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Hey, friend. Were you a smart kid who always heard about how smart you were and are now not feeling so smart? Are you, in fact, feeling fairly shitty about yourself? This thread is for you.
It can be extremely difficult for smart kids to decouple their sense of self-worth from external validation. Especially praise for supposedly innate qualities instead of hard work. You grow up hearing how smart you are from parents and relatives and teachers and other authority figures whose opinions you’re pretty sure matter. They’re in charge, after all!
But praise is a fleeting high, and when you get too much of it too early, it takes more and more to get your emotional fix. And the older you get, the less praise you probably get, because frankly fewer people give a shit, and just being smart only gets you so far.
Worse, if you haven’t managed to get a handle on the whole “hard work” thing instead of coasting on your smarts, chances are you’ve started to fail in ways you never did as a kid. You used to be able to do most things quickly and competently because the bar was low. Crap out an essay/project/whatever in a few hours, get an A+ and impress your teacher, bask in praise, repeat.
Now you start projects but never finish them, or you talk about them but never start them, or you finish them and then discard them because they’re not good enough. You start to question a lifetime of compliments. You think maybe you aren’t so smart after all. You wonder whether you’ve been lied to all this time by people you trusted.
So you end up with this awful combo of craving praise, getting very little praise, and doubting the truth of the bits you do get. It is, to use highly technical jargon, incredibly pooptastic.
“But how do I overcome this problem?” Well, you can buy this book that explains my foolproof method for entirely changing your outlook in 113 easy steps haha just kidding, I have no idea. I mean, I have some ideas, but they don’t all work. Some work once, or you can rotate them with limited success, or they’re not for you. They’re tools, not solutions.
- You can practice accepting compliments with some variation of “thank you so much, I appreciate it” instead of reacting with reflexive self-deprecation.
- You can pause whenever you notice you’re talking shit about yourself in your own head and say, “ah, this again,” and shift your attention to something else.
- You can distance yourself from people who always drain your well instead of filling it–or worse, ones who straight up shit in it. They can go shit in their own wells.
- You can make goals that are generally within instead of beyond your control, like “submit one short story a month” instead of “sell one short story a month.”
- You can break big tasks into smaller ones so the big task doesn’t feel like a baseball-sized kidney stone you’re trying to pee out all at once. It can’t be done, friends. IT IS TOO BIG.
- You can celebrate every time you accomplish something, even if it’s a minor or partial success, instead of freaking out about what’s still left to do. TREAT YO SELF.
What you’re trying to do is gently, lovingly wean yourself from reliance on external validation and instead find fulfillment from internal validation. Self-satisfaction instead of praise. Secondary goal: teach yourself to enjoy process rather than end product. It can’t all be magical unicorn fun times, but laser-focus on a destination can make the journey a slog.
Remember: you’re not alone, and you’re not a failure. Forgive yourself, every day if you have to. Being smart is great, but it isn’t everything. It never was, you just didn’t know it until now.
Anyone else have advice? Tell me things! Seriously, I can always use more tools in my toolbox for coping with this stuff, and I’m sure other folks can, too.
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P.S. Many people have recommended Carol Dweck’s mindset language work, so maybe give that a gander? And here are some other tools that might help you on this journey:
- Practice giving sincere compliments to other people. This can help you be more receptive to accepting and believing in the praise you receive from others.
- Go into new things with the expectation that you won’t be good at them. Embrace the suck. If this works, it alleviates the pressure to be perfect and ideally lets you have fun doing the thing instead of worrying about outcomes.
- Remind yourself that while you shouldn’t give up on things just because you’re not immediately good at them, or because the journey is long and difficult, you do get to choose what you spend your time on. It’s okay to choose NOT to do a thing because there is other stuff you’d genuinely rather be doing.
I’ll add more as I find them. Thanks for reading, and may you be as well as you’re able.