We need to talk about the fact that we’re all suffering from the curse of capability

Written by Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.

Feeling overworked and underappreciated? You might just be too capable, argues Miranda Larbi.

Imagine this scenario: you’re at work, minding your own business, when your boss asks you to pick up a few extra tasks to cover someone who’s off. They know you’ll cope because you always cope. Sound familiar?

How about this one: you’re heading off on holiday with some mates and you’re the one tasked with booking the hostels, speaking the local language and working out how you’re going to get from A to B without missing any connections – because only you know how to do these kinds of things. Feel seen? Then, my friend, you’re probably cursed by capability. 

Being seen as capable and competent by employers and loved ones is obviously a great thing. The better you are at coping under pressure, for example, the better your chances of being promoted. Having refined deep listening skills makes you a better friend, which inevitably brings people closer to you. The opposite of that is having people treat you like a fool, which may have worked in your favour back in Year 9 when the social currency was making dumb remarks in RE, but that doesn’t really wash in the adult world.

At the risk of sounding like the world’s lamest humble brag (“Oh no, everyone thinks I’m too organised/fast/emotionally stable!”), there does come a point when capability can be a massive drag.

Women are often seen as being ‘capable’… usually to their detriment

Being capable of managing workloads and deadlines often means being the one tasked with picking up other people’s bits when they’ve been off sick or run out of time. In the past, I’ve seen other women casually have tasks added to their day, safe in the knowledge that it’ll all get done on schedule. Their reward? More work.

“Women are often seen to be more productive, which is why they may be deemed ‘capable’ and trusted to complete tasks more than their male counterparts,” explains Belinda Sidhu, head of mental health and wellbeing at Vitality. “Many see this as a compliment, but this has a knock-on effect on workload and wellbeing.”

She’s absolutely right. It’s not just the case that the more you do and the faster you do it, the more people expect from you. I’ve found that being indispensable can actively work against you, especially when it’s you who needs extra support. Take Covid, for example. A friend of mine (thinks) she had it in March 2020, and because she wasn’t bed-bound, it was assumed by her then-employer that she’d work through it – which shedid, dripping in sweat, despite the fact that everyone else who caught it was off for weeks; everyone knew she’d be fine because she’s always fine.

Let’s be honest here: this isn’t just an external problem. That friend could have been more assertive and simply told her boss that she was calling in sick. It was a pandemic, after all – no one in their right mind would have chastised someone for taking a few days off for having an illness that was rapidly spreading around the world. Sometimes, the pressure to perform, take on more and be present comes from ourselves. 

Because we identify with being seen as capable, we don’t want to take time off when we should because, well, we don’t want people to think any less of us. All it takes is one person to mention how resilient or hard-working you are for that to become the role you cling to.

Of course, it’s not just at work or in friendships that capability can be a menace. How many of us have been in relationships with people (in my experience, men) who seem to be totally incompetent at washing up or making social plans? I’ve heard so many women talk about the almost purposeful stupidity of their partners, who do tasks badly to avoid being asked to do them in the future, but we never talk about the role our competence plays in that dynamic. If we make ourselves indispensable, then it’s hardly any wonder that other people take advantage. In fact, if capability is your brand, then you might even find that bosses and colleagues think they’re doing you a favour by leaning on your skills.

Even if you do pull your partner up on their crap dishwasher-loading skills, a colleague on their tardiness or a mate on their lazy participation in group organising, you might just find it easier and quicker to capitulate and do what needs to be done yourself.

“Setting boundaries can be so helpful yet can feel incredibly difficult – particularly when it comes to our friends and family,” Sidhu admits. “When setting boundaries, the most difficult part is often keeping to them. Inevitably people will push our boundaries because they have been used to you acting in a certain way for so long.”

We adopt roles at work or in our social lives that force us to be dependable.

And that’s the thing: we object to other people relying on us, but they only do so because we’ve set these expectations in the first place. Maybe we want to feel wanted. Perhaps we learned to be super-capable as a way of coping with difficult situations as kids. Maybe we’re people pleasers who struggle to express ourselves in better ways. Whatever the reason, it is possible to unlearn these patterns of behaviour or beliefs we have about ourselves. 

How to break the curse of capability 

If you’re reading all of this and wondering how to break the cycle, then Sidhu has three tips: set boundaries, use clear language and deal with guilt.

When you find yourself accepting extra work or taking over a domestic task, she recommends asking yourself a very simple question: why am I doing this if it’s not helping me? “This may be uncomfortable, but finding out the reasons why will help you to understand what’s driving this behaviour. Once you’ve brought that into your awareness, it can then become easier to make positive changes,” she says.

Setting boundaries at work

Once you’ve decided on your boundaries, it’s time to have an open and honest conversation with your manager (if your issues are mainly at work). “Your manager may not even realise you’re struggling and they won’t be able to support you unless you tell them,” Sidhu explains. “Preparing a list of questions and thoughts you have before your chat may help to alleviate any anxiety or worry you may have about the conversation. And if you don’t feel comfortable speaking to your manager, it could be worth speaking to another manager or member of HR instead.”

Setting boundaries at home

Outside the office, the answer is all to do with setting – and communicating – clear boundaries. Sidhu says: “When a boundary violation occurs, holding your ground, remaining calm, clear and assertive is key. Reminding yourself of why you set this boundary in the first place can also be helpful.” So that might mean telling your partner or housemate that whenever you cook, they clean – and not giving in if they do a rubbish job or whine about it.

Ultimately, we have the power to break the curse of capability, but it requires just a little bit more work from our end to break free of those shackles. 

Images: Getty

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