. But you may be completely ignorant of the issues at hand with the new form of therapy.

Stage 2 Conscious Incompetence

This is when you begin to realize how much you don’t know about the new endeavor. And it may be painful. When learning a new therapeutic skill, you actually need to stop doing what you’re competent at in order to learn the new proficiency, so it’s quite normal to feel de-skilled. It’s bad enough to have to go through this experience; it’s even worse if you don’t understand that this is a normal phase of skill development.  

Now you’re beginning to learn what you don’t know. You may feel awkward, especially compared to the old skill set that you know well. It’s important to continue to learn and practice so that you begin to master the new skills.

Stage 3 Conscious Competence

Ahhh… relief! Stage 3 of the learning cycle occurs after you have practiced enough so that you become consciously competent. In other words, you can focus your awareness on what you’re doing and you can do it relatively well. However, you still need to concentrate and spend some effort. The ego really likes getting to this point.
 

Stage 4 Unconscious Competence

At this point, you’ve learned the skill so well that you can do it without any effort. For most of us, this stage would include walking or driving a car. You just “do it”. You trust your instincts. In fact, it can be hard to go back and try to explain to someone else how you’re doing what you’re doing. When we watch a master therapist who appears to be “winging it” we’re witnessing unconscious competence.

The 4 stage process I’ve described above is simplified. In reality, as we learn new levels of skill, we may go through these stages multiple times. For instance, if I’m learning regular chords for guitar, I might go through all of these stages. But then, when I need to learn bar chords or fancier jazz chords, I’m going to have to go through the stages again. 

Accept and embrace the fact that you can’t avoid the stages. In particular, you can’t avoid the painful stage 2. If you want to become highly competent at anything, you need to be willing to go through conscious incompetence. You need to trust that you’ll get to conscious competence. Understanding this developmental pattern makes it much easier to move from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence, where it becomes effortless.

Author
Robert Schwarz, PsyD, DCEP has been a licensed psychologist for 30 years. Bob has trained therapists internationally on trauma treatment, panic and anxiety, energy psychology. For the last 12 years Bob has served as executive director for the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology. He has organized over 25 conferences on energy psychology trauma treatment, Ericksonian hypnosis, brief therapy, that trained over 18,000 therapists. Bob also designed ACEP’s online program The Science of Energy Healing. He has authored 3 books: Tools for Transforming Trauma, PTSD: A Clinician’s Guide and We’re No fun Anymore as well as numerous articles and papers.

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Comments

  1. Xavier Justice says:

    Thank you for sharing this.

  2. I’ve seen this before but can’t remember where. Do you have a citation and source?

  3. Thank you for this very helpful article. As you mentioned, the concepts apply to any situation in which a person is mastering new skills. I’d like to learn more about the 4 stages of learning. I’m wondering if you would site sources for the information you provided in this post? Thanks!

    • Hi Suzan, Its all over the place.

      Here is what wikipedia ( sic) says Management trainer Martin M. Broadwell described the model as “the four levels of teaching” in February 1969.[1] Paul R. Curtiss and Phillip W. Warren mentioned the model in their 1973 book The Dynamics of Life Skills Coaching.[2] The model was used at Gordon Training International by its employee Noel Burch in the 1970s; there it was called the “four stages for learning any new skill”.[3] Later the model was frequently (but incorrectly) attributed to Abraham Maslow, although the model does not appear in his major works.[4]

      Bob

    • This concept has been around a long time.

      Here is what wikipedia ( sic) says Management trainer Martin M. Broadwell described the model as “the four levels of teaching” in February 1969.[1] Paul R. Curtiss and Phillip W. Warren mentioned the model in their 1973 book The Dynamics of Life Skills Coaching.[2] The model was used at Gordon Training International by its employee Noel Burch in the 1970s; there it was called the “four stages for learning any new skill”.[3] Later the model was frequently (but incorrectly) attributed to Abraham Maslow, although the model does not appear in his major works.[4]

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