Insecure about intelligence

I have some mixed feelings around my intelligence and I wanted to talk about it to see if others can relate and if I can find a better perspective on it.

Growing up I was told a lot how smart I was. That was the trait other people most noticed about me. Getting compliments about it is nice in some ways, but I also noticed that classmates would sometimes feel badly about themselves in comparison and then I would feel bad that they felt bad. Some people really wanted to compete with me around marks, and in a lot of contexts competition makes me feel really uncomfortable. To avoid all of that I would try to minimize the visibility of my intelligence. I’m not sure how much I succeeded, but I certainly tried.

When I got to university I started doing much worse in school. I could still understand the material, but it became really difficult to make myself go to class or complete assignments. At a certain point I started failing classes, and this was pretty emotionally difficult since I was supposed to be so smart. I limped through my bachelor’s degree and eventually completed it, but I didn’t feel like I got the learning and value out of it that I wanted. I ended up with a feeling that I might be smart, but that doesn’t really matter because I often can’t make use of it.

Now I’m not sure what to say about the topic to myself, or to other people. Any thoughts?

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I can certainly relate, my experiences are very similar to what you describe. I sometimes used to deliberately get things wrong on class tests so that I wouldn’t stand out with my high grades. Now, I feel like a lot of the people who I used to feel bad about getting better grades than, are now way more articulate and competent and insightful than I am.

I often think about something @hyperglyph said in another thread on a similar topic, about “playing Pip to academia’s Miss Havisham”. The lesson here is that intelligence, of the kind that is measured by grades in school, is irrelevant to your worth as a person and does not necessarily help you to grow or achieve things that matter to you.

So I guess the answer is to try to stop ruminating on whether you’re really as intelligent as you were told you were growing up, and focus on the strengths that you do have now… if you know what some of those are.

I’m extremely bad at identifying strengths in myself but one thing that has helped me start to make progress towards believing that I might not be 100% useless is keeping a daily log of things I’ve done that demonstrate positive qualities I’d like to be able to see in myself (actually I stopped doing that but this long-winded reply has reminded me how helpful it was so I’m resolving to start again now… thanks for inadvertantly nudging me!! :smile:)


Sometimes we use the word intelligence when it actually encompasses so many other things in our minds. We say we are “intelligent” but maybe that means we just learn things really quickly or don’t have to study as hard. Maybe we’re intelligent because we can have intense conversations or enjoy debates. Maybe we feel intelligent because people always come to us for advice. Maybe we’re intelligent because we make good grades. Maybe we feel intelligent because others say that, or we’ve been told that as a child.

But maybe we say intelligent when we mean “potential” or “confident” or “capable.” Sometimes we beat ourselves up for not being “smart enough” or “living up to our potential” because we think that we “should” be doing better than we are.

Ultimately intelligence is just a word. What’s important is who you are. All the pieces of who you are, not just a stat on an RPG board. It’s not uncommon to do well in one area (i.e. primary/secondary school) and then to struggle in another (college). Life happens at different speeds and with different settings. For me, I was a diligent student throughout most of my grade school career, and then when I went to college I struggled with the same things you are talking about. I learned strategies that later helped me do better, but it still took work. The whole time I fought the demons of “intelligence” and the ways I beat myself up for not living up to my potential.

Who you are matters. Who you are is valid. No matter how good or bad you were at something, you’re still a valuable person who deserves to be happy and deserves to be proud.


Hey there! I was browsing around and came across this, hope you don’t mind me commenting months later lol. Just wanted to say I hear ya! I’m pretty intelligent but I’ve generally never felt proud of it because it’s just something I was born with (and my lovely mum cultivated when I was young) you know. I didn’t work for it, it’s not really my achievement it just is. I’d feel much more proud and impressed when my friends worked really hard and achieved things, even when their grade was less than mine or whatever. But since discovering the world of ADHD and thinking I may have it, I am trying to look on things a little differently. They might work harder on understanding things that I find easy, but then the converse also applies and I work hard on things that are ‘easy’ but not to me - like organisation and planning and focusing. There’s lots of things we can be proud of!
So: well done!! Well done on achieving your degree, sounds like it was really tough and you did it!! Go you!! And you say you didn’t get the learning value out you wanted - there’s always more to learn and lots of ways to do it. So you found this way hard, you still did it!! And if you want to keep learning, maybe find a way that works better for you. Keep on keeping on, you are doing a FANTASTIC job.