Ask Polly: Am I Too Smart for My Own Good?

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Dear Polly,

Roughly two decades ago, when I was about 10, my therapist ran a whole battery of tests on me because my mother had noticed something was very wrong with me. One of them came up with an exceptionally high IQ, the kind that makes psychiatrists say, “Well, I never!” It was nice to get a diagnosis, but not much changed. There’s no pill you can take for that.

I know from experience that complaining about a high IQ is a lot like moaning about how my diamond-studded shoes ruin the panda-cub rugs. But I swear to god, the chucklefuck who came up with the term “giftedness” like it’s something precious and wonderful can go suck big fat hairy elephant balls. There’s been visceral disgust in some reactions no matter how careful I am about it. I’ve learned not to talk about it. I am very good at blending in. People usually like me, but it’s not earned. They like the puppet I’ve created, the one who knows how to act like a healthy person with a normal brain. I’m so depressed I could hurl. But then I always have been, since I was a very little kid, so I have no benchmark. I don’t really know what contentment feels like. I could have done very well in college, but I spent that time in a mental institution being treated for psychotic depression. I relapse every couple of years like clockwork. I can set my watch to it these days.

So, my brain is my worst enemy. It feels like I’m going through life with a petulant, spoiled toddler strapped to my head. And it wants to be CONSTANTLY ENTERTAINED. More puzzles! More stimulation! More reading! FEEEEEEED MEEEEEE!

I actually have a pretty decent retail job now, considerate boss, nice colleagues, tolerable commute, and decent pay. It’s the best I can do with the equivalent of a GED and a heaping helping of mental illness, but my stupid, shouty, broken brain won’t even let me be content, let alone grateful. Three hours into my shift it’s throwing epic fits about being BORED.

I’m talking about the kind of bored where you want to rip your hair out and scream and drink forever. I’m anxious all the time. I always have to feed the machine, and when I run out of stuff to feed it I have to start lopping off bits of myself to keep it running, and when I can’t do that anymore it lashes out with depression. I’m wildly afraid of narcotics, because I know that if I were allowed to feel numb for even a minute, I’d never stop. I feel guilty, too. I should have fed the machine when I had the chance. (Treating that psychotic depression seemed more important than getting a degree. Shows what I know.)

I feel like a snotty brat for admitting that the shallowness of the world constantly chafes me. I’m a fragile porcelain doll with its precious little head jammed up its velvet little ass. The universe gave me a Bugatti Veyron and stuck me in rush-hour traffic. You know who complains about that kind of thing? Assholes, that’s who. I know I need to get over myself. But to be fair, there’s a whole stinking lot of self to get over here. I’m still all potential, zero accomplishment. I cry all the damn time. I honestly don’t know whether I’m too hard on myself or too forgiving.

I don’t really have any friends, but I don’t really count that as a big source of anguish. I married my best friend, I’m often alone but very rarely lonely. But I am nervous about my inability to connect to people, mostly because I don’t want my husband to be my one source of support. I like people, I go out and have fun and I’m engaged while it happens, but I find it extremely hard to actually connect. From time to time I become aware of these wonderful, gorgeous, shiny souls who are so very prettily broken, and I desperately want to be their friend. But everyone notices how interesting they are and crowds around them, so I kind of give up and move on. I’m disturbed by how impossible it is for me to stay interested and invested in people.

I function, but it doesn’t feel like much of a life. I write, I cook, I read, I do the exercise (not well). I learn languages and new skills and all that. I do everything smart people tell me will help, and it’s just enough to keep me alive. I have hobbies. I’m exhausted and I’m furious, just fucking livid all the fucking time. I don’t know why every single thing is so fucking impossible. I mean, it’s because I’m depressed, obviously, but I tried to cut that out and I haven’t managed it yet, so now fucking what? My inner monologue is a protracted scream. I have recurring dreams about being lobotomized, and they’re not nightmares. They’re dreams about finally being quiet and peaceful.

I know I need professional help again, I’m making the calls and the appointments, but I’m discouraged. Therapy always helps me, but it never fixes me, and I know I’ll feel this way to some degree for the rest of my life. The idea of being the kind of person who can’t function without being constantly propped up by therapists makes me feel like a failure and an embarrassment, especially in light of that whole “giftedness” thing. For an exceptionally smart person, I sure am one stupid motherfucker. If I were a rough draft, I’d throw me out and start over on a blank page.

So, how do I cope? What do I do? What do I tell this new therapist? How do I stop being like this?

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

Dear No Mouth,

So, you’re anxious, you’ve been diagnosed with psychotic depression, and you also did really well on an IQ test 20 years ago. Moving forward, I think it might be helpful to separate your intelligence from the emotional and mood issues you’re confronting. Right now you’re reducing all of your challenges to this one arbitrary test you took two decades ago, a test embraced by people with exactly the sort of rigid understanding of intelligence that gives us ample reason to question their intelligence. Let’s cast aside repeated evidence that people who talk about their high IQs tend to be self-satisfied dingdongs of the highest order; I understand your reasons are very different from theirs. Nonetheless, I think you’re using this arbitrary high score as both a rationalization for your superiority complex and as a blunt weapon with which to bludgeon yourself repeatedly. This may have been your mother’s choice in the old days, but you made it your own, and I don’t think it’s serving you well.

Most of the smart people I know have been depressed and/or anxious at one point or another in their lives. That doesn’t mean that their brains are ravenous beasts that need more, more, more. It’s not true that the smarter you are, the more restless your brain is. Anecdotally I’d say they’re related, but not in some clear, linear way that dictates fate. People of all stripes have to grapple with anxiety and neuroticism. I trust that you experience your own brain as ravenous, but somehow your method of simultaneously pathologizing and elevating your brain’s processes, adopting a belief that’s at once dramatic and terrifying and always linked to this idea that YOUR brain is bigger, better, more special, more terrible — this feels to me, intuitively, like a way of never having to change. You claim to want change — SOMEONE HELP ME CHANGE! — but you fear it, because changing would mean being regular, normal, not special.

You keep saying you’re smart as hell but also an idiot, lucky but also cursed, the victim of a superior processor but also an ingrate who’s never amounted to much. I think you should consider what it might feel like to be an average person instead, one who has to work very hard just to survive and make something of herself, one who is not either amazing or terrible but just mortal, clumsy, imperfect. Most of us fit into this category. We might be smart, sure, but if we listen closely we can tell that other people are obviously smart, too. A lot of them aren’t aware of how smart they are. A lot of them also have brains that tell them that they’re not good enough, that they need more, more, more just to exist.

Trust me that you don’t need shiny, prettily broken, wildly popular people to keep you interested. You need to join the realm of the regular, and forgive yourself for being regular, and then you’ll forgive other people for being regular, too. When you tell yourself that only Very Special people can keep you interested, what you’re essentially saying is that you yourself have to be Very Special to be acceptable, to deserve love, to deserve a rest. You can’t relax in this realm of super-specialness because your head tells you that you’re ALWAYS DOING EVERYTHING WRONG. No one else is good enough, and you’re not good enough, either.

I’ve been thinking a lot about shame lately. I haven’t really considered or explored shame that much before, maybe because I’m turned off by a word that carries so much weight in our culture and also has so many different meanings. But I’ve noticed lately that whenever I’m in a stressful, unfamiliar situation, some part of me starts to believe that I am a deeply embarrassing human who will, forever and always, do pathetic, ridiculous things. In those moments, it seems like everyone else can see this clearly about me, and I’m the last to even notice! They are all rolling their eyes and snickering at my sad, foolish ways while I hobble along in my blatantly unacceptable manner!

The crazy thing about shame is that even once you notice it, MORE SHAME tends to flood in. “WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?” you ask. Suddenly everything you do and say looks faulty and clumsy and transparent. THE MORTIFICATION. The dread! It sounds to me like you’re caught in a two-decade-long shame spiral.

When you feel shame, it’s hard not to push back — not with realism or balance but with alienation. “THE WORLD CAN GO FUCK ITSELF!” you yell out the window. This brings temporary solace and “strength,” but there’s still a haunting sense that you have to hide from the unforgiving crowd, and seek out people who are SPECIAL ENOUGH to understand and adore super-broken, super-smart, terrible, incredible you!

You are separate and special and also bad, bad, bad! You need more help, more work, more stimulation, more love. But also, you’re awful! And maybe you don’t care anyway! Maybe you “don’t really have any friends,” but you “don’t count that as a big source of anguish.” You’re dishonest with yourself about how much pain it causes you, not to connect. You refuse to admit that you’re vulnerable. You can’t hope for better and be wrong again. You have to be sure that you’ll never amount to anything. You have to know that you’ll relapse again. You have to know that you’ll never get better.

Because if you invested in a more challenging career, you’d be at risk of failing, at risk of finding out that you’re not as special as you need to be. The stakes are too high. Wanting friends? The stakes are too high. So you just want a regular job and a husband and no friends. You just want to calm your brain. More hobbies. Keep pretending. Keep playing the part. Don’t lean too hard. No one will ever get it. Don’t let the dam break.

Clearly you do need a therapist, and you need to meditate every day, and you should increase your exercise, and maybe you need medication, too. You will have to do a lot just to survive. That probably feels unfair.

But you also need to set yourself on the same plane as everyone else in the world, and admit that you may not know what you want or need yet. And when you let go and start from zero, when you admit that you’re just another person in the world, no better or worse than anyone else, when you admit that you have certain challenges that are not ultimately that exotic, that exist on a continuum with other people’s very difficult challenges, when you admit that you JUST DON’T KNOW, that’s when your brain may rest and your soul may calm down and you may finally feel at peace.

You imagine that you’re alone in your weird personal form of suffering. But you’re not alone. You want your suffering to be weirder, more dramatic, more terrible. But lots of people who are reading this understand exactly what you’re going through.

And many smart people out there also have dull jobs that feel repetitive and pointless. It’s not unusual that you have to work so hard to get through the day. Pretty much every single thing I did for money before I became a writer was excruciating. I hated waiting tables, but I also hated working at retail jobs. I hated working in fancy downtown offices but I also hated working in more casual home offices. Pretty much the only thing I don’t hate is writing from home, so that’s what I do for a living. It sounds like you want a different career, yet you act like that’s not a possibility. Why not?

I know your depression and anxiety are incredibly daunting. I get that you feel like you’re always on the verge of a breakdown. It sounds to me like you need to see a therapist twice a week and slowly learn to be honest about who you are. You need to slowly take off this “healthy” mask with a few trusted friends. If you don’t have trusted friends, you need to dare to invest a little more in your acquaintances — even the average, boring ones! — and figure out which ones you can trust. And you need to take teensy, tiny baby steps toward a career that will challenge and inspire you.

If you step back from this deterministic notion about what your giant brain means, you might frame your struggles in a way that feels more manageable. Does it feel bad to say “I am just a person who struggles with anxiety and depression”? Is it so terrible to think you might be one of many?

Because nothing has made my life richer than coming down off my pedestal and, instead of spinning in neurotic circles, working hard to enjoy the pleasures of everyday life. I can finally see that my best moments are not those when I’m being celebrated or adored. In my finest moments, I’m working hard at something that feels very difficult, or I’m taking in the grace and humor of the people around me, or I’m just staring out the window, watching the wind whipping through the trees on a late October afternoon. To feel fully alive and calm and in the zone is to also be, in some ways, in the background, borderline invisible, a vessel for something bigger than yourself. That’s also, not coincidentally, practically the definition of relaxation and peace. It’s not a lobotomy. It’s using your brain to focus outward, until the whirring machinery in your head is silenced.

Some part of you believes that it’s too late to fulfill your incredible, extra-special potential, so why even try? But there’s no such thing as too late and there’s no such thing as extra special. Grand accomplishments are nothing and process is everything. Right now, you have no process. Dare to consider what kind of work might engage you fully. Dare to join us here in the real world, where we do things that are difficult and sometimes feel arbitrary, where we chip away at something outside of ourselves (sometimes just so we don’t chip away at ourselves instead), where we get to know each other and take great satisfaction in slowly but surely revealing JUST HOW FUCKED UP WE REALLY ARE.

You are not a crazy genius or an irredeemable asshole or a misfit who’s damned for all time. You are just a person. We are all damned in our own little ways. We are all uniquely blessed and uniquely fucked. Welcome to the world.


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Ask Polly: Am I Too Smart for My Own Good?