I don’t quite know when but, at some point, I stopped identifying as “smart.” That is not to say that I don’t consider myself to a critical thinker, or intelligent. What I mean is that I no longer consider those attributes to be points of identity for me. I would much rather be seen as empathetic, resilient or even affable than “smart.” When this comes up in conversation with old friends from my overachiever days, they often scoff at this development. Often times, they feel as I am doing myself some deep disservice by no longer considering this trait to be essential to my notion of self. I, however, find it incredibly freeing and integral to my personal journey towards authenticity.
As a product of a severely abusive childhood, my sense of self was pretty fucked from day one. Venerable psychologist Abraham Maslow went as far to say that those individuals who lack the very things that child abuse robs its victims of (ie. safety, love, occasionally food and water, family and confidence) are destined to have “a cripple psychology.” Dr. Mary Ainsworth, another key figure in modern psychology, made it her life’s work to study the importance and life-long influence of parent-child relationships. Put bluntly, having as shitty parent not only fucks you up during the abuse but, to some extent, for the rest of your life (even with therapy.) Your essential sense of self is not allowed to form.
Prevented from forging relationships with others, both directly (being literally locked in rooms) and indirectly (interacting with people in meaningful ways means having to explain why your Mom is nuts), I focused on school. It was a sanctuary and a battleground where, regardless of what happened at home, I could reign supreme. Aside from the obvious physical safety it provided, I was also able to escape to lands and lives I’d never imagined through reading. And I definitely took pleasure in consistently scoring higher than the rest of my classmates, much to their chagrin. In school, I was finally able to dominate.
The older I became, doing well in school provided more tangible rewards; extra-curricular activities and summer long “nerd camps” allowed me to escape my home. These rewards culminated in gaining a scholarship to a school where housing was paid for by my financial aid.
However, it was also around this time that I realized I had no personal investment in school for…well, school’s sake. While I was thankful for the knowledge I’d gained, I longed for something else. Something that everyone seemed to have. Now that I was in college, I was forced to think about what I was going to do with this education – and that was terrifying.
This ennui, this existential search to find out what the hell I was doing, lead to a very reckless part of my life that lasted years. Even after graduating with honors, I shunned my past. I felt that my education was worthless, as it didn't magically make anything better. So I escaped with drugs, sex, and other self-harming behaviors. Education didn't “fix” anything. Being smart didn't make me anymore “me.”
After years of therapy, I've come to a more nuanced understanding. I see now that, it may very well have been the critical thinking skills I honed in school that allowed me to overcome my childhood. The friends I made in college are now who I consider to be my “family” over a decade later. So, it wasn't all for naught. I work in a job where , while not setting the world on fire, I am able to call upon my education to creatively solve complex dilemmas on a daily basis.
So…”smart.” That word is empty, and laced with desperation; both for an identity and some external approval. So, while it may fit others, that’s a skin I've luckily shed.