Selective Competence


Selective Competence - Demonstrating different levels of intelligence, memory, resourcefulness, strength or competence depending on the situation or environment.


Selective Competence

Demonstrating different levels of intelligence, memory, resourcefulness, strength or competence depending on the situation or environment.

When Can-Do Turns to Can’t

We’ve 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, because not everyone is great at everything.

However, variations in competence become dysfunctional when there are clear inconsistencies in someone’s abilities in a way which becomes chronic and destructive towards self, friends or family. It’s a level of fluctuation which extends beyond the normal ebb and flow of coping with life’s “ups and downs” and can at times appear downright strategic.

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 or the people around them.

What it Looks Like

  • A man is a successful business manager at work but says he cannot successfully balance his personal check book.
  • A woman can organize a wedding with 500 guests but claims she can’t arrange a birthday party for her children.
  • A man is an expert at fixing cars and motorbikes yet he cannot hold down a mechanics job.
  • A teenage girl is habitually late for school but never misses the start of her favorite TV show.
  • A co-worker selectively remembers facts and information which confirm a particular bias.

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 with a Personality Disorder, you will occasionally discover examples where their selective competence cannot be rationalized away simply as selfish behavior:

  • 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.

Genuine selective competence which can’t be explained just by hypocrisy or laziness is an example of dissociation - when a person’s feelings about a particular task take precedence over any scientific truth they may know to logically apply to the situation.

How it Feels

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 dealing with a particular aspect of reality, yet right now seems to be choosing not to.

How to Cope

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. At the same time, you are not under an obligation to take responsibility for anything another adult can reasonably be expected to do for themselves, especially when they have at other times shown clearly that they can.

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 put your own fate and 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.