Not being the smartest one creates self-hate
November 13, 2019 6:56 PM   Subscribe

I would like to handle being bad at things (not perfect at them) better. I would like to not feel a sense of shame and worthlessness if someone is smarter than me. More below.

I have a hard time being beaten at intellectually challenging competitive activities. I was raised to put too much identity into my intellect, so if I am outsmarted I have a viscious inner critic that rages at me, distracting me from what is supposed to be entertainment and quality time with loved ones. I want to dismantle this issue for myself.

I have a lot of impressive sounding academic achievements but giftedness and fixed mindset reinforcement of intelligence has really fucked up my head.

I hate this pattern and try to avoid any activity where intelligence is a primary criterion for evaluation. I use sloppy language and logic on purpose to counteract this perfectionistic shame issue and give me an out. I have worked hard to value other areas of life so that this doesn't matter so much. I have tried being bad at things on purpose, trying to reframe a competition as being only with myself, trying to use CBT techniques. It's better than it used to be but still possible to ruin my day over this pattern. Metafilter seems to be populated with lots of highly intelligent people so I imagine there are many here who have struggled with this issue and can hope me.

I have two situations in my life where others are competing over me based on my merits, and I'm over here fighting self-hate, shame and worthlessness because I lost a game of Dominion. This is stupid and I'm ready to stop being stupid about being smart.
posted by crunchy potato to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
No advice, just amazed that you expressed so much of what I struggle with (as an academically-inclined person raised by achievement-obsessed immigrant parents, who also struggles with some form of learning disability/adhd) so succinctly. I'm still ruminating over "missteps" from college through PhD years later and it's all just so destructive to my mental health. I hope you get some good answers here!
posted by shaademaan at 7:47 PM on November 13, 2019 [4 favorites]

I grew up with the whole gifted and talented thing, along with the let down feeling one gets when it turns out that someone else is more gifted and talented than you. I dealt with it in two ways:

First, I realized that anywhere past a bachelors degree the concept of "intelligence" gets very fragmented. Some people are good at computers, others are good at biology, others are good at language. Nobody is good at them all. So I cut myself some slack when I was competing in an area outside my expertise.

Second, I went out of my way to work with people who were as smart or smarter than me. I know that sounds like a recipe for permanent shame, but actually it just helped me get the chip off my shoulder. I’m a very smart guy, but there are geniuses who walk this earth and I have met them. It removes a lot of pressure to be the best when you know you’re never going to be.

TL;DR: Reset your self-expectations by dealing with real geniuses in your expertise. No self-sabotage required.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:51 PM on November 13, 2019 [19 favorites]

I don't fully relate to your question but I can definitely connect with it and my younger self to a degree. I do like the advice above about how knowledge and skill is very fragmented and it's easy to accept that one can't be the smartest and most learned in every subject. So perhaps it can help to consider that not being the smartest in the room affords you an opportunity to learn something new from that person. And everyone, no matter their intelligence, has something to teach.

Would it help to redirect your thoughts from focusing on how smart someone is, to focusing on how kind they are? And striving to be a kinder person, yourself?
posted by acidnova at 8:15 PM on November 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

I don't know why (maybe I was expressing similar tendencies or frustrations), but when I was a kid, my mom always said to me, "No matter what you do in life, there will always be someone better than you at it, and there will always be someone worse than you." Maybe it would help you to mull that over in less stressful times?

A few years ago, I learned about some really interesting stuff going in classrooms. Kids who are told they are smart tend to be scared of demonstrating failure in any capacity, so they take fewer risks. But kids who were told that the brain is a muscle that gets bigger and stronger and more capable by taking chances were more likely to push themselves--and they often succeeded and, when they failed, didn't face huge setbacks.

So another framing for you might be that your mind is a muscle. Your intelligence isn't fixed. The harder you try, the more you learn and the stronger your intellect will be.

You could also try cultivating appreciation for other people's successes. Their besting of you doesn't indicate failure on your part, but high achievement on theirs. Good for them!

Finally, have you tried leaning into something that you're not that good at, and maybe doing it some more even if you won't ever be that good? Maybe a hobby or physical pursuit that you enjoy? Doing something where people are much better but you still have fun could be super healthy.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:22 PM on November 13, 2019 [11 favorites]

I struggled with perfectionism that I never really got rid of until grad degree #2 (completed: age 35). I think the reason the second grad degree helped is that I was so bad at some parts of it that I could see that all my fretting about other imperfections was just silly in comparison, but also that nevertheless I was really actually pretty good at some other parts of it, and that these facts didn’t cancel each other out. It gave me a lot of confidence to aim at something very hard and experience this particular sort of pied success.

But your example is interesting because it isn’t about school or the workplace... so I’m not really sure how much my own story will help. (I suck at Dominion, fwiw.) Do you believe your friends/family are judging you harshly behind your back? Do you feel like you need to prove your mettle to be worthy of their love? Is this competitiveness confined to intellectual things or do you also feel it in other ways? When you fight with these loved ones, how does the fight end?
posted by eirias at 8:36 PM on November 13, 2019 [4 favorites]

I think there are 2 ways to feel good about being smart.
Mode 1. You feel good always being the smartest in the whole universe at everything and knowing at all times that everyone else is below you.
Obviously this never works. For anyone. It is exhausting, too.
Mode 2. You feel good because you're surrounded by smart people, their smartness rubs off on you, their smartness reflects your own smartness for being near them, for being in the same species with them, for occuping the planet with them; no matter what amazing thing they do, you share it because you are in a smart circle, you are delighted by their fabulous brilliance, YAY! This one is called Everyone is Fabulous!
For Mode 2: You get to praise people in your own head and to others, not have to constantly think of ways that actually they're bad at this or that to make an exhausting, impossible balance sheet come out in your favor.
Both my former Phd advisor and a colleague are MacArthur Fellows. Yet -- though invisible people with big money said they are Geniuses! -- they sometimes do the equivalent of lose at a card or board game. I've been noticing for years that they are squarely in Mode 2: "You won! Marvelous! I'm with smart people! Everyone is fabulous!" They introduce people to each other exclaiming over the wondrousness of other people, and they really do think it makes their own self more shiny to be around fabulous others.
Mode 2 is so much better for mental health. Everyone should do it. (Everyone really is fabulous!)
posted by nantucket at 9:25 PM on November 13, 2019 [25 favorites]

I’ve got a couple of thoughts: First, you hit the nail on the head with the “fixed mindset” comment. Because with a growth mindset, we have to recognize that all the smart-ish, determined people could do [amazing thing] if they prioritized learning how to. Being the “smartest” at something, when among other bright people, might only mean that you’ve prioritized specific knowledge. Second, I’ve worked among fellow PhD-holding scientists long enough to know that high intelligence does not necessarily align with high salary, social success, being valued by others, or happiness in general.

I get it. I base a lot of my identity on intelligence as well. But I’m at the point where I can see that the good things in my life are due to hard work and taking initiative, or to lovingkindness.
posted by Knowyournuts at 9:28 PM on November 13, 2019 [5 favorites]

I looked up Dominion and remembered that I've played it a few times. The summary says it's very strategy-driven, and the goal is to amass property in certain combinations. It's kind of like Catan or Monopoly in that way. (Or capitalism; I don't know if that's another trigger for you, but it is for me.) I find it really hard to play strategy games like that for fun.

If I want to be competitive and really try to win something, it takes a lot of focus. But as an introvert, if I want to be social, conversational, and open with my friends, that takes a lot of focus, too. Trying to balance these two mindsets over the course of a strategy game is frustrating for me, because either my friends notice that I'm not really trying to win or they notice that I'm too quiet.

After you make a non-ideal strategic move in the game, sometimes there's no coming back from it. For the rest of the game, possibly hours, you watch your friends benefit from your error, and at some point you see that losing is inevitable. Even if they're not jerks about it, it still hurts to know that you made a mistake and can't fix it, and instead of doing whatever coping/self-soothing you'd like to do, you have to keep being (exhaustingly) social with the very people who are legally taking advantage at your expense.

I used to kick myself for poor sportsmanship, like why am I not happy to see my friends win? But based on my observation of my nephew's little league games, in sports, you really only have to shake hands with the other team at the end of the game. It's not too hard to keep it together for long enough to shake hands. All your actual friends are on your team, and you always win or lose together.

My solution is to play cooperative games, or games that are more subjective (Cards Against Humanity style), or games that are more weighted toward luck so that it's just something to do while the focus is on conversation, or strategy games that end quickly (less time in "losing is inevitable" mode).
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 3:22 AM on November 14, 2019 [7 favorites]

In my late 20s I started spending time with people who were not as academically advantaged as me. Both in their life experiences and opportunities and also in natural gifts. You know, just regular people who existed outside of my tiny bubble of elite university/elite job industry/self-selecting internet people. We met each other volunteering--we all had similar values and goals, but came at it with different talents and experiences.

It was vital to my health and my happiness that my time-with-other-people scope widened (and also narrowed!) to include people who have similar life values to me. For a long time my circle formed around people who shared the same history of achievement as me, but that was not ever going to be where I found happiness.

Also, it is so great when other people are better or smarter at something than you are because it helps relieve you of that (false) burden that you have to do every fucking thing yourself or it won't get done right. It's so much nicer to recognize where others excel and where you are not so great and work on stuff collaboratively.
posted by phunniemee at 4:12 AM on November 14, 2019 [9 favorites]

I don't have the solution for you but I wanted to chime in and tell you that you are not alone. I wrestle with this constantly, especially since my husband is also gifted (a few points higher on the iq scale and definitively better at some intellectual tasks like logical analysis and math problems). When he wins at a board game I go into a self-anger spiral and feel terrible. I am working hard as you mention to break out of it but it is so difficult.
posted by TestamentToGrace at 5:41 AM on November 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think for me the key has been focusing on what nantucket said, the realization that being surrounded by fabulous people ("fabulous" in whatever realm!) is a wonderful awesome experience. A friend of mine once said that the ability to appreciate the fabulousness of the people around you, rather than be threatened by it, is how you differentiate "health sense of self-esteem" from "having a big ego." It's a comment that's really stuck with me.

So I think it all gets mixed up with working on your own sense of self-esteem, of valuing yourself for who you are, not just what you can achieve. And it helps to be verbally congratulatory and complimentary of the people around you, and to mean it. I think it's fantastic when a friend beats me at a game because I'm happy that they're happy.

Also it would be exhausting and REALLY BORING to be the best at everything all the time -- how would I learn new things if I already knew all the things?
posted by lazuli at 7:04 AM on November 14, 2019

Do you only or mostly hang out with the mega-smart/educated? In my experience, if you have an advanced degree and work with and socialize with other highly intelligent and highly educated people, it gradually skews your understanding of the range of human "intelligence" and of what it takes to be accomplished/good enough. I suggest you find ways to hang out with people from more varied backgrounds (volunteering is often a good way to do this).

Growing up I worked summers at a place where I was much more educated and "smarter" than almost everyone else, and I'm ashamed to admit that I was surprised when some of my coworkers made really quick-witted jokes with sophisticated humor, or solved a problem in a quicker/simpler way than I did. It opened my eyes to the idea that I'm good at some things and they work for me, but there are people out there good at other things and it works for them. A lot of me is still defined by being smart or good at school, but I guess I'm saying building relationships (even shallow ones) with a wider range of people will expand your definition of what it is to be smart and successful and worthy (and therefore hopefully you'll be gentler with yourself).

Also, why are you playing strategy games if they make you feel this way? For the most part I want my entertainment to leave me with net positive feelings, not full of self-loathing. Quit playing Dominion for awhile. If it's what you do with family or friends, ask to take a break and suggest a different game or activity that's less strategy-based (Pictionary, bowling, watch a movie, volunteer together, whatever).
posted by kochenta at 8:11 AM on November 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

I agree with posters above - if you're not enjoying these activities, taking a break and substituting non-competitive activities may be the right move.

If you genuinely want to continue playing these games, I think it would be helpful for you to reframe the whole exercise. "Intelligence," as I'm sure you're aware, is a nebulous, multifaceted, socially constructed concept. People who are good at strategy games aren't objectively more intelligent. I promise you, you are not really being "outsmarted."

I struggle with this issue myself, and right now I'm finding spiritual nourishment in Ursula K. Le Guin's translation of the Tao Te Ching, which is all about valuing non-competition. Journaling, therapy, or talking to a trusted friend may also help you process these feelings of shame and distress.
posted by toastedcheese at 8:28 AM on November 14, 2019

Growing up, my sense of identity relied strongly on being able to do cognitive tasks without putting in any effort. It turned out that was a good rationalization and simultaneous denial of my lack of ability to actually put in effort (executive function difficulties, then undiagnosed ADHD). It was also profoundly anti-intellectual in that it denigrated studying and practicing as something for not so smart people.

Now I value doing the work much more than innate ability and I think it’s due to this insight. Going from big fish in a small pond to small fish in a big pond has brought me a lot of joy of interaction with very smart and accomplished and intellectually curious and motivated people.

Last year, I had the opportunity to talk to some sort of genius teenage entrepreneur, very far down the long tail of the bell curve so to say, and it was so great to talk to someone who immediately gets what you’re saying, so much less work of explaining and nuancing, someone asking incisive questions at high speed, brainstorming taking into account all factors brought up in the conversation, such a joy! It has become an excellent experience for me to be outwitted.

And, with age, other traits, like kindness or sense of humor or calmness have become so much more important. But that sort of just happened, so no advice there.

Having said all that, I recently installed the SET game app, and I’m getting absurdly competitive with myself, and frustrated with WHY didn’t I see that faster?? I don’t even want to play against anyone. But I’m also laughing at myself for that. In conclusion, cleverness competition is a land of contrasts.
posted by meijusa at 11:43 AM on November 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Also, why are you playing strategy games if they make you feel this way? For the most part I want my entertainment to leave me with net positive feelings, not full of self-loathing. Quit playing Dominion for awhile. If it's what you do with family or friends, ask to take a break and suggest a different game or activity that's less strategy-based (Pictionary, bowling, watch a movie, volunteer together, whatever).

I think this is a really great insight. It sounds like you are super competitive. There are definitely drawbacks to that. Winning can come with negative consequences for your relationships with others.

I thought of an example from the sporting world that might be helpful to reflect on. Michael Jordan is known for being incredibly competitive. (I used to hear "He'd cheat at cards with his mom.") Here's a story about some of the manifestations of this in his career and life. A lot of those read as pretty negative to me. Sure, maybe he "wins," but he also apparently had incredible fights with teammates and family members because he was so focused on winning at all costs. That seems like a stressful and unhealthy way to live. Do the ends justify the means?
posted by bluedaisy at 1:30 PM on November 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

When I was a kid I was always told how smart I was. My IQ had tested as above average, my teacher told my parents I had an aptitude for science, and a lot of pressure was placed on me to perform in school. My dad told me that my younger brother had tested as average, so it was ok if he got Bs and Cs but that I needed to work to a higher standard (which I did not live up to and was constantly accused of “not applying myself.”) I managed to skate by through middle school on my test scores in my classes, but my total grade was always brought down considerably by my inability to organize and motivate myself to do homework. I had been ok at arithmetic, but algebra brought me up short. I simply could not wrap my head around it (and to this day, I barely squeaked by with a C in the business math class I took in college, only by the grace of God and a husband who patiently tutored me through my rage and tears every step of the way.) I eventually dropped out of high school, but got my GED and eventually, painstakingly, completed an associate degree at community college. Eventually I learned (as an adult) that I have ADD that affects my executive function, dyscalculia, and a low tolerance for stress that makes school very difficult. So much for that science career.

Still, I was a voracious reader reading well above my age level, excellent speller, etc. so even though I achieved poorly in school I always believed in and prided myself on my intelligence. I admired (and envied) it in others, looked down upon people who didn’t read, couldn’t spell, spoke poorly or just didn’t seem all that bright.

Meanwhile, regarding other kinds of intelligence: my “average” brother Dan made it through high school with little trouble. He accepted various lower-paying jobs over the years, but at every job he was very quickly promoted to management because he is smart and very hard-working. One time when we were in our 20s we both worked at the same restaurant chain, at different stores in the same city. He was a manager when I started, very well-liked by the company; and after a few months I was promoted to manager as well. Only, I just could not get the paperwork right. It was a LOT of math, tracking money, food use, shift hours, etc. The manager who was attempting to train me was kind of a bitch and at one point she turned to the other manager in exasperation and said “well, she’s no Dan.” That felt super not great, as you can imagine.

But you know what? I admire my brother. He’s really on the ball at work (he manages a warehouse now), he’s smart in a lot of important ways, he has social skills and his bosses always love him. And me? I do ok for myself at work as well, as long as I stay away from jobs that require a lot of math. I think part of it just comes down to accepting that not everybody gets to be a rock star. For whatever the definition of “rock star” is for your circle or field. My brother is a “rock star” at work. I’m great too, as long as they don’t want me to do math. But I’m no Dan. Such is life.

Still, as I have moved through life feeling slightly superior about my intelligence (such as it is) and considering it to be an important trait in those I associate with, I’ve met a lot of people and have noticed that there is a lot more to a happy life than being exceptionally smart. I’ve known a number of people who proudly Do Not Read yet they are smart enough to have good jobs and happy families and lots of friends (they talk to people and have social skills due to not having their nose stuck in a book all the time.) Having been in smartish circles myself, I know how smug and critical smart people can act towards those they consider less intelligent, and over the years I have grown more appreciative of people who are compassionate, kind and pleasant, and who are unconcerned with making sure everyone can see how smart they are. These are the traits I now find most valuable in others and want to cultivate in myself. Intelligence is a good tool for learning and bettering oneself, but perhaps not so much an end unto itself. Also I have learned that a lot of the things intelligent people like to criticize and laugh at others for such as poor grammar and spelling, certain ways of speaking that are deemed “improper”, lack of knowledge on certain things that might be thought of as “common knowledge” are really expressions of classism. And being overly proud of one’s own facility with proper language and proper ways to behave and interact in one’s own sector of society implies also looking down on someone who did not have similar opportunities in life, or who chooses to fit in with a different segment of society.

My husband’s story is quite different than mine. Growing up, he was always the smart kid. He got good grades in high school without half trying, and when he put in a little more effort when he started thinking about college, he got excellent grades and his SAT score was impressive. He got into one of the top tech schools in the country, and his orientation went something like this: “There are two kinds of people in this room. The first kind worked really hard in high school and developed excellent study habits. You’ll do fine. The rest of you… you were the smartest kid in your high school, and you are used to being able to get decent grades just coasting. You can’t coast here. Many of you are going to fail because you won’t believe what I am telling you.”

My husband wound up failing out, partly because of the aforementioned bad study and work habits, and partly from being intimidated at having to compete in a place where every person had been the smartest kid at their school. It really messed up his head. He told me, “My whole life I never felt like I was interesting or cool or popular. My entire sense of self-esteem was built upon one pillar… that I was the smart one. Failing out of school knocked that pillar right out from under me, and I had no idea who I was or why I mattered.” He became deeply depressed and moved back in with his parents for over a year. Ultimately, he wound up getting lots of CBT therapy, which he credits with helping to put him back together in a much more balanced and healthy way, and made it possible for him to finish school and go on to be successful in his career.

Regarding games: my husband and I each have certain types of games we refuse to play because we find them frustrating (always lose… lol). I can’t do games of strategy. My working memory and attention span are miniscule, and I get my ass handed to me every time. This makes me feel a little bad, because “smart people are good at chess” (or Risk, etc). So I just don’t play those, even though my husband loves games like this because he is good at them.

On the other hand, he hates games like “Scattergories” (which I love) where you have to think of as many “fictional characters that begin with the letter B” or whatever as you can within a time limit. His brain locks up and he can’t think of anything. We respect each other’s preferences and look for things to play that are fun and that we have a roughly equal chance of winning.

Anyway, the takeaways, as to how not to be over-invested in your smartness:

1. Accept that not everyone gets to be a rock star. And even if you are, sometimes there is a bigger rock star stealing the show. It happens to everyone.
2. Learn to value and appreciate other qualities than just intelligence, in yourself and others.
3. Build your self-esteem on more than one pillar. See what other qualities you have that you think are valuable. Spend more time cultivating those and feeling good about them.
4. Therapy can help you. CBT is what helped my husband.
5. It’s ok to avoid certain games and other competitions that you find frustrating. Compete where the playing field is reasonably level and you have fun even when you don’t win. (If you love Dominion and you’re just upset because you are used to winning, see #1.)
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 2:52 PM on November 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

what is supposed to be entertainment and quality time with loved ones... I'm over here fighting self-hate, shame and worthlessness because I lost a game of Dominion.

Is it possible that whoever you are playing with ALSO has some sensitivity around being "the smartest" and so is kind of a sore winner, and that's making this whole cycle worse than it needs to be?

My good friend is much better at those kinds of games than I am. I used to get discouraged by it sometimes, especially in speed games like Set where she is SO much faster that I don't even really get to play. So some games we just don't play together, some we play but don't keep score, some we modify to be cooperative or noncompetitive. That works for us. Putting a permanent ban on Catan was a lot easier than undoing years of complicated history about intelligence and achievement.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 3:37 PM on November 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

Take up a hobby that does not have an intellectual focus. Ideally one that necessitates adopting a growth mindset, to shake up how you approach things in general. Taking up a team sport (after a very unathletic childhood) served this purpose for me. It forced me to start at the bottom and finally appreciate the value of putting in time and effort (having coasted along all my life on IQ points and a youth of 'knowing better' than everybody else, and having that be about the sole source of my self-esteem), and the sense of achievement that comes from earning my rewards. And of course, it got me out my head and into my body, which is essential for people like us.

It also meant that I was surrounded by a bunch of people with careers and education levels and intellects all over the map, which made not one jot of difference to their value as teammates. My own brainpower was utterly irrelevant to everybody involved - including, as it turned out, me. Getting better was reliant on turning up every week, putting in the sweat, failing repeatedly as I tried new skills only to eventually succeed, and turning up with a good attitude. Spending enough time in this environment will reduce your focus on your sense of identity and worth being rooted in your intellect, and allow you to stop pinning everything on that.

It's the best thing I've done for myself in general, based on my own set of needs/neuroses to be battled.
posted by FifteenShocks at 4:50 AM on November 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

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