I’ve recently been thinking a lot about intelligence — smarts, talent, whatever you’d like to call it.
It’s interesting that no matter how intelligent you may be in reality, if you don’t believe or perceive that you are, you’ll be stuck.
Stuck doing the minimum that you think you’re only worthy of doing — whether it’s the kind of job you go after, pursuing certain interests you wish to develop, or anything else that requires self-belief.
I see someone I know going through this now and it breaks my heart knowing they are capable of so much more. But somehow, over the years, they seem to have lost the confidence that this is the case. And so, they settle for less.
I’ve been there. And that’s why it distresses me to see her like this, because I know exactly how it feels to not believe in your own worth.
There’s been two main things in my younger years that led me to experience this same way of thinking about myself.
But before I get into that, I want to explain that I was always smart when I was very young. I did advanced math and was in my school’s gifted program. I was also very creative and read a lot of books and wrote stories and poems. So objectively speaking, I was an intelligent kid.
But the first thing that started me down the road to thinking less of myself was that I got into the cycle of working low-paying, survival jobs for many years.
I worked long, hard hours and usually multiple jobs at a time — but at the end of the day, I felt like I was working constantly around the clock towards a dead end as my destination.
It all started when I was in high school and my family had to go on social assistance. And it got worse when I moved out on my own, as soon as I graduated high school. At that point, I mostly felt like I couldn’t rely on anyone else but myself.
There was never enough financial stability in my life to have the luxury of “taking time off” to gain experience towards some kind of meaningful career or to build up the skills I was lacking. Or to apply carefully to jobs and wait for the right one to come around.
It was “take what you could get” and, moreover, take it right away or you wouldn’t be able to pay rent the next month.
Even though I dreamed to have more for myself, that’s all I felt I could achieve because that was simply life as I knew it.
It was very difficult to fathom things like ever making a certain salary (never mind actually working a salaried position with benefits and a pension plan), or becoming a manager, or running my own business.
Those things seemed to be meant for another type of person. Not me.
The second thing that got me to a point where I doubted my intelligence was that I was in a relationship for a period of time where — whenever he was mad — this guy would tell me that I was fucking stupid, an idiot, loser, retarded, pathetic, worthless.
Even if I objectively knew that he didn’t really think so when he wasn’t angry, it was hard not to internalize it after hearing it yelled at me again and again and again.
After a while, I seriously started questioning whether I was actually stupid. And in that state, I didn’t have much reason to believe that I could achieve any better than I was doing in university at the time.
I now know that I always had the ability to be in the top percentile of my class, but I just floated by, believing I could never belong up there.
Things with him eventually got to the point where I felt so much despair and hopelessness when he’d yell those things at me, that I would punch my fist into my computer screen or bang my head against the wall.
I think it was the innate, visceral reaction of needing to fight back, except I had been so conditioned not to hurt him that I hurt myself instead.
I had come to feel very worthless — just like he said I was — and as though I was in the bottom of a deep, dark hole, unable to see a way out.
How could this be the rest of my life? I wondered.
With all the instances of people explicitly or indirectly putting down your intelligence, and with all of the actions (or omissions) you make that reinforce the idea that you aren’t deserving of a better situation, it’s easy to spiral into a cycle where you stay stuck at the bottom.
And when I say “bottom”, I mean at the bottom of your potential. You never aim higher. You stay fearful. You don’t ask questions or reach out to people who could become your connection or knowledge base to “better” things.
And so, you never find out just what you’re capable of. You never get to experience how truly fulfilling life can be when you stretch yourself to the limits of your awesome potential.
If you don’t believe something is possible and within your reach, why would you even try to take the steps to get there?
Since that time, I got accepted into a very competitive Master’s program and graduated from it with a 4.0 (out of 4.0) GPA. I have worked salaried positions. I have been a manager. I have proven to some of the most brilliant minds in my field of study that I am unequivocally deserving of their reference any time I’m applying for a new job.
I have also gone on three solo backcountry camping trips with zero fear and organized several group trips. I have learned how to play the piano and guitar. I have composed my own songs.
I clearly am an intelligent person. I always have been. It just took some time, a whole lot of sweat and tears, and an enormous amount of love and support to actually see it.
And now, I believe I can do anything I put my mind to.
The road that led me down to the deep, dark hole was long and complex. And thus, it was a long, complex process to get out of it.
But one of the most important antidotes to combat my negative self-beliefs was the continuous reinforcement that I was in fact worthy enough to achieve more for my life.
That positive reinforcement had to be greater and more frequent than all of the negative messages coming at me, including from my own self.
And it came in the same two ways that conditioned me to grow my self-doubts:
In the same way as my ex continuously put me down with words to the point where I internalized his image of me, receiving constant messages of encouragement, belief and praise for my talents got me seeing myself in an opposite light.
Two further things on that: It meant surrounding myself more with positive people who brought out and saw those good things in me. And while most of that validation came from others initially, I had to eventually be able to find it in myself.
Secondly, just as failing to take action in order to aim higher led me to stay stuck in a cycle of fear and insecurity, taking small (and eventually big) steps that would end up in personal successes gave me tangible proof that I could in fact accomplish the things I once only wished for but never thought I could do.
There were many other things that helped me in my journey, like going to counseling and finding healthier ways to cope instead of turning to my defense mechanism of drinking to escape the reality I didn’t want to face.
It’s been a long road, but it brings me an immense, unexplainable joy that I can now genuinely tell you how much I do truly believe in myself.
Don’t get me wrong, I am still and will always be a work-in-progress. But the distance I’ve come so far gives me hope that if I could get here, anyone who may not think it’s possible can too.
And so now, when I see my dear friend going through her own struggles, I make sure to tell her how smart and talented she is, and how she is deserving of so much more. I remind her about her accomplishments and I try to give her advice on things that have helped me gain my own self-confidence.
And I hope that if you know someone who seems like they are drowning in the belief that they can’t aim any higher, you’ll also offer them your own sincere words of encouragement.
Let them know what their strengths are. Give them practical advice too — help them develop the social and human capital that we all need, but sometimes don’t learn how to build up, in order to navigate the system.
Because if I hadn’t had people to throw out those life lines for me, I would’ve likely stayed stuck at the bottom of my potential. I might still be working dead-end jobs and would have never contributed my skills and talents to the places I’ve worked at or the groups I have volunteered for.
I might have lost all hope in finding my spirit and struggled to pass on the positive messages and energy every person should strive to add to this world.
And that would have been a serious waste of intelligence.
~ Janice (a.k.a. Cafe) <3
On mental health awareness and stigma: I think as a collective, we really need to open up more about mental health and talk about the hard issues we all face. Too many people feel alone and ashamed about their mental health issues. Let’s change this.
The discussion that happened on this past post I wrote really gave me hope that people want to talk about mental health. And that no one is alone in their struggles!: On Mental Health: If You Got Issues, You’re Officially “Normal”.
As I said then, thank you for reading with an open mind, and please feel free and safe to share your story here.