Your Rainforest Mind

Support for the Excessively Curious, Creative, Smart & Sensitive

If I’m So Smart, Why Do I Feel Like A Failure?

44 Comments

photo courtesy of Vanessa Bumbeers, Unsplash, CC

photo courtesy of Vanessa Bumbeers, Unsplash, CC

Was this you? You were told repeatedly that you were so smart; that you had a high IQ. You were the top student. Your parents and teachers praised you often for your abilities and achievements. School was easy so you could get high grades without studying. You won awards. Teachers said that you were gifted. Your parents said that you’d do great things when you reached adulthood; That you could do anything you wanted. Expectations were high. 

And so was the pressure. But you didn’t realize it at the time. Until you got to college. Suddenly, you were surrounded by smart kids. You were no longer the star. Not only that. Some of your classes were hard; studying was required. Studying? What’s that? You got your first “C.” You loved psychology and philosophy but you’d never faced a workload like this. No one else seemed to be having trouble. You started procrastinating, as usual, but last minute finishes didn’t work anymore. It was confusing and overwhelming. Your identity was crumbling; you became anxious and depressed.

In your mind, it became clear that you’d been faking your smarts all of these years. You weren’t gifted. Never had been. You’d gotten by on your charm. Now charm wasn’t enough. You were a failure. Every little mistake, every question you couldn’t answer. Failure.

Is this you? Or someone you know?

Let me give you a hug and an explanation.

Kids who are gifted are often told, repeatedly, how smart they are, by well-meaning adults. High grades and other achievements may be praised excessively. This can lead children to believe that they’re loved because they’re “so smart.” Their identity becomes dependent, then, on their capacity to continue to show their advanced abilities and on the praise and attention they receive.

This can lead to unhealthy perfectionism: fear of failure, avoidance of activities that don’t guarantee success, impostor syndrome and procrastination. It can lead to anxiety and depression. Being smart becomes a static thing. You either are or your aren’t. And because you’re used to learning many things quickly, you think that’s the way all learning should be. If you don’t get it fast, well, it just proves that you’re not gifted. Not gifted? Not lovable.

What can you do?

Understand that your worth as a human isn’t due to your accomplishments. Your worth is about who you are, not what you do. It will take time to really believe this.

Make a list of your values. What do you appreciate about others? Compassion? Generosity? Sense of humor? Can you admire these values in yourself?

Imagine your life as a work in progress or as a form of artistic expression. Focus on the journey or the process instead of the product or the outcome.

If you’re in school, design a plan for studying and completing assignments. Break projects down into smaller steps. Look for resources online about dealing with procrastination, perfectionism, expectations, and fear of failure.

Learn about Dweck’s more recent work on mindsets. Even if giftedness is the way your brain is wired, that doesn’t mean it’s an all or nothing phenomenon. You can still have strengths and weaknesses. You can make mistakes and still be a lovely human. You can have high standards and not be perfect.

Make a list of your thoughts and beliefs about your “failures.” Are they rational? Replace your irrational beliefs with what’s actually true. If you’re really struggling, try this book. The book includes ways to self-soothe and calm your anxiety.

Read biographies of eminent people and make note of their struggles, mistakes and failures. Elon Musk and Steve Jobs failed multiple times.

If you’re a parent, avoid praise. It’s often meaningless. Instead, encourage your children by giving specific feedback and asking questions. “I noticed how kind you were to that boy.” “I’m enjoying the details about the characters in your story.” “How was it for you when your team worked so well together?”

If you’re a parent, encourage your child to engage in activities where they need to struggle. They will learn how to deal with mistakes, failures and set backs and will form a stronger sense of self.

And finally, hold on to your dreams!  Even if you feel discouraged and anxious some of the time, or a lot of the time, there is love in you. There is beauty in you. You can do this.

_______________________________

To my bloggEEs: Thank you to the reader who inspired this post. Share your thoughts, feelings, questions and dreams here, please. We all benefit from your experiences!

Author: Paula Prober

I'm a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice in Eugene, Oregon. I specialize in counseling gifted adults and consulting with parents of gifted children. The label "gifted" is often controversial and confusing. I use the metaphor of the rainforest to describe this population. Like the rainforest, these individuals are quite complex, highly sensitive, intense, multi-layered, and misunderstood. They're also curious, idealistic, highly intelligent, creative, perfectionistic, and they love learning. I've been an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon and a guest presenter at Oregon State University and Pacific University. I've written articles on giftedness for the Eugene Register-Guard, the Psychotherapy Networker, and Advanced Development Journal. My first book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth, was released in June 2016 by GHF Press and is available on Amazon or at your independent bookstore. My second book, Journey Into Your Rainforest Mind: A Field Guide for Gifted Adults and Teens, Book Lovers, Overthinkers, Geeks, Sensitives, Brainiacs, Intuitives, Procrastinators, and Perfectionists, was released in June 2019.

44 thoughts on “If I’m So Smart, Why Do I Feel Like A Failure?

  1. Hi Paula and Happy 2017. I can definitely relate to this post. I recently took a training on shame and it mentioned perfectionism. I recently acknowledged that I lean towards perfectionism and it effects my interactions with others at work. I assume that everyone expects perfectionism from me because I typically score high on exams ( civil service) and finish work very fast, etc. I am still figuring most of this out , but your article is a reminder that being judged for achievements and linking identity with intelligence is often a dangerous pursuit.

    thanks, Linda

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Just shared with my daughter; thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Yes, this is my life. Never learned to study in high school. Went to a seven sister college – was floored by classes where I actually had to study. I didn’t know how and I didn’t have the self-knowledge or the self-discipline to make myself learn it. Chickened out of a difficult major – went back to something that was easier. BA, two master’s degrees, most of a Ph.D. I loved learning, but had no idea how to study. I still don’t. I don’t think my problem is really perfectionism; it is mostly sloth and stubbornness. I like learning, as long as it is easy and fun, but when it gets hard or takes a lot of effort, I let myself be distracted by just about anything available.

    And now that I am retired, I have taken up writing music. I still don’t study it like I should. I am back to doing it, because it is fun, mostly. Fear of failure – more like knowledge of certain failure – dogs me now. The kind of music I write isn’t popular any more. I like it, but it won’t “sell”. What is failure? What is success? I am so used to being an impostor, that I have become one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You might want to rethink your assessment of sloth, Lauralynn. This is what I’m talking about. If you didn’t have to struggle academically, you didn’t learn that working hard is rewarding or that it is part of how we learn. I think that if we aren’t challenged intellectually at an early age, it can set up this “need” to have everything come easily otherwise we think we aren’t smart. Did you see this post about “what is success?” Maybe it’ll help: https://rainforestmind.wordpress.com/2015/02/25/if-im-so-smart-why-arent-i-successful/ It sounds like writing music gives you pleasure. Maybe that’s success.

      Like

    • Dear lauralynnwalsh, I wanted to speak to this issue regarding your thoughts that your music will not “sell”. I have a very creative daughter who, at 23, has managed to show the initiative to find a way to seek out and collaborate for the last two years with a musician from another city with whom she can create and sing her music. (While she pursues her degree in English and Cultural Studies). Her collaborative partner is a grown man who has worked in the music industry in LA for years before returning to the real world to get married and have a family here in Canada. As the completion of their first album, including some already finished music videos, is coming to pass, her fears about this album being terrible and her being a failure due to a very disabling physical illness which has caused her to feel that she will never amount to anything, have taken her mind hostage. I fear that she is about to give up rather than face the fear of “rejection” by the mainstream. I told her, and I am telling you, (let me get my Mom hat on) that music is a tonic for the soul. You know it is. Why did you write music in the first place? ( I am jealous by the way, because I don’t think I could ever do that…not disciplined enough to take on that amount of learning and hard work) I bet it was a way to express yourself to the world. I bet you wanted to share your emotions in a way that would touch and uplift people. You wanted the world to see the real you. I am going to tell you that the people who need your brand of tonic are eagerly waiting for you to finish and share the magic that you have created. I am going to tell you exactly what I told her: Music isn’t like building the best product, where you have to compete in the marketplace. Music is like love, there is enough room in the world for everyone to share. Just think of your top 5 bands or composers. Did they ever have to compete with each other for you to be able to savor each of their creations? There is no competition in that sense as far as the audience is concerned. My ability to love Michael Jackson’s profound gifts and also pay big bucks to see Prince in concert, for example, were not about who was the best. I loved both gifted artists and never judged them based on who sold the most records, for example. Those who are meant to hear your music, and those with whom you will connect, will be fellow members of your “tribe” They will be the people who appreciate your efforts and take comfort and joy in your creation. You don’t have to be on the top 40 list to celebrate what you have accomplished. There is always a market for your music. (If that statement doesn’t resonate with you, then consider the tripe that currently gets played on the radio ( and the amount of “successful people” who had to use auto-tune to make their work polished). If you sell a little or a lot is not important, that is some definition of success that truly does not serve a gifted mind. That is a construct that has been built up by a world that doesn’t understand you to start with. So why would you use their yardstick to define yourself? From my own experience, I can say that when it boils down to it, the idea of success and failure so defined by an emotionally numbed greater majority did not stop these two artists from giving the world these great gifts. They just did their thing and let the universe take care of it. It was only when they fought their authenticity that they felt resistance to life. Just look at Michael Jackson performing. What a masterful individual. It wasn’t until he stepped back into the real world, where others could influence how he saw himself, that he would falter. He didn’t really trust himself and truly did not see how magical and powerful his love was to the world. ( I am, of course, assuming you saw in him what i did, but you can substitute whatever master musicians fit your description of success) You were gifted these talents and passion for a reason. Your life has purpose and meaning just as you are. Your gifts will sustain you, as long as you honor them. You don’t need to modify yourself to fit the world. Fear is the true enemy of the gifted mind. Please don’t forget that no amount of darkness can extinguish the light. One small candle illuminates a dark room. Please, I implore you, don’t let your light flicker. The world can definitely use more light. Peace and love.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I can relate to this post but not as a child. Even adults who find out at a later age they are gifted can have these experiences.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Wow! Your descripition was an x-ray of my academic life. Aced throughout school, struggled in college and almost gave up. Impostor syndrome. I can relate. Procrastination is my issue when I feel insecure. I can be a high achiever and a risktaker unless the goal feels too far beyond my comfort zone. I have learned to take baby steps, but there is a particular area which means a lot to me but seems an unattainable dream.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. This post is a wonderful summery of many gifted people struggles and burdens , thank you for your kind explanations . Your words bring relief to many of us .

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Pingback: If I’m So Smart, Why Do I Feel Like A Failure? | Journey to My Soul

  8. Wow, this is so me. Except I went to a university where if you got a C or lower the professor had the option to fail you!!! So I got an F in my favorite subject because I had been “coasting”. I had to check in weekly with an advisor who was helping me with time management and planning. I guess I should thank that instructor for that very hard lesson. Now with my own children I try to focus on the fact that they are working hard and that is a good thing. I have five daughters and I hope I didn’t mess anyone up yet too much. It’s a fine line between high expectations and pushing your kids to perfection.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, Gabi. I think that’s a hard one to know. How to differentiate between healthy high expectations and pushing for perfection. Thanks for sharing.

      Like

      • Gabi, I share your struggles as a parent, though I have only one son.

        Growing up was hard because my dad is a perfectionist and I always seemed to rub him up the wrong way, if you know what I mean! So on the one hand, I don’t want my son to feel he needs to be perfect in order for us to approve of what he’s doing. And he seems to have an innate perfectionism and a tendency to beat himself up when he doesn’t get something right at the first attempt. So on the one hand, when I’m checking his school notebooks, I want to point out the spelling errors because I’m a translator and editor and I don’t want him to grow up with this “any spelling is ok as long as the message is understood” mentality that seems so widespread. But I don’t want to make him even more perfectionistic in the process. So yes, it is a thin line indeed!

        As I reflect on myself, perfectionism is the negative side of a very valuable asset, which is the desire of excellence. I want to moderate my perfectionistic mindset without becoming mediocre in the process. I want to know when to keep striving for better performance and when to let go. I want to accept “very good” can be just as good as “excellent” sometimes, and sometimes a “good enough” is ok. You have to pick your battles, as they say!

        Liked by 2 people

  9. As usual, I learned something from reading your article. Even the minority of gifted folks, that’s to say…. those recognized as intellectually gifted as a child and supported struggle with the same problems as millions of intellectually gifted folks yet to be discovered or supported. Thank you Richard

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Your compassion really shines through the words on my laptop screen! Such great advice, but of course, perfectionism is a stubborn creature, one I’ve wrestled with for so long. I failed a comp lit course in college because I became so immobilized by perfectionism in trying to write a term paper! One thing that helps me, and may help a reader or two here, is since learning that I’m much more a visual-spatial thinker, I now understand why writing can be so challenging for me (more linear/sequential). Also helpful was learning I’m INFP, and we tend to work in intense elongated spurts. So now I actually approach a writing task as more a painting task. Sitting at the computer, I’ll type out thoughts as they come, and questions. Then I go back and start organizing them. I’ll add additional thoughts while doing this. Seeing them on paper is very helpful. Then according to which thesis seems best and most interesting, I’ll begin focusing on that one. I like using MS Word’s shape feature to create maps for ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for this suggestion, Beth! I’m guessing that many readers will find it helpful.

      Like

    • Beth, your experience in “comp lit” reflects my college experience in Argentina. I kept dropping out of subjects when I felt I couldn’t give my 100%. I postponed finals until I had studied and had deep knowledge *everything* in the syllabus. In the last subject I took, Language IV, to pass the final I had to write a paper of a topic of choice. Free choice can be more challenging than being given specific boundaries! You just can’t decide. At the end of two years and a half, because I couldn’t even finish researching my topic of choice, globalization, the subject “expired” and my final would mean having to write the paper + study the syllabus. Study what? The teacher had been a mess! There was no syllabus. And then the teacher quit! So I ended up retaking one of the easiest subjects. To sum it up, what could have been a four years and a half course… ended up being ten years and a half (8 1/2 years if I consider those two years when I basically did nothing!). My GPA was great, of course, but I wasted so much time!

      I also want to say that, as an aspiring writer who is a recovering perfectionist, your comment is indeed helpful. One therapist once gave me the image of an internal judge who is always frowning on me and demanding more. That is exactly why I chose translation instead of writing as a major. I was afraid (still am) of letting go of my fears and just write. Yes, what worked great for me in the past, at times when I was a bit less judgmental of my own work, was writing freely whatever came to mind, and after writing a long chunk, come back to it for editing a couple of days (even weeks) later. If I let the “editor” take over too soon, I get paralyzed and cannot write at all! That’s the main reason for my extended writers’ block when it comes to creative writing. Thank you!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Carina. Your examples will be so helpful to many. Important for readers to see that they’re not alone! Thank you.

        Like

      • I’m so glad you found my post helpful! I wish you great luck in your writing endeavors. For me, formal writing has always been a tortuous experience. I’ve done well in college (well, except that one course) and a term paper I wrote for Statistics was actually nominated for a dept. award by my professor! But I think this type of paper is more easy to write, than, say, ‘globalization’!!!! I just wrote about the data, it was kinda fun! Yeah, tell your ‘Editor’ to cool it. Just focus on one idea at a time!

        Liked by 2 people

  11. College was easy. It wasn’t until I was in the workplace that I had trouble. Still have a ton of trouble at age 46. Just laid off AGAIN. I have been on the wrong career path and feel very confused and scared. I don’t feel whole.

    Dr. Silverman told me years ago that I grew up profoundly gifted so why hasn’t adult life come easy? 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • …because you’re profoundly gifted. We assume that the smartest people will have the easiest lives but I haven’t seen that to be true. All of that giftedness can lead to many challenges. Are you new to my blog? If you keep reading, you may see explanations that you relate to. Thanks for sharing.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I started reading your blog a couple of months ago. Thank you so much for all your insights on your blog. I studied gifted education briefly some time ago, know some experts as well in Illinois. The problem, as you know, is that the primary focus has been on children. I always ask why not focus on the trees instead of the apples?
        You’re so right. Life has not been easy. People think we grew up with a golden ticket. Even now my mom will ask me a ton of questions about something on which I have no knowledge. So many challenges. I’ll keep reading. Thank you so much, Paula!

        Liked by 2 people

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  16. Here’s the thing that bugs me the most. High achievers get the attention, people with learning difficulties get the attention (because they need it) and then there is me. Average. Not highly intelligent, not “gifted”, just plain old me.

    I have taken the road less travelled, tried to follow my dreams (many times) and still… nothing. Tried different directions, given it my best, taken leaps of faith etc… Now I’m getting older – got a lot more responsibilities – kids, mortgage and so on. I’m not getting enough work… my skill set is not valued much. There is a reason why the road is less travelled – It’s a shitty road. Now I’m too far down that road, I’m lost and tired. Can’t go back, too tired to move forward.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Okay, but what if the college thing is happening in 7th grade? Assignments don’t always come naturally to me all though they usually do. I’ve had many Cs and even one or two Ds over the course of my public schooling so far. Never as an overall grade, but on assignments. What does this mean for me?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It could mean many things. Because I read your other comment, I know you were homeschooled and now adjusting to public school. Maybe you’re not used to the structure or the style of teaching. Or maybe you’re not motivated if the work is too simple. Perhaps you’ve never had tests/assignments so are learning how to study or how to please a teacher? There are many things, Bethany. Gifted kids don’t necessarily get good grades. Keep reading my blog to find out more.

      Like

  18. Hello. Firstly, I like to thank you for this. I’m a 20 year old who has gotten back to college recently due to not being able to financially pay my tuition when I was 18. I’m in my second term, first semester and finals are approaching. Reading your post, I shedded tears because it’s exactly what happened to me when I was younger and even attended gifted programs but never felt good enough. I’m probably failing two classes right now because I’m tired from going to work and school almost every day. I just don’t feel good enough anymore and a complete failure, it’s been two years since I received any education and I feel so lost when I see younger students setting their priorities meanwhile I’m struggling.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Pingback: Giftedness, Multipotentiality, and Your Fear of Losing Interest (FOLI) | Your Rainforest Mind

  20. I am totally familiar with the post. This year, I started college and I am suffering, doubting my abilities and who I am. I feel like I’m finished, but I try to fight. Greetings from Argentina

    Liked by 1 person

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