Stupidity or self esteem?
August 25, 2011 10:49 AM   Subscribe

He says it's poor memory and stupidity. I say it's low self esteem and insecurity. How to tell?

My partner regularly has what I call "memory melt downs." Things he wants to learn for fun (for example, how to play a song), or is told to learn for work (for example, how to use a new piece of equipment), upset him deeply. He claims he's too slow, he's stupid, he can't remember things, he only has a limited capacity, he struggles to hold onto what he's got.... I say he's got a poor attitude, he doesn't have enough faith in himself, isn't trying hard enough. He claims I don't understand that some people barely make it through life, that not everyone is as capable as I am, that my positivity is delusional and dangerous, the equivalent of thinking he can leap off a cliff and fly.

He's struggled with depression, though to my knowledge it's never been officially diagnosed. He's intensely critical, passionate and downright arrogant about the things he's good at (and knows he's good at).

He seems to want my help but neither of us know how I can actually be helpful. No matter how I respond to his anxiety, the result is negative. I'm desperately seeking suggestions, obviously for both of our privacy I won't be in this thread. Please email if you have advice, experience or ideas.... and thank you.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
From personal experience: Mind-blanking and difficulties with memory are certainly symptoms of anxiety and depression.
"Chronic over-secretion of stress hormones adversely affects brain function, especially memory. Too much cortisol can prevent the brain from laying down a new memory, or from accessing already existing memories.

The renowned brain researcher, Robert M. Sapolsky, has shown that sustained stress can damage the hippocampus , the part of the limbic brain which is central to learning and memory. The culprits are "glucocorticoids," a class of steroid hormones secreted from the adrenal glands during stress. They are more commonly know as corticosteroids or cortisol .

During a perceived threat, the adrenal glands immediately release adrenalin. If the threat is severe or still persists after a couple of minutes, the adrenals then release cortisol. Once in the brain cortisol remains much longer than adrenalin, where it continues to affect brain cells."

—The Human Brain – Stress
See also the role of the amygdala in relation to stress and memory.
posted by krilli at 10:54 AM on August 25, 2011 [13 favorites]

I suffer from anxiety and depression and I struggle with the same feelings whenever I try to learn something new.
posted by Chenko at 10:59 AM on August 25, 2011

This has everything to do with his depression and anxiety. Nothing you do or don't do is going to be as helpful as convincing him to seek medical help, which may or may not include medication.
posted by crankylex at 11:01 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

As another possibility, any chance of underlying ADHD? It can make learning difficult (hard to attend closely, information doesn't get organized efficiently as you're learning and that makes it difficult to get back to later, etc.). Often folks with undiagnosed ADHD are under increased stress because these kinds of tasks are hard for them, and this can lead to anxiety and/or depression. As krilli pointed out above, that makes the attention and executive functioning issues worse, making the cycle go around again. I'd suggest talking to a psychologist or psychiatrist who can help pull apart what, if anything is getting in his way.
posted by goggie at 11:02 AM on August 25, 2011 [5 favorites]

And I know you mean well, but telling someone who may have mental health issues that "he's got a poor attitude, he doesn't have enough faith in himself, isn't trying hard enough" is not at all helpful.
posted by crankylex at 11:04 AM on August 25, 2011 [38 favorites]

I was diagnosed with depression 15 years ago and have alot of issues with memory, forgetfulness and stress about learning new things. However, once I finally learn the new thing and I am comfortable doing it, I'm never happier.
posted by dgeiser13 at 11:06 AM on August 25, 2011

As someone who was often told as a child in school that I could do better "if only I tried hard enough" when in fact I really wasn't capable of doing everything the teachers wanted, I can relate to how he's feeling. To this day, learning something new (I take viola lessons) triggers these awful feelings of OMG I AM A PATHETIC LOSER.

I think you both have valid concerns. Take a look at what he is genuinely, cognitively capable of (not what you want him to be capable of), and he should take a look at his triggers, which could have the underlying problem of anxiety and depression as others have said.

(Data point: I am also sometimes arrogant when I'm good at something, which I learned to control when my friends called me on it, because I am absolutely thrilled to have found something that I'm not bad at.)

On preview: also what crankylex said.
posted by Melismata at 11:06 AM on August 25, 2011 [5 favorites]

Start with a routine physical and bloodwork panel. Thyroid, vitamin deficiency, testosterone, liver disease etc could cause these issues. If he gets a clean bill of health there, move on to a psychiatrist and therapist.

You cannot fix him. He either needs medical intervention of the assistance of a professional.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:07 AM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

He's a perfectionist. Depression can accompany this, but it sounds like it's really about giving up upon early difficulty. Some call this a "poor attitude," but that's an assessment that excludes a lot of nuance.
posted by rhizome at 11:12 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

At the risk of saying something obvious, the two are not mutually exclusive.
posted by box at 11:16 AM on August 25, 2011

Believe what your husband tells you about himself. If he says something is a struggle for him, he probably knows what he's talking about because he's been through it before. You don't develop low self esteem regarding learning out of thin air... you get it from struggling to learn certain things all your life while watching others pick them with relative ease.

He may have undiagnosed learning disabilities. Pretty much the definition of a learning disability is when a person struggles to learn certain things that others of similar intelligence level don't have problems with. And people with LDs commonly have problems with low self esteem and frustration that is only made worse by people telling them they aren't trying hard enough or have a bad attitude.

A psychologist can test him for LDs as well as ADHD as was mentioned above.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 11:24 AM on August 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

Don't be the person he turns to for help in these situations. One day you may not be there for whatever reason, and then what?

He needs to sink or swim. For some people, the idea of not doing something well is horrifying -- even if it's a necessary step to learning how to do it perfectly. He needs to get over this hump by focusing over whether knowing how to do this thing is important enough in the long run to make it worth the ego-annihilating misery of beginning as a novice. If it's not, then fuck it -- move on to something else.
posted by hermitosis at 11:27 AM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Get him a book on anxiety and treatment of anxiety. Aaron Beck's Anxiety and Phobia Disorders was and is a boon for me.

It is just like therapy, except you don't go to therapy, you just read how the therapy works. Also, it puts anxiety in an evolutionary perspective--i.e. that it is an anachronistic survival mechanism--which can be a major relief to sufferers, knowing that they are just unfortunately wired that way. And then you learn you don't have to heed the anxiety.

Anyway, as I read it I recognized so many of the symptoms as things I have experienced. Knowing that your condition is not unique and untreatable, knowing in fact that many very smart people are working very hard to figure it out and fix it, can be a comfort. It helps take the load off of oneself, which it sounds like your partner could use.
posted by TheRedArmy at 11:43 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Consider it possible that both of you may be right, and wrong.

"He claims he's too slow, he's stupid, he can't remember things, he only has a limited capacity"

Sometimes, some of these things are simply true.

"He's got a poor attitude, he doesn't have enough faith in himself, isn't trying hard enough."


It's impossible to do anything but indulge in speculation about your particular situation because we don't know either of you and we're only getting your brief take on this. On the face of it it sounds like your man does have some problems with apprehension but it also sounds like he may have "embraced the wall", as I like to put it. I like to put it that way because it's something I do too, and so I recognise the symptoms.

There are certain subjects that I almost instinctively struggle to understand, and because I actually think of myself as a pretty smart guy, I don't deal well with this. I become offended that I don't instantly understand these subjects. When I was a kid it actually used to make my throat tighten and my tear ducts prickle. When that happens - especially to a smart, proud person - one way of dealing with it is to throw your intellectual toys out of the pram and declare that you are hopeless, useless, a total thicko about that nasty, offensive, difficult subject. That vile topic, which has so assaulted your proud intellect.

I do this with finance and DIY. These things not only do not come naturally to me, they do not interest me, and so I declare that they are simply beyond me. Deep down, I know this is probably not so, but pretending it is acts, in a perverse, masochistic way, as a sort of sop to my wounded pride. I'm simply a thicky. I'm hopeless. Don't even try to explain these things to me. It's a waste of time.

Sometimes we react to that which taxes us, or which touches us in our secret, sensitive, vulnerable areas, by simply throwing up our hands in surrender. Because that is easier than knuckling down and fighting a worrying enemy with unfamiliar weapons.
posted by Decani at 12:01 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am a very good learner. If I am having trouble learning something, it is usually my first clue that something is not right with my depression. I vote depression and low self esteem for two reasons. One, because I have first hand experience with that. of which Two is a subsection: Depression works really hard to convince the victim/sufferer/person that they are worthless and stupid. It's like, on Depression's resume,


sabotaging earnest efforts
destroying hoursyears of hard work
convincing perfectly nice people that they are horrible

ok, it's usually the first clue that I pay attention to, because I can come up with lots of excuses for not showering.

But here's the thing about us depressed people. We have to be willing, at some point, to receive and accept the help that our loved ones offer us. I do think it's admirable that you want the best for your boyfriend, but please be kind to yourself. Secure your own oxygen mask, yadda yadda, you know the deal. Yes, remind him gently that you love him and believe in him. But don't make it your mission in life to fix him, whether he wants it or not. Misery lies that way. I promise.
posted by bilabial at 12:07 PM on August 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Please listen to crankylex and be careful in your word choice: saying he's got a "poor attitude" and "not trying hard enough" instead of "stupid and slow" is just trading one type of "bad" for another. And if he is clinically depressed, he might currently be genuinely limited in his ability to change his attitude.

I think he should see a therapist. It sounds like he's struggled with this for some time, and never sought help, and maybe thinks this is just the way he is, when it could be clinical depression. Dysthymia - a milder but more chronic version of depression that often tricks people into thinking "I can't be depressed, this is just how I am" - is also a possibility. It also sounds like he's looking for another person's support, so I think in-person therapy would be better for him than just reading self-treatment books.

You might not be able to help him in the way he needs, or to the extent that he needs. That's okay and normal. When supporting a depressed partner, it's better to be aware of your limitations than to try and solve everything yourself. If he meets with a therapist regularly (and if he clicks with said therapist) it will take some of the pressure off you.

Treating the depression may not make learning or mastering things easier for him. It will, however, help keep him from beating himself up when things don't come easily to him.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:25 PM on August 25, 2011

When I hear this kind of dynamic in a couple, I wonder how it fits into the polarities of their ongoing relationship. If one person is hopeful and optimistic and the other is pessimistic and hopeless and the interaction becomes this kind of seesaw, where they dance about their respective positions - "You're smart!" "No, I'm stupid" etc. etc.

Your partner may indeed be depressed, but for him to be able to consider getting help for it, you may have to stop encouraging him to do so. This is hard, because it's painful when you hear someone you love suffering so. But it may be that you have to accept the fact of his suffering, so he can stop proving it to you.

When he talks about how stupid he is, you might need to sigh and say how sorry you are, and ask if there's anything you can do. And just comfort him in his sorrow about feeling like a stupid person - without trying to fix him.

Of course, you can let him know that you have a different view but that you're sorry he feels that way, and that you love him and support him even though he's going through this rough time.
posted by jasper411 at 12:48 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do you want to help him or do you just want to be right?

It sounds like his functioning is impaired by something, whether that's an undiagnosed learning disability or depression or anxiety or something else isn't up to you to figure out. Encourage your partner to see a doctor or mental health professional about these concerns as they are impeding his life and making him unhappy.

Don't talk down to him about how he just needs to try harder, this is not supportive and is probably contributing to his anxiety over these issues - "oh crap I have to do task X but it's difficult for me and I can't confide in my partner because they'll just tell me I'm not trying hard enough but I really AM trying and it's just not working!". Instead, encourage them to seek out a third party's opinion and then support him through whatever path he takes.
posted by buteo at 2:06 PM on August 25, 2011

My husband was EXACTLY like this, until he started being treated for depression. And now he's not.
posted by lollusc at 5:21 PM on August 25, 2011

Point out the positive to him. When pointing it out, do not make any reference to your conversation about his esteem/capabilities/whatever. You know that he's good at some things routinely give him small, brief compliments on those things.

You do this until its taken for granted. This can take months, if not years. After its taken for granted, you do it some more. Eventually he'll consider these as core and integral strengths. Then you can have conversation with him about his strengths, and you can back up your claims with facts that he already believes to be true.
posted by BurnChao at 11:45 PM on August 25, 2011

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