How to be more confident in my own intelligence?
September 10, 2010 10:05 AM   Subscribe

How do I become more confident in my intelligence and not worry that people around me will think I'm dumb?

I was a socially awkward nerd child who adapted an "At least I'm smarter than you!" mentality to get through eating lunch alone for years. I'm much happier and better adjusted now, but it seems to have come at the price of raging insecurity about my own intelligence. I think this is partially because I spent several years pursuing art to the exclusion of most else, and so now that I'm attempting to do computer science I feel "behind" (I haven't taken any math or statistics classes, for instance, beyond the basics.)

Last night at a party I met this guy who happened to know a lot about a subject I've been reading a textbook about (how computers reason and learn). I asked him to explain one of the concepts to me, which he did graciously and well. I didn't have any real difficulty understanding. But I still felt so stupid, that he needed to explain it to me in the first place. And I wondered whether he thought I was stupid, even though objectively I know he probably didn't have an opinion either way.

This insecurity has been a real problem for me. I worked for a while in an ivy league setting and I felt intense imposter syndrome, to the point where I sabotaged myself and quit. I consider applying to grad school every year but always chicken out.

Anyway, how do I deal with this? It's almost paralyzing sometimes, and self-defeating - I'll refrain from engaging people in conversation, putting my ideas out there, or asking questions, just so people won't think I'm dumb. Sometimes I can make myself ask questions anyway (like last night) but it's hard and I miss feeling confident and smart like I used to.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
You were at a party, talking about concepts from a computer science textbook. And you're doing this because you are honestly interested in learning about the subject. And you're worried that you're not intelligent?

Maybe you just need to read that aloud to yourself.
posted by dobie at 10:15 AM on September 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

Two things come to mind:

1) Most people are so busy worrying about whether or not people think they're stupid, they can't be bothered to pay any attention to your IQ.

2) The people who do make a big deal about how smart they are and insist on talking about stuff nobody understands are insecure and frankly quite boring.

Why in the world should you expect to know all about something you just started learning about?

And think of it this way: Asking someone a question about an area of their expertise is like the biggest present you can give them, because people love nothing more than talking about the stuff they know.
posted by missjenny at 10:18 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's a difference between intelligence and knowing things. When I teach someone a new concept and they understand and ask insightful questions, it makes me think they are intelligent for learning, not stupid for not knowing everything already.
posted by telegraph at 10:19 AM on September 10, 2010 [16 favorites]

You, my love, have Gifted Child Syndrome, the bane of any kids who grew up bright (and tortured as a result). One of the key components is thus: "I need to be an AUTOMATIC EXPERT at anything I discuss/try, WITHOUT ANY LEARNING CURVE, or else I'm a FAILURE." I know the feeling way, way too well.

You know objectively that that's not true, right? It might also help to know that intelligence is a spectrum of different characteristics, a few of which are eagerness and ability to learn new material. By talking to people who know a LOT more than you about a subject, and pumping them for information, you're demonstrating a facet of intelligence right there.
posted by julthumbscrew at 10:20 AM on September 10, 2010 [47 favorites]

I'll refrain from engaging people in conversation, putting my ideas out there, or asking questions, just so people won't think I'm dumb. Sometimes I can make myself ask questions anyway (like last night) but it's hard and I miss feeling confident and smart like I used to.

The funny thing is that only smart people generally do this: because you know what you don't know. Not-that-smart or uninformed people will just say the dumbest things when they try to engage someone more knowledgeable about a topic.

That said, the only way to feel more confident about your knowledge and abilities is to constantly engage. When you have a new idea about the topic you're studying, tell someone more knowledgeable than you in the field about it and get their opinion on it. Keep doing that, even if you get discouraged, sometimes. Then engage with other people who aren't as knowledgeable and see if they can pick up the concepts as easily as you can. Eventually you'll realize that you do have a strong intellectual grounding.

I didn't have any real difficulty understanding.

That shows that you have some strong intellectual abilities!
posted by deanc at 10:25 AM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

I agree with telegraph above. There is so much information and knowledge in the world, it's impossible for any single individual to know it all.

I work with a lot of brilliant people in my university, and what unifies them all is the ability to ask probing and insightful questions, as well as the ability to make deep connections between things.
posted by jasonhong at 10:31 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Intelligence is not a fixed trait - even IQ is not fixed. My guess is that someone said "you're smart" to you as a kid, or you found it very easy to learn in school or from books at early age. Whoever complimented you for that fixed intelligence trait did you no service - in fact kids who think they "are smart" learn less and are less successful than kids who are complimented for learning or working hard. This is because "being smart" as a fixed trait leads people who think they are smart to be very scared of appearing dumb or not knowing something.

The reality is that being smart is more hard work, curiosity and being ok with risking failure. Learning is a lifelong process no matter how intelligent you are, and by denying the aspect of learning that comes from discourse with others you're not meeting your full potential.

I'm glad you recognize this as a problem - and I think continuing to put yourself out there and talk with others will help you realize that you can do anything you want. Reading a bit more about learning and intelligence may help you understand your "imposter syndrome" better as well.
posted by rainydayfilms at 10:41 AM on September 10, 2010 [5 favorites]

I know EXACTLY what you mean. This is something I battle with myself.

My guess is that this is a broader issue, relating to overall self esteem. Either way, a psychologist would probably recommend things like positive self talk in the situations where you feel inadequate. This sounds really cheesy, but I eventually came to realize that some people do it automatically without thinking about it, which made me feel better. One other thing it took me a while to realize was that it was going to take a good chunk of time to turn these thoughts and feelings around - just as it had taken them a long time to develop in the first place. But I'm definitely seeing progress.

You might also find cognitive behavioral therapy useful - it can be done via workbook yourself.

Feel free to email me if I can be helpful.
posted by earth oddity at 10:43 AM on September 10, 2010

You, yourself, have put a significant importance on intelligence, so it's no wonder you think badly of yourself when you don't feel intelligent.

What you need to understand, essentially, is the following:

1. Even the smartest people in the world don't know most of what there is to know in the world, so everyone has epic gaps in their knowledge;

2. Because of this, some people are going to think you're not very smart about certain things, and even a lifetime dedicated to monastic study of every subject under the sun will not prevent this;

3. To be smart, you have to be able to learn, and so you should embrace the idea that each time you learn something, it's a reflection of how smart you are.

That's a short term solution, of course, and the long term solution is to get over it. I used to be hung up on spelling; I thought poorly of people who couldn't spell, and chastised myself when I misspelled something. Eventually I learned to get over it, stop paying attention to the technicalities, and pay attention to what people were trying to say, not how they said it. My life's better for it, in so many ways.
posted by davejay at 10:50 AM on September 10, 2010

Oh, and how did I get over it? I faced my fear and allowed myself to make typos and misspell words. And nobody seemed to care much. It was liberating.
posted by davejay at 10:51 AM on September 10, 2010

Problem: Lack of knowledge.

1. Add knowledge
2. ???
3. Profit!
posted by Biru at 10:56 AM on September 10, 2010

I should expand upon my last post. That you know what your problem is, and given that any normal adult could logically deduce the most obvious remedy, yet you still chose to ask rather than go with the obvious is perhaps your problem and not a lack of knowledge per se.
posted by Biru at 10:58 AM on September 10, 2010

I asked him to explain one of the concepts to me, which he did graciously and well...And I wondered whether he thought I was stupid, even though objectively I know he probably didn't have an opinion either way.

Actually, he probably enjoyed the hell out of explaining it to you. When you talk to people about the areas of their own expertise, they usually end up walking away from the conversation thinking how smart a person you are and what a brilliant discussion they just had. Counterintuitive, but totally human.

But do look into Imposter Syndrome. There are so many good resources out there.
posted by Knowyournuts at 11:07 AM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

I would suggest reading Mindset by Carol Dweck. It addresses a lot of the concerns you have.
posted by fairfax at 11:10 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Anyway, how do I deal with this?

Accomplish stuff. The more things you actually do with the knowledge you have, the more real evidence you have that you actually know what in the hell you're talking about. A lot of people think they know stuff but have absolutely no evidence besides their word (or many, many words).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:13 AM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Sometimes you will not be the smartest person in the room. This is ok.
posted by mokeydraws at 11:22 AM on September 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

Another dimension to this situation is that you are at the beginning of a career change. You are going from areas where you felt competent to areas where you are a beginning learner.

repeat to yourself as often as necessary: It is OK that I don't know every thing, if I knew everything already, I wouldn't need to be learning. It is OK that I am not as good at this as I am going to be in five years. The only way to get to be that good is to have the five years of experience What I am doing right now is that getting the knowledge I need to be as a good as I want to be at this work."

An alternate version is "It is OK be less than competent right now - I am a beginner, my role is to be the learner. Anyone worth caring about will respect my commitment to learning and not judge me down for only knowing what I have had a chance to learn in this new field"

In addition "Knowledge does not equal intelligence. Being a beginner is not the same as being stupid."

Good luck
posted by metahawk at 11:22 AM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Carol Dweck is one of the psychologists who conducted the study I linked to in my earlier post - here's a relevant passage:

Specifically, evaluators who praise for ability may teach children that intelligence
is a stable trait that is reflected in and can be easily read
from performance. If children carry away this lesson, they may
read low intelligence from poor performance and thus make
ability attributions not only for their successes but also for their

Meaning, you think you are not intelligent when you don't know something (aren't performing) which is a faulty assumption.

Also agreed that the guy you were talking to probably thought you were super smart and awesome for letting him talk about something he was so interested in!
posted by rainydayfilms at 11:36 AM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

The most intelligent people I know almost never spend any time imparting their knowledge to the world-at-large unbidden. The smartest people I know spend most of their time asking questions.
posted by xingcat at 11:41 AM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

I really don't have much new to add other than that I am also going through this, and I try to remember what other people have said to counter-act that impulse.

Thanks for asking this question!
posted by emkelley at 12:11 PM on September 10, 2010

This is an odd response, but I heard this quote on the tv show Community (of all places), and it really resonated with me as a perfectionist/former gifted child. For context, one of the characters was told through his whole life that he was a perfect, talented person, and thus has no skills to deal with not being the best; this is what he, in a fantasy sequence, wishes his mother had told him.

"You're a normal person. There's nothing very special about you at all. You're going to be great at a few things, but really crappy at many more. And that takes a lot of the pressure off, so you can live a full, happy life!"
posted by sarahsynonymous at 12:20 PM on September 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

asking someone to speak about an area of their expertise is one of the best ways to engage at a party, you're brilliant! I think as you grow and mature, you'll become less worried about what other people think. People in general are very self-absorbed, self-centered (not necessarily in a bad way) and are really more self-conscious and concerned about their needs than they are thinking about you. Also, not all people are judgmental. I just finished reading Dale Carnegie's book on how to win friends and influence people and a major strategy he uses to connect with others is to ask questions. I experience the anxiety you're talking about quite a bit at work, but usually i just say f it, and ask questions. It's better to have a clear understanding than lost in the dark.
posted by dmbfan93 at 1:46 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

One thing that I have learned about being in school (either high school, undergrad, or grad school), is that you are constantly surrounded by morons. Once you internalize this thought, you'd be amazed at how much it helps get you through the day. I, too, pursued the arts and little else, and now that I'm in a master's program, it helps me to sometimes say aloud to myself, "At the end of this, I'll have a master's and be an expert on the subject. I don't give a damn if anyone thinks I'm stupid because I'm not."

You are not stupid.

Like dobie said, you were at a party and talked about computer science. Think about it.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 3:32 PM on September 10, 2010

The Mad Magazine Snappy Answer: hang out with stupider people.

The real answer: intelligence isn't a single measure, plottable on a two-dimensional graph. Of course, people judge each other when they meet, but there are a million different scales, and you will never be able to predict 100% which is important to whom.

What you did there -- being aware of a gap in your knowledge, discovering a person who knew the answer, asking the question and getting into a conversation, all in a socially stressful situation -- I guarantee you there are dozens of other clever people who would have just stood about peeling the label off their beer bottle. You are socially intelligent, intellectually curious, obviously have a wide range of interests, and are a clear and clever writer. You aren't one of the meta-incompetent who don't even know when they don't know something.

Start rewarding yourself for trying, instead of for succeeding. You will feel better more of the time, and in more varied situations. Yay!
posted by Sallyfur at 5:27 PM on September 10, 2010

There is always someone out there who knows more than you. Why not learn from them?? Knowledge does not equal intelligence. If you're interested in a subject, and genuinely want to learn more about it, it's always better to ask than to hold back. As a graduate student, I learned this early, and quickly. Take advantage of the wealth of knowledge surrounding you, and don't look at your lack of knowledge as a sign of stupidity or incompetence, but rather as an opportunity to learn more. You used to have confidence - you really believed that you were insightful, creative, and intelligent. Nothing has changed with your brain - you know you're an intelligent person. Most people will see your questions as a desire to learn more and respect you for it. Don't worry. Please don't worry.
posted by genekelly'srollerskates at 8:11 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'll refrain from...... asking questions, just so people won't think I'm dumb

If you ask a question, you are "dumb" for five minutes. If you don't, you are "dumb" forever.
posted by xm at 5:31 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

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