Ozy (who is amazing) has a (amazing) post up about what they call “Gifted Kid Syndrome“. In order to understand this post you need to read that post. Sorry, but I promise you’ll thank me because it’s insightful.
Like Ozy, I was often classified as a “gifted kid” and defined myself as “The Smart One” through much of my life. I was hardly an anomaly. Especially for girls, overachieving has become some sort of national pastime. There seems to be a leakage of the “have it all mentality” from women into the new generation, and girls are beating out their male counterparts in terms of grades, as well as keeping up the prerequisite extracurriculars and volunteer activities necessary for a college application.
But underneath the drive for “achieve achieve at all costs!” there is another impulse that girls still seem to be trained in, which is one of caretaking and self-flagellation. Other people are more important than you is a message that somehow every woman and girl that I know has internalized to some extent or another. These two impulses come together in a nasty iteration of the Gifted Kid Syndrome that Ozy identifies.
“At the same time, if you define yourself as Smart, there is going to come a time when you’re Not Smart. When you meet people who are smarter than you, or you have to suddenly start working at a class. This can induce low self-esteem, depression, and general emotional crisis, because if you’re The Smart One what happens if you aren’t smart anymore? (Bad things. Especially if you’d already decided that you’re better than people because you’re smarter than them and suddenly they’re smarter than you.)”
Somehow as a girl there are two important things you have to do in order to be A Good Person: you have to never hurt anyone (never ever ever) and also you have to be perfect (at school and work and extracurrics and everything). So imagine you’ve spent most of your life building up your self esteem on academics and accomplishments, and trying hard to keep quiet about it all when other people are around, then you realize that you’re not actually the smartest person in the room, or that you are struggling because you never learned how to study.
It’s incredibly easy to go from “The Smart One” to “I suck” when your whole identity is stacked on that one (very unstable) foundation. Ozy definitely touches on this, but I think there can be an added component of guilt and self hatred surrounding relationships with other people when you’ve been raised as a girl, because the moment you realize that you’re not the smartest you begin to see all the ways that you were behaving in an arrogant and self-obsessed way, potentially hurting other people. Cue “you’ve been a bad female” feelings.
I distinctly remember getting a B on a test in high school and trying to tell my friends about how anxious and upset it was making me. Mostly they rolled their eyes and thought that I was bragging. Not only did I feel I was starting to lose my identity on the academic side, but it quickly became clear that I had to go to an extreme place of self-flagellation and self hatred in order to deal with it because anything else looked like a humblebrag.
I have seen too many smart, talented young women fall prey to this. They manage to balance incredibly low self esteem (in the form of losing their academic identity) with a kind of self obsessed perfectionism that implies they think quite highly of themselves (you don’t expect perfection of yourself if you don’t think you can be perfect). So these unrealistic expectations become a way to humanize yourself, to prove to others that you’re putting their needs before your own, even as you desperately push yourself to continue being The Smart One, above everyone else.
Being not just a Smart One, but a Smart Girl presents a particular set of challenges because being smarter than other people implies you’re better than other people in some way, but don’tcha know that as a girl you’re supposed to shrink in order to let other people fill the space?
I wonder if this has anything to do with the epidemic of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and just sadness that so many young women around me feel. There’s such a pull to overcompensating for being The Smart One when it feels like it both caused and solved all your problems (see: the loneliness Ozy cites and the feelings of superiority). There is also a lack of nuance in communal dialogues around being smart or gifted, so that we’re really left with the options of either being perfect or useless. This means when you realize you’re not perfect, it’s all too easy to jump to the conclusion that you’re utterly useless.
I don’t know if boys have this same feeling, the same impulse to soothe those around them and not be too forward or too uppity, but it is nearly impossible to balance the fragile self esteem of being The Smart One with that impulse. We don’t have to be perfect or endlessly, utterly selfless. There is room for complexity.