Who am I really?
August 21, 2009 7:44 PM   Subscribe

Facebook has an application dedicated to Top Five lists called Living Social. I find it distressing that, when attempting to list five things – books, for example – according to how highly I rate them, I can’t seem to do it. Quotes, a particular love of mine, are also problematic. As are memories, foods and anything else you might feel compelled to ask me.

Sure, most of the time I can think of something when asked that sounds convincing enough to at least convey a semblance of intelligence, but I can rarely come up with the ones that truly define who I am until often hours afterward - sometimes I can't even do that. Yesterday, when prompted to speak about classic films, I couldn’t even think of three when asked, despite having watched hundreds over the years. It’s as if my brain just shuts down and the harder I try to think, the emptier the space between my ears becomes and the phonier and more pathetic-looking this so-called personality of mine begins to appear. For someone so academically and professionally successful, on paper at least, this is starting to worry me. I just seem incapable of spontaneous thought without the aid of a trigger. Funnily enough, once stimulated to speak about an idea, they tend to flow and a magical process seems to take hold whereby one idea feeds another. I actually feel knowledgeable and authoritative. To what extent is this normal? In real life, my problem translates to embarrassing situations in which I’m asked important questions and am able to give only the vaguest of responses, though luckily, being reasonably articulate – a good bullshitter, according to friends – I am often able to make them sound convincing enough to satisfy my interrogator, but rarely ever myself. My greatest fear is that one day soon I am going to be exposed as the fraud that I almost certainly am. I just seem incapable of organising my thoughts properly and have even started to convince myself that any ‘success’ I have had has come about more from luck and my ability to bullshit than any truly innate talent. Re-reading my Masters dissertation today, I couldn’t help castigating myself with the phrase, “Throw enough shit, and it’ll stick,” whilst questioning the intelligence of my tutors who also appear to have been too stupid to have seen through my ruse.

This has all come to a head today and left me feeling thoroughly depressed. I’m teaching English in a leading Latin American business school as a way to kill time – and make money – before I start my first full-time job within a fast-paced, demanding multinational in November. One of my students, a 30-something, self-assertive MBA, asked me to give examples of British slang, something I should be more than familiar with considering that I’ve been using slang on a day-to-day basis since arriving in kindergarten. My mind just went blank – completely blank, as if a light had been switched off and every nook and cranny had descended into pitch darkness. After an embarrassing few moments where I felt his gaze almost begin to burn a hole through me, I laughed and said I’d prepare an activity using slang next week.

One other thing, you know on social network sites where it asks you to describe yourself? Forget it. I just can't do it. I end up feeling like a complete non-entity.

Despite the existence of a wealth of evidence to the contrary, by most people’s definitions I think I’d probably be considered to be of above-average intelligence. The dire predictions of my high school teachers, confounded by the fact that I never, ever seemed to do any work, in the end proved baseless and I went on to graduate with a respectable – but hard won - degree from Cambridge and, most recently of all, an even harder-won Masters from an equally respectable French institution. I mention this not to brag but merely to illustrate that I haven’t always been so dumb as I feel now.

What is wrong with me? ADHD? Depression? Early-onset Dementia? Brain tumour? Deficit Syndrome-predominant Schizophrenia? Just going bat shit insane? What? If not illness, how can I learn to think better on the spot.

Posting anonymously for obvious reasons.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
It seems like you've created a situation for yourself in which you panic whenever someone asks you this type of question. "I can't answer this type of question!" you think, and you freeze up and get blocked, even though it's something you know. "Learning to think better on the spot" isn't what you need to do; rather, you need to get rid of whatever is creating the anxiety that causes the blank brain response.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:52 PM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm terrible at this too. I like a lot of different things for a lot of different reasons. And also, we wind up answering questions like these a differently, depending on who's asking. My tastes wind up changing a lot from year to year. When I read other people's lists of favorite authors and artists, I imagine that they're probably just as current and relevant as their Friends list -- lots of people they adored for a month five years ago that get mentioned out of deference.

I don't think anything's wrong with you. Having a specific ranked list of faves ready in case someone asks is not a prerequisite for social acceptance. If someone wants to talk about movies with you for more than three minutes, then I'm sure you'll think of things to contribute. If they want snapshots and soundbites for the sake of small talk, then it's probably just easier for you to train yourself to get better at changing the subject.
posted by hermitosis at 8:05 PM on August 21, 2009

I think it's kind of common. I certainly experience something similar when I feel anxious (it happened to me ALL THE TIME in class throughout high school, college, and grad school...and still happens occasionally at work). Anxiety really interferes with memory/thinking. And you're clearly worried about it between occurrences ('what's wrong with me?'), which makes the next occurrence more anxiety-inducing. Like ocherdraco says, address the anxiety and you'll probably address the problem.

As for having lists of faves: bleah! I can't rate anything either, and I resent the fact that I'm often expected to. "Yes, and this too!" is way more fun than "these are the end and be all...". Rating and limiting your favorites is kind of an arbitrary and useless thing - enjoyable if you like it, but not a skill you particularly need to have.
posted by Knicke at 8:15 PM on August 21, 2009

This question really hits home for me. I thought I was the only one until I read about it a year or two ago, probably through Metafilter. Here is an NY Times article that should get you started on, at the least, not feeling alone and, at the most, feeling like this is really not so bad.

As far as the blank space when someone asks you a question, I get that as well. I have had some truly stupid moments, although I always score really high on IQ tests and junk like that. I chalk it up to a different type of thinking. For everyone, meaning and context are extremely important to memory and recall. Maybe it's just a bit more important for you and me. Look at it this way: if you're not moved to think about your frakking favorite five movies at this moment, why would you care? And that's a bunk question anyway.

I totally, TOTALLY understand that this can be frustrating, especially as a teacher. I've found the best way of dealing with it so far (outside of pushing myself to know and remember as much as I possibly can, which doesn't feel like much) is just to be really up front when someone asks me something like that. "Sorry...I have really poor recall. Give me a bit and I bet I'll come back to it later," or, "My thought-train is about eight tracks over right now." (Cheesy, yes.)

Anyway, just know that you are absolutely not alone in this (as I'm sure you'll get from this AskMe!), and that your brain is perfectly fine, and that you are obviously good at what you do. And you're a lovable, capable, worthwhile person. People like you. /stuartsmalley
posted by nosila at 8:18 PM on August 21, 2009

Howlin' Wolf has already adressed this issue. You're built for comfort, not for speed. Your bullshit-generator is compensatory. It's just the way your brain works. There is nothing wrong with you, and you should stop worrying about it and continue kicking life's ass.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:22 PM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yes, let me be one more person to reassure you that you are not unusual in this. I love to read, and have read more books than pretty much anybody else I know. I went to apply for a library job, and they casually asked about my favorite writers.


So, yes. I feel your pain. It's just one of those brain-shutting-down-under-stress things, and it is just one of those things you learn to laugh about.
posted by OolooKitty at 8:38 PM on August 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Your taste in media is not important. Your interests are not you, but in some cultures they've been given undue importance and used as shorthand for one's personality. Don't worry about it.

There are many things I can do in private that I can't do when being watched. Simple arithmetic, which I do all the time in private voids my mind in public. Your experiences are shared by lots of, if not the majority of, people.
posted by phrontist at 9:23 PM on August 21, 2009

I have a similar problem when I go into bookstores or (used to go into) record stores. I'll sit around and have plenty of ideas about what i want to buy/read/listen to and then draw a blank when i'm standing among the isles. I started making lists. Writing what i'm interested in not only prompts me when i have the list in front of me, but also helps my recall.
I would suggest that the apps on facebook might actually help you...there is no rush to make your choices, so in taking your time and giving some thought it may clarify for you how you categorize what you like and help you understand the hierarchy of your own tastes. In conversation, when the chips are down, you have one more mnemonic, your facebook top 5's, to help prompt a response.
In the big picture though, i wouldn't sweat it, script some easy starter answers for those tricky cocktail situations and you'll be off and running.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:27 PM on August 21, 2009

In real life, my problem translates to embarrassing situations in which I’m asked important questions and am able to give only the vaguest of responses

One of my students, a 30-something, self-assertive MBA, asked me to give examples of British slang...After an embarrassing few moments where I felt his gaze almost begin to burn a hole through me, I laughed and said I’d prepare an activity using slang next week.

For starters, a question about British slang is far from "important". And you did a good job with the question- preparing a lesson for next week will probably be really fun and informative for the students. If you had a perfect answer for every question thrown your way at all times, you know what that would make you? A know-it-all. Nobody likes a know-it-all, because there's no such thing.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:57 PM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, some of those are things you just may not have a category for in your head. If I asked you to name 5 animals, you could do that, right? Or 3 colors? Or 6 of your cousins? Or the UK prime ministers in your lifetime? Because you've already got those tagged in your head as belonging to the category asked for. If asked for US slang, I would have to think a bit because I don't categorize the words I use daily as "slang" and "not-slang". Similarly, I've got one or two books I would unequivocally name as "favorite", but not 5 -- I'd have to think to come up with 5, and would undoubtedly come back to the list later and notice some glaring hole, just because a book I loved wasn't categorized in my head as "#4 favorite".
I honestly don't know what my favorite movie is, although I can talk about movies I love for hours on end. I can name 5 screwball comedies off the top of my head because it's a category I've spent a lot of time thinking and reading about, but I would probably stammer and draw a blank if asked to name even one noir film -- because although I know I've seen them and would be able to identify them as such, I don't really have movies tagged in the "film noir" category in my brain.
posted by katemonster at 10:21 PM on August 21, 2009

This all sounds rather familiar.

I just seem incapable of spontaneous thought without the aid of a trigger. Funnily enough, once stimulated to speak about an idea, they tend to flow

I find I've just got so much floating around in my head that it isn't always easy to discern what's going to be interesting to other people. Once somebody gives me a clue as to what they're interested in, I can run with it pretty easily, but a lot of times I pull blanks when left completely open to pick a topic of conversation not because I can't think of an option, but because I can't clearly identify a good one and don't want to be boring.

My greatest fear is that one day soon I am going to be exposed as the fraud that I almost certainly am.

This not uncommon. I heard an incredibly brilliant, thoughtful and accomplished professor say almost this exact same thing once, and saw a lot of nods of recognition among her audience of academics and postgrad students (so I know it wasn't just me who felt the same way). You're not a fraud, you just have high expectations of yourself.

I think a big part of the answer is to learn to cut yourself a break. Reduce the amount of pressure you put on yourself, and I think you'll find your thoughts come more easily. It sounds to me like you might have a bit of a perfectionist streak - you don't want any answer, you want the perfect answer - and therefore you're self-editing too hard and tying yourself up in knots.
posted by EvaDestruction at 10:53 PM on August 21, 2009

Mark me down as another 'my on-the-spot knowledge is way less than what I know I have in my brain'. I'm a writer and I have quite a large vocabulary but in speech I use deixis to an abnormal, almost absurd, degree, because I find it expedient, efficient and sometimes funny: whenever context makes it clear what I'm talking about, I say 'that thing' or 'that stuff' instead of the noun.

It strikes me that there are a two things going on with you.

One is 'fraud syndrome'. Also known as 'imposter syndrome'.
For which see: "Good Old Neon", by David Foster Wallace, found in Oblivion. Short version: yeah, this is pretty universal. Concentrate on means-ends/functionalist thinking as opposed to structural or definitional thinking. I'm sorry, I'm tired or I would try to explain that better. I hope you know what I mean.

The second is you, like serazin two questions up, should be aware of the distinction between, and I forget now what they're most often called in the psychological literature, but between generative capacity and comprehensive capacity. Comprehensive = you 'know' something, on some level, whether you can say it out loud or not. Generative = you can come with it yourself. The difference is illustrated in the contrast between you hearing someone else use a particular word, like say Ottawa, and when you hear it you say 'oh right the capital of Canada' (comprehensive), vs someone asking you, the same person five minutes earlier, what's the capital of Canada? and you blanching (a failure of your generative recall).

These seem like two totally different problems. The fraud/imposter thing, I don't have much to add on what others have said, but the memory thing, I'll just say that my studying the mind and brain in a scientific way (degree in cognitive science) really demystified my attitude towards 'intelligence' in a really helpful way. Before, I was forever paranoid that I wasn't as smart as the next person, as someone else, as whoever. After, something about the process of breaking it (intelligence) all down and seeing it not as bound up with all kinds of moral issues and value/status worries but as causal physical processes released its power over me. Now I see my intelligence, or rather my various intellectual capacities, as just other parts of my body, and their abilities the same way I view the strengths of my quadriceps (changeable) or the length of my femur (fixed), according to whether they are changeable or not. Who cares how long your legs are as long as you're winning the race (or doing well by your own standards)? That's what I mean by means-ends thinking as opposed to structural thinking.
posted by skwt at 11:24 PM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I used 'functionalist' vs 'structural' because that's a stock dichotomy of mine, and I'm tired and thinking lazily, but in this case I should have contrasted 'functionalist' with 'comparative'. Ie, if the tool (your brain) gets the job done to your satisfaction, the only use of comparing it with others' is pointless, punishing vanity.
posted by skwt at 11:46 PM on August 21, 2009

You're being terribly hard on yourself. You need to lighten that load a bit (a lot, really), and, honestly, regarding criteria by which to judge yourself? ... well, spouting off lists of names, dates, numbers, or titles at the drop of a hat shouldn't really be in the top tier, should it? Think about the people you deeply respect; is it because of their skills at this sort of thing, or is it because of far more meaningful qualities?

But getting back to the subject at hand... Things like lists of favorites? I can't even name my favorite color. Books? I read constantly, and there's no way I could name my top three favorite books. No. Way. It would be like asking me to name my favorite child. How do you do that? Favorites are an artificial construct, and nobody should feel bad about having a mindset that doesn't easily bend itself that way.

Also, since you understand that you're not that great at spontaneous lists or examples and need a bit of a spark to set off those thoughts and ideas, you can work on small strategies for kindling the process. For example, when the student asked for examples of slang, you might have answered, "well, let's see... why don't you give me some examples of popular slang in your language, and I will see if I can give you the nearest equivalent in English." Requiring some kind of input from your interlocutor is fine; they usually have something in mind anyway, since they are asking the question. The "you first!" gambit in all it's various permutations is permitted, and even usually welcomed (most people are more interested in their own preferences/ideas/voice than yours. True fact.) Once the person begins to speak of their thoughts on the subject, all sorts of responses and expansions will occur to you.

When asked about classic films, would it have been easier if you had changed the parameters of the question a bit? For example, "I can't really list my favorites/list the most notable off the top of my head - there are so many! - but let's talk about some different aspects of classic film that I particularly like. For instance, for suspense, X, is probably my favorite director, and Y is a film I could watch over and over; for madcap comedy, I love Z... blah, blah"? Or something like, "Well, give me a year, and I might be able to answer that... there's just so much... But the last film I saw was X, which I found particularly interesting because of Y; in the same vein, I highly recommend Z."

You see? You aren't compelled to abide by some arbitrary structure that's presented to you. It isn't an exam. You can change the rules! Personally, I would be much more drawn in and stimulated by that sort of conversation than by one in which the person had memorized a sort of playlist of favorites/notables. This isn't faking, it's called thinking and communicating. Faking is looking up lists of top 10s in culture and media subjects and committing them to memory in case anyone ever asks you to name your favorite ________. The world is big. Among all these grains of sand on the beach, which is your favorite? I demand you tell me right now, Faker!
posted by taz at 12:56 AM on August 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

Your main problem appears to be worrying about things that are really normal and, despite your claim to be able to bullshit, you're not using this skill to get around your mental blanks.

Do you mentally make top n lists of favourite quotes etc.? If not, why not? There is no obligation to play that game and if someone actually puts you on the spot, explain why you don't have such a list. Within a few seconds, the other person will be desperate to change the subject.

I can rarely come up with the ones that truly define who I am until often hours afterward

It is not a priori truth that films, books and quotes define who you are. Some would even see it as unmitigated bollocks.

My greatest fear is that one day soon I am going to be exposed as the fraud that I almost certainly am. I just seem incapable of organising my thoughts properly and have even started to convince myself that any ‘success’ I have had has come about more from luck and my ability to bullshit than any truly innate talent.

In my experience, impostor syndrome is the norm among smart, successful people.

One of my students, a 30-something, self-assertive MBA, asked me to give examples of British slang,

Again, it's perfectly normal for teachers to have moments of blankness. Your "I'll prepare an activity next week" response is a pretty good one, the trick is to remember that your thinking time can be interpreted as you deciding whether there is time to get sidetracked in that lesson, rather than racking your brain. Another technique is to turn it back on the student, asking what precisely they are looking for, asking them for slang they already know and then asking the class if it's country-specific etc.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 1:30 AM on August 22, 2009

Like they all said, it's about anxiety and about being hard on yourself. But they didn't tell you how to stop. They told you how it looks from the other side: e.g. these "important" questions are anything but, but to you, it feels important because failure feels humiliating and confirms irrational feelings you have about yourself. These feelings developed in earlier contexts in which you wanted the respect of important figures in your life (usually parents) but feared you didn't really deserve it. There are various ways to recover from this but they all ultimately come down to separating who you (think you) are from who you were in the historical scenarios. The threatened humiliations in the present have actually already happened in the past and you are really afraid of having to relive/remember those times. If you can learn to tolerate these feelings without feeling defined by them, in a mindfulness sort of way, they will eventually diminish.
posted by Obscure Reference at 3:26 AM on August 22, 2009

have even started to convince myself that any ‘success’ I have had has come about more from luck and my ability to bullshit than any truly innate talent.

You're being way to hard on yourself. Success has nothing to do with being able to generate "top five" lists on Facebook or being able to produce a snappy list of slang words on command. It just doesn't. So chill out, enjoy being yourself, and don't worry about silly stuff like this.
posted by jayder at 6:56 AM on August 22, 2009

I just thought I'd add my voice to everyone else in saying that you're being way too hard on yourself.

A lot of people go blank when asked to come up with a title of a book, a name of a movie, or even "slang." A Turkish friend of mine asked me to give her some American idioms - of which I know many - and I couldn't think of any. Since I know this to be common - especially for me - I told her I couldn't remember any off the top of my head and that I'd find a book for her, or we could look them up on the Internet. I stopped being embarrassed about this a long time ago.

I also think it's common not to pick favorites out of the hundreds of thousands of books, movies, songs - whatever - we've read. I mean, really, that's just ridiculous to me. I like too many to have five favorites. I think that you're far from alone in that aspect.
posted by patheral at 2:26 PM on August 22, 2009

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