Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

The Stupid Complex

The Stupid ComplexNowhere in the DSM-IV does it mention “the stupid complex,” but I’m telling you it’s an epidemic these days. I used to suffer in silence. But ever since I’ve come out of the closet, I swear I find a fellow sufferer every day.

At my last therapy session, I was telling her how scared I was that everyone was going to find out that I was inherently stupid. She laughed out loud and said, “Do you know how many times I hear that a day?”

Oh. Good. Then it’s not just me.

I don’t know when it started. It could be a result of being a twin, and needing to form a sense of identity separate from my sister. Since she stole “tomboy” early on, I became “the brain,” except that mine didn’t work, but no one really knew that but me. And I was able to keep it a secret all through my childhood and adolescence.


My condition was reinforced by those damn standardized tests, the ones that tell you that if you score below one thousand, you need to eat more Wheaties, hang out with smart people (writing down the things that come out of their mouths known as vocabulary words), and apply to community colleges… Oh, and that your chances at success are found somewhere in the hair-thin piece of that pie chart that predicts future earnings.

Having a best friend in college that was valedictorian didn’t help. The same homework from French class that she sailed through in a half-hour had me pursing my lips and looking up terms for six hours.

For several years in college and afterward, I had the bright idea of pursuing a Ph.D., which, in my mind, stood for “Proof of a Highly Developed brain.” Surely if I had those three initials following my name I would no longer feel insecure about the vacancy in my brain and its troubling horsepower. But then I met some people who did have the three coveted letters, a certificate of proven intelligence, and they were still insecure! So I was thankful I saved myself some money and years of frustration writing a thesis.


In fact, as I discuss this pea-brain fixation among other educated types, I discover one successful person after another — New York Times journalists, bestselling authors, international speakers, neuroscientists — who have not been able to shed their stupid complex. I was dumbfounded. Surely if I had their credentials I would never suffer another insecure day in my life.

But that’s just not the case, is it?

No accolade or degree has the capability to zap the stupid complex. That is ultimately good news, really… if you are chasing the next big promotion or award or degree to confirm that your brain is just fine. It means we can sit tight and watch SpongeBob, because we will feel as stupid on our couch as we would in an uncomfortable chair during a Harvard lecture.


And there is great relief, I think, in knowing that there are more of us that feel stupid than there are that feel smart.

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This post was originally published on PsychCentral.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Lauren

    This is so true. I have a dear friend I fear I’ve lost to anxiety in her PHD program at Harvard. I know she’s capable and smart, but she’s letting her head get in her own way. She couldn’t even really enjoy planning her wedding (or, even the wedding judging by some of her facial expressions.) It made me very sad. I feel like she’s lost to me, everything is always “fine” when I ask. But her eyes tell me it is not fine. So, I can’t do much about it if she won’t let me in.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Anne

    Dang! Wish I’d read this before I spent all that money on that masters degree at the fancy school! I too spend a lot of time feeling like an imposter. Being afraid that they’ll see (or already do see) what’s really going on in here. I also hear clients say this day after day and there is some comfort in knowing I’m not the only one. And at the same time it doesn’t change it. Isn’t funny how wide the difference can be between how we see ourselves versus how other people see us??

    I’ve come to believe that self-esteem comes from esteemable acts. The more I am able to make good choices and “do the next right thing”, the less vulnerable I am to that part of the peanut gallery. But that’s the rub, too. Because depression is very tricky and very convincing in the moment and likes to mess with us! It can be hard to sort it out sometimes. That’s a big part of why I read your blog – to reinforce the healthy, “wanna be better than this” parts of myself. So, thanks.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Scott

    This all sounds soooo familiar. I’ve heard several different terms describing my contribution to stupidity, such as CRS (Can’t Remember S***) or “mountain of stupid.” The best one I like is one I came up with myself: SCFB, which stands for Swiss Cheese For Brains. And here’s how I explain it: sometimes, one my good days, information will enter my head and get lodged in the dairy product. Other times, it just sails right through the holes. Bill Cosby also once said, “Only a genius can fake such stupidity.” So maybe we’re all just geniuses and we don’t know it.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Jim

    If you read John Adams by David McCullough (the best of all biographies I’ve read, with A.Lincoln by Ronald C. White, Jr. running a close second), you will see that even John Adams, one of our most accomplished founding fathers and author of the MA constitution, ambassador, president, etc., each time he had to approach a new task felt insecure about being able to handle it. If true of him, why not of all of us??

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Marc

    I think this tendency is only going to get worse as we obsess on all the information on the internet and fight over whose kids gets into the best preschool. As a college professor, I work with some folks who have an almost pathological fear of looking stupid., so getting a PhD doesn’t help. I ask my students, kindly I hope, to drop the “this will sound stupid, but..” but it’s hard. I believe that women’s colleges are a good antidote to this for many young women. I like what Anne said about trying to make good choices, and part of that comes from figuring how who we are and what we are good at, and doing that well and not trying to do everything. So much easier said than done, though.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Kevin Keough

    As you know the “stupid complex” overlaps to a considerable degree or perhaps is synonymous with the “imposter syndrome”—-unless my stupidity is shining forth.

    Today is a curious day because it appears to be the first time I am inclined to disagree with you. Now, this could be because I am just a grumpy cynic and you have more faith in people than me.

    Here goes: My experience is that there are a frighteningly large segment of the population who vastly overestimate their intelligence not to mention common sense. Such folks are almost always arrogant and have some narcissistic traits.

    “Narcissistic features” does make the DSM’s and the fact that arrogance has never appeared as a symptom of any disorder in coming up on five plus incarnations of the DSM causes me profound disillusionment. Maybe we could agree that arrogance happens to be over-represented in the “prestigious” group of people piecing together the DSM-V and all past creators of the DSM’s.

    Many authors have made cogent arguments that we live in a “culture of narcissism”. I’d like to believe that arrogance is found primarily in academic and medical settings but life experience suggests the business world, sports world, entertainment world, etc. have their share of arrogant people.

    Though I would not wish the “imposter syndrome” on anyone I believe it is much easier to grow out of and causes less heartache to those exposed to “IP” than being in close contact with arrogance and it’s manifestation in overestimating one’s intelligence and importance.

    So, just for today I humbly disagree with our friend the “humble and ever funny Little Flower” who does not suffer from my cynicism and grumpiness. Doesn’t mean I’m right; please prove me wrong !

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Tony

    Not to brag, I have a PhD in chemistry. We joked that when you finally got a PhD, they sucked out half of your brain. Honestly, getting a PhD in science is humbling because, if you are paying attention, you realize just how little (and I mean little) we actually know. And that really plays on the ego.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Darvel J. Silda

    What you think about me is none of my business.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment bill peterson

    Horace Mann said; “Ignorance breeds monsters that fill up the vacancies
    of the soul that are unoccupied by the verities of knowledge.”

    Mark Twain said; “The older we grow the greater becomes our wonder at
    how much ignorance one can obtain without bursting one’s clothes.”

    Will Rogers said; “Everyone is ignorant – only on different subjects.”

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment mary

    the older we get the dumber we get. We can be soo book smart BUT to to apply to real life is a whole diffeent aspect of life. i have spray painted a chair in 90 deg. heat got the blue paint all over me . thanks goodness nail polish remover took it off. ognorance can be bliss!!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment SunnyCC

    I do not have this issue at my workplace. The majority of the many humble souls here know that they are brillant, and that the rest of us are no too bright.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Donna

    You hit the nail on the head, or our head, excuse my fun with puns; I am referring to standardized testing. It is one of the comparative rat races we have no choice but to participate in as youths, unless our parents chose home schooling or some orm of alternative education. We are not encouraged to become all we can be, but what society thinks we should be. We are taught to perform to the standards, while independent thinking and inquiry is discouraged. We become uncomfortable in our own skins, puppets on a string.(yes, yes cliche, but true) We need some guidance and an introduction to the basics, but we should develop individual assessment or else our youth’s egos may be damaged instead of developed. This brings us to where you are now, struggling with self esteem issues, chasing the dragon of education and intellectual acceptance. I too am a victim, and believe that I can help myself by helping others. I am attempting to enter the field of education. I believe encouragement is the key and the expectation of being the best you can be, not meeting the rest of the world’s standard is the ideal. Wish me luck dealing with the establishment.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Marvin Greenberg

    Wow, I guess i’m not alone, i went through 12 grades of school, thinking that I am Stupid, I just didn’t pick things up as fast as the other, “smart”, kids. I had such an inferiority complex, that I became a loner, didn’t socialize, was afraid that everything I’d do, or say would be made fun of. Wasted a lot of my life thinking that I couldn’t do, or go where others have, to successful careers, get married, raise families.I turned to alcohol & drugs, and almost died at age 39. But i went thru drug & alcohol treatment for the second time, and this time around made it work, recovery that is, by the grace of a “God” of my understanding, I’ve been clean & sober now for 17 1/2 yrs. God can do for me, what I could not do for myself.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment barbara

    Thanks to everyone for posting. I would personally much rather be around ignorance and insecure people than arrogant people. And there are all kinds of intelligence, and all kinds of education. To Tony, I loved what you said. Thanks!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Corine Brown

    Welcome to the club girlfriend!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Cathy

    Dear Therese, you are SO funny!!!
    I love the way you write and the way you think. I love YOU. Thank you so much for sharing your amazing brain with the rest of us and helping us see the humour in our anxieties. I thank God for you in my life. I always keep you and your family in my prayers+ Cathy

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment habiba

    i agree wih you insecurity or how you put is the stupid brain complex ins a mental disorder the challenge is how do we overcome this complex. life skills in terms of self confidence, self awareness should be very helpful. please give us insights on how well to deal with the SC

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