Growing Up ‘Not Smart’: the Power of the Story

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I remember the first time I really considered that I might be smart.  I was sitting in a small discussion section of my literature class, my senior year in college. Another student that I considered to be very intelligent was responding to something I had said as if it were a very thoughtful and interesting comment. “Wow”, I thought, “maybe I’m smart.”

Somewhere in life I had put myself outside the category of “smart”. There were a lot of things that shaped my thinking about my intellect growing up. First and most formatively, my sister was and is very, very smart…PhD in cell and molecular pharmacology smart. I knew enough to see the difference between us, and ideas about myself started to take shape. Add that to the searing memory of being tested for the gifted and talented program in my grade school. I was asked to define the word ‘compare’. I stumbled and tried and knew I was not doing well. It was horrible. The fact that I was not placed in the GT program just confirmed what the testing experience felt like. I wasn’t smart enough. Later, in High School, I moved from Alabama to Northern Virginia and had academic whiplash that left me humiliated and stunned. I was behind in every subject. When I went to one of my teachers to ask how to improve a grade on a paper he looked at me and said, not unkindly, “Janice, beauty is its own reward”, and dismissed me. My senior year, after being unable to answer even one question on a scholarship exam, a dear friend (who wound up getting the scholarship) breezed through the exam. The comparison confirmed the message I held inside–I’m not smart—and I vowed not to try for any more academic scholarships.

This is the story that I learned to tell myself—I’m not smart.  I’ll never know the full range of implications this story has had in my life.  I took myself out of AP English after my junior year to quiet the screaming inferiority that I felt daily in that class. In college, I never even remember considering careers that required graduate school. Both are sad evidence of a story that I told myself that was stronger than my ability to refute it. I am both amazed and grateful that the belief eventually loosened. What allows that loosening to happen?

Some of it has to do with overall resiliency, spiritual resources, or with the experiences that life offers. But what part of the shift can we intentionally impact? As simple as it sounds, I cannot say strongly enough how critical recognizing the story in your mind is to the loosening process. If we recognize the story, we can begin the difficult process of discrimination. What should I do with this story I tell myself? Should I live according to it? Should I challenge it? Should I let it be and live according to something else? These simple questions require deep and tenacious work. But the work has to begin somewhere. Recognizing the story allows any of us to move from unconscious bending to the story and towards leaning into the possibility of a new story and new identity.

The loosening of my ‘not smart’ story has awakened a whole new set of ideas about myself. I have realized that I absolutely love learning; my classmates in grad school called me “the quintessential student”! I still feel the pull of the old story—I remember referring to an astronomer as an astrologist and wanting to crawl in a hole afterwards. But the difference now is that I hang on through the shame attack, pray, ride it out, and wait for equilibrium to return. I don’t want to live by the old story.

How about you? How do you loosen the grip of the old stories in your life?

5 Comments

  1. the enemy is a liar

    Philippians 4:8 “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

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