Levels of Competence in Recovery

OASV Blog Editor

September 8, 2023

Levels of Competence in Recovery

I’ve been in OA for 30 years. Over time in recovery listening to speakers at meetings, retreats, and conferences, I’ve heard many ways to express the levels of competence in recovery. One of the ways I marked my early progress was to notice my turn-around time. I had a long history of overreacting to the smallest transgressions and slights, both mine and others. I would beat myself up over mistakes and hold onto hurts, both imagined and actual.

After some time in OA, I began to notice that abstinence and following my food plan was becoming easier. My hypersensitivity to what other people might think of me was fading. I was letting go of emotional upsets more quickly. I believe now, that these awarenesses were glimpses of a better life through the 12 Steps.

My Higher Power speaks to me from many venues and podiums. Many years ago, I heard one of my favorite definitions of the levels of competence at a business management seminar. At the time, I didn’t know this would become a way to understand my recovery from food addiction. This sequential list describes the four levels of competence.

1. Unconscious Incompetence: I don’t even know I’m doing “it” wrong. This level of competence is the step before Step 1. I’m not willing to take conscious responsibility for all the bad things that are happening to me: the diets don’t work, people are mean, and I am a failure.

2. Conscious Incompetence: I know I’m doing it wrong, but I do it anyway. This is level of recovery is where many of us come into program. The consequences of our disease overtake us, and we seek help from the “last house on the block.” Our individual experiences with Step 1 vary dramatically. Most of us eventually experience an understanding of addiction: The inability to stop eating food that we know, deep down, is going to hurt or even kill us.

3. Conscious Competence: I start doing the right thing, but it takes work. Overcoming addiction takes effort and time. We might experience intense cravings and other symptoms as we detox from our drugs of choice and begin a new way of living. In the words of a well-known OA speaker, “we have to put down the food and work the steps like our hair is on fire.” This level of competence is when we start working the steps and connecting with sponsors. We become involved in service and start using the other tools. Eventually, through consistent effort, we achieve a conscious contact with a Higher Power of our understanding and begin to experience the promises of the program.

4. Unconscious Competence: I don’t even have to think about making the right choice or doing the right thing. Difficult decisions rarely involve what or when to eat, and I have a sponsor and program friends to help me with it. I still go to meetings, do service, and deal with persistent character defects.

Recovery in OA, through the levels of competence, promises freedom from unhelpful beliefs and fears and leads us into a life that is “happy, joyous, and free” [Big Book, pp 132]. Of course, I still experience life’s inevitable challenges, but I know I have the required strength and wisdom that comes from my Higher Power to solve a problem, ask for help, and/or accept life on life’s terms. I no longer turn to food as a solution to anything except the appropriate response to physical hunger.

A gentle disclaimer: I am a recovering compulsive overeater with 30 years in OA. These comments are based on my personal experience, strength, and hope gained through working the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions and using the tools of the program.  ~Julie T. 2023

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