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. 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 started when I was in high school and my family had to go on welfare. Aside from attending school, I was also usually working a couple of part-time jobs to help out with money.
When I moved out on my own, right after I graduated high school, it got harder having to fully support myself. At that point, I felt as though I couldn’t rely on anyone else.
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.
Living this kind of life meant constant physical and mental stress, It meant living in some pretty awful places that never felt like home. And it led me to feel a sense of hopelessness that would come crashing down on my optimism.
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.
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 it eventually got to the point where I felt so much helplessness and despair when he’d shout 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 of the repeated instances where people put 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.
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 with a 4.0 (out of 4.0) GPA. I have worked higher-paying, 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. 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 the deep, dark hole was long and complex. And thus, it was a long, complex process to get out of it.
One part of that journey was creating a new cycle in my life — one of continuous, positive reinforcement that told me: You are worthy to have better for yourself.
That positive reinforcement 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 negative image of me, receiving constant messages of encouragement and belief in my talents helped me to view myself in an alternative light.
Two further things on that: It meant choosing to surround myself 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 find it in myself. This is still a work in progress and I imagine it always will be.
Secondly, just as fearing to aim higher resulted in me staying stuck in a cycle of insecurity, taking small (and eventually big) steps that resulted in personal successes gave me tangible proof that I could in fact accomplish things I once only wished for but never thought I could do.
The journey towards greater self-worth also involved a lot of other things, like going to counselling and finding ways to cope that were healthier than my defense mechanism of drinking.
It included building the social and human capital that we all need, but that I hadn’t learned to develop, in order to navigate the system.
It included finding a more stable living situation so that my mind could find greater stability. And it included having friends and family who gave me unconditional support through all the not-so-great decisions I made.
It’s been a long road — it took many years — 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, others who may not think it’s possible can too.
As much as I resented having to go down this road at times, I’m truly grateful for all that I’ve learned and for all of the people who stuck by me.
Because if it wasn’t for them, I would’ve likely stayed stuck at the bottom of my potential.
I would have likely never contributed my skills and talents to the places I’ve worked at or the groups I’ve volunteered for that serve to help others through their own challenges.
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.