In order to be successful in and sustain any process of meaningful change, both awareness and action are requisite. Translating conscious awareness into intentional action in recovery from addiction and/or chronic pain is similar to the process of learning and building new skills in any area—be it sports, reading, video gaming, cooking, auto repair, keyboarding, gardening, plumbing, or meditating. In order to get better at anything it is necessary to: 1) learn the techniques that work, and 2) practice what works with consistency and persistence.

The process of learning and skill development has four stages according to Milton Erickson, MD, the renowned psychiatrist and psychotherapist who had an extraordinary grasp of human perception and behavior, with an emphasis on unconscious processes. Erickson’s four stages of learning—unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence—characterize virtually any skill development process. To illustrate this process with a concrete example, I went through each of these stages when I committed to learning how to eat with chopsticks shortly after arriving at UC Santa Cruz for college.

Unconscious incompetence is a state of obliviousness—not knowing how to do something, but also not knowing that we don’t know how to do it, and therefore not caring about it one way or another. Before I started thinking about learning how to eat with chopsticks I was unconsciously incompetent in this area. I didn’t know that I did not know how to use them and didn’t care. At the point that I decided I wanted to learn how to use chopsticks I progressed to conscious incompetence. I became consciously aware that I did not yet have the skill and experience to use them proficiently. I was functionally incompetent, but set about working to acquire this skill regardless of how foolish I looked or inept as I felt during the learning process.

Someone with considerably greater knowledge and skill taught me the essential techniques of using chopsticks. Through testing out and learning these techniques along with ongoing practice that included fine-tuning what worked most effectively for me, gradually and progressively I was able to achieve conscious competence. I had developed the level of skill I sought, but still had to think very deliberately about how I positioned, held, and manipulated the chopsticks as I used them, especially when eating rice—among the ultimate tests of chopstick proficiency.

It was only by continuing to carefully and consciously practice eating with chopsticks over the course of dozens and dozens of repetitions that my ability reached the level of unconscious competence. At that point, I no longer had to think about how to use them; I could do it automatically. Unconscious competence is also known as mastery. When athletes are described as being “in the zone,” they are in a state of unconscious competence. They are playing at such a high level that the game seems to yield to them, yet their performance may appear effortless, almost as if they were operating on autopilot. It is as if they are in sync with the universe and have tapped into its cadence.

Skills such as accepting things we want to change but can’t, and tolerating distressing emotions and physical sensations without acting on them in ways that make situations worse, are incredibly difficult to master. Moreover, skillful recovery generally requires a high degree of moment-to-moment conscious attention. While achieving anything but occasional unconscious competence in recovery may not be realistic for most, becoming increasingly consciously competent and skillful in recovery from both addiction and chronic pain surely is.

The real test of one’s learning and ability to apply that learning skillfully in any area is what happens when we have to perform under stress—when we challenged in some way. This is especially true in recovery. It can seem easy when life is going smoothly. It’s not unusual for people, particularly in the earlier phases of recovery (once the storm of post-acute withdrawal has passed), to be lulled into the false belief that it will always be so. But how do they respond when presented with adversity—in relationships, health, finances, job/career, etc.? When the shit hits the fan (and sooner or later it always does, for everyone), the ability to be successful depends on how well people have developed the skills of recovery through dedicated learning and consistent practice. This is true whether someone has been in recovery for one year or twenty, and is the essence of translating awareness into action.

Copyright 2014 Dan Mager, MSW
Author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain

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