On Feeling Stupid

Something I have struggled with extensively is being bothered by any situation in which I feel stupid. I dislike it intensely. This has affected my life in many ways, and recently I found what what the like root cause of this fear/hatred was.

On my last visit with my family, my mother brought up an anecdote from when I was a child (as parents often do). Picture a wee, adorable toddler playing the game where you try to put the round peg through the round hole, and the square peg through the… well, you get the idea. Usually, if I were to picture this, the child might have a scrunched up look of concentration as their brains try to train their eyes and hands to be friends, but generally I picture it with a lot of happy baby sounds and adorableness.

That is not what happened one day when my mother observed three year old Kathy playing this game. Sure, I likely had the scrunched up face, but my fury was more than that. Regardless of having mastered the idea of putting the correct shapes in the corresponding holes, I was mattering angrily to myself. It took a while for my mother to figure out what I was saying (toddlers not being completely affluent in most causes, especially when they are busy being incredibly upset). With each successful placement of a peg in a hole, I was saying, “In there, stupid.”

It turns out that an older kid had been a bossy, know-it-all at day care and bullied me while I was trying to first learn this game. Each time I played the game after this, I believe I am correct in assuming that it wasn’t with joy at learning new skills or succeeding. Instead, that bully’s voice was in my head, telling me I was stupid. This was a very basic concept, and to not understand it immediately was unforgivable. Even though I had mastered the task, that kid’s voice, repeating in my head, had me convinced that there was something wrong with me and I wouldn’t get any better because I was, essentially, stupid, and eventually succeeding in a simple task wasn’t going to prove that I had gotten better. Succeeding was a given, and if you didn’t succeed, you were a complete failure. This took all of the celebration out of completing tasks, because my mind grew this unattainable standard for myself where I had to do everything perfectly, because it was expected of me. Anything short of perfect was not acceptable.

It is important to note that I’ve never held anyone else to this standard.

It is also important to note that I am not stupid. Sure, I have knowledge gaps, and I’ll talk about those in a moment, but I am decently intelligent. I received excellent grades in middle and high school, did well in my two years of university, and received the highest GPA in my college for the year I graduated (which was a surprise, because I was disheartened by the program by the start of the second year and my give a damn was a little broken when it came to putting in extra effort on my projects). I’ve traversed several countries, figuring out routes. I’ve worked in three countries. I’ve tutored fellow students. I’ve written things that people have told me are intriguing or funny or well written. There are many things that have come natural to me.

However, there are things that do not come naturally, and that is where knowledge gaps come into the picture. Due to my intense hatred of feeling stupid (which makes me feel all sorts of not worthy and not appreciated and not needed and awful), when I encounter an area where I don’t pick up on the subject matter right away, I bolt. I don’t want to stay and indulge this horrible fury in my head and heart. In the past, I have always just sat quietly, hoping no one would ask my opinion, because I didn’t know enough to form one. For example, I know little regarding politics, and since it is a rather broad field of study, I feel overwhelmed just thinking about learning on the subject. When it is a subject that does not come naturally to me, I find it pretty much impossible to read a text book on the subject and absorb enough information to feel confident in speaking on the matter. I need to be told verbally, as this helps me cement the ideas in my head, or at least give me something from which to parrot until I have worked through all the details.

The only problem with this type of learning is it involves the active time of another person. Obviously, it takes time for people to write text books, but they don’t have to be present while I read them. I feel a need to consult people on subjects that have me baffled, but I have an aversion to taking up other people’s time, especially since I am not very pleasant when I am frustrated. Ask anyone who has ever played Chess with me; I am usually unable to cry unless incredibly sad (see note at the end), but I have been known to weep while attempting to play Chess because I beat myself up about not seeing the moves ahead of time.

I love learning, but I get upset when I don’t understand things. This lack of understanding makes me feel stupid, regardless of the existence of proof otherwise. I know that I cannot be an all-knowing being, but I never want to stop learning – especially not because I have overstepped my capacity to learn. That is not possible. We can always continue to learn, but I need to accept that my absence of knowledge on any particular subject does not make me stupid. It just means I haven’t gotten around to learning that yet.

I also want to be able to celebrate any intellectual successes. I am working on this. I was filled with pride when I received the first ever feedback from my recent novel and it was positive, so I am learning this skill. It just might take a while to make it habit.

On crying: I am usually unable to cry unless incredibly sad and sometimes I still cannot cry, even if I want to. I’ve spent too much time not wanting to cry because I viewed it as a personal weakness, again, in just myself; I am supportive when other people cry, but before being self aware of my hypocrisy, I never gave myself this kindness. Now I sometimes feel that crying would make me feel better, but lack the ability to just cry and get it over with.

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