3 min

I hate feeling stupid.

I’m 10 years old. My Dad places a platter of cooked chicken legs on the table. Suddenly, I think about an actual chicken, and I know that chickens only have two legs, but there are so many chicken legs on that platter. I want to say, “All of those chicken legs can’t come from the same chicken, can they??” 

Instead, I say nothing. Because if I ask that question, my Dad will sarcastically tell me, “Yea, Charlie, they all came from the same chicken.” My brother, Jim, will make fun of me and call me an idiot. My feelings will get hurt, and someone in my family will call me a baby and tell me to stop being so sensitive

My biggest insecurity is feeling stupid. 

For most of my life, I’ve learned to cope with it by keeping quiet. When I’ve wanted to ask a question, I don’t. When I don’t know how to do something, I avoid it. 

By trying to protect myself, I hoped to make the feelings go away. Instead, I made the feelings worse. In Michael A. Singer’s book, The Untethered Soul, he refers to this as your inner thorn:

“If you decide you have to keep things from touching the thorn, then that becomes the work of a lifetime. In order to grow, you must give up the struggle to remain the same, and learn to embrace change at all times.”

It’s constant work, but embracing change and letting go of old beliefs is the only way to transform my fear of looking stupid into transparency and confidence.

Old beliefs

I can’t put full blame on my family. People in the Northeast are tough, and for my first job out of college, I worked at a newspaper with a bunch of guys who were at least 15 years older than me and knew everything about sports. I was constantly in fear of looking like a total moron. It was safer to not ask questions. 

For a long time, when a person would tell me a joke and I wouldn’t get it, I’d laugh no matter what. When someone would say something to me and I wouldn’t hear them, instead of asking them to repeat it, I’d respond with a sort of “Yes,” or a nod or a little laugh to agree, when really I had no idea what they just said. 

Every once in a while, I’d test the waters and ask a question or say something I thought to be true, only to have someone laugh in my face. This confirmed my fear and contributed to much of my anxiety.

Polina Marinova, author of The Profile (my favorite newsletter) recently left her job at Fortune Magazine to turn her newsletter into a standalone business. In her farewell article, she wrote about being a highly anxious and stubborn person. 

I relate a lot to these two traits, but I attribute what she said next to much of her success:

“If I feel insecure about a certain topic, I research, obsess, and ask dumb questions until I gain a basic understanding of it.”

I don’t think that Marinova actually thinks that she asks dumb questions. I think she was talking to people like me, who are afraid that their questions are dumb, afraid of looking stupid, and afraid to put themselves out there. She was giving me the green light to know that it’s okay to ask questions when you don’t know the answer. In fact, it’s why she’s become so good at her job.

A false sense of confidence

My husband, Sam, is the opposite of me. He asks a million questions until he fully understands something. 

Sometimes I’m glad for it - like when he asks the doctor a question I was thinking but didn’t want to ask - but by the third question, I start to squirm. It makes me uncomfortable that he is bothering this person and asking more and more questions instead of just shutting up and Googling it when he gets home. 

But Sam is one of the smartest people I know, and I never think he looks stupid.

On my recent visit to the doctor for a pregnancy checkup, Sam wasn’t allowed in because of new Coronavirus precautions (which we greatly appreciated). The doctor told me that the cord connecting me to my son is high up on his chest, so it’s like a pillow in front of him. 

I had no problem interrupting here because my shock overrode my fear of looking stupid.  

 “Wait, don’t all babies have that in the same spot?”

“No, they can have it in lots of different places.”

I wanted to know more, but I felt like one question was enough. I should understand by now, and if I don’t get it, then I’m an idiot and there’s no helping me. So I refrained from asking more questions. (Google and my doula later helped me figure out that I thought she was talking about the umbilical cord when she was actually talking about the position of the placenta.)

By not asking questions and not speaking my mind, I hoped to appear confident and smart. But I didn’t feel confident and smart. 

Reframe stupidity

Feelings of incompetence come up for me all the time, especially when trying something new. 

For example, learning how to make a website using Squarespace. I’ve never used Squarespace before, and struggled with figuring out how to make my site look exactly how I wanted it to look.

Instead of approaching this as a completely new and foreign platform that I shouldn’t understand right away, I got frustrated at my lack of intelligence and felt like an absolute imbecile. 

When these feelings of inadequacy start to bubble up, I feel panicked and rushed and I can’t think straight. Instead of trying to find solutions, my brain starts berating me. I get angry and indignant. Eventually, I shut down. 

Brene Brown recently referred to a phenomena that she calls FFT (Fucking First Time). 

“First we identify that we’re in an FFT and we name it. When we name and own hard things, it does not give them power. It gives us power. 

Naming the FFT leads to three things:

  1. We can normalize it: Oh, this is exactly how new is supposed to feel. This is uncomfortable because brave is uncomfortable.
  2. We can put it in perspective: This feeling is not permanent and it doesn’t mean I suck at everything. It means I’m in the middle of an FFT around this one thing.
  3. I can reality check my expectations: This is gonna suck for a while. I’m not going to crush this right away." 

How does Brene Brown make me feel better about everything?? Ohh, because she explains things with compassion and kindness. She reframes stupidity and incompetence as brave and capable. 

I’m not supposed to know how to do everything the first time I try it. I’m not supposed to be an expert. It’s natural to feel like I suck at something until I learn how to do it.

Embrace discomfort

I’ve started to approach my feelings of stupidity as a challenge. The best question to ask myself is, “What’s the worst that can happen?”

Usually, the answer is that this stranger I’m about to ask a question to will think that I’m an idiot.

Example: a trip to the grocery store. At the last moment before checking out, a small bottle of organic bug spray caught my eye. I grabbed it and threw it on the conveyor belt. I didn’t see a price on it and immediately started to rationalize in my head:

Who cares if it’s expensive? Don’t bother the cashier. You should have figured out the price before buying it. 

Quickly, I recognized that I didn’t want to look stupid and caught myself. I could use this moment to grow. I took a deep breath and asked the cashier, “How much is that bug spray?” 

She ran the spray over the scanner and told me $20.

I was really hoping she was going to say something closer to $10. Now, not only did I bother her with my stupid question, I would have to ask her to remove it because it was too expensive (which brings up a whole other issue of never wanting to feel poor, but that’s besides the point). I politely asked her to remove it.

Instead of rolling her eyes and calling me a stupid idiot like I assumed she would, she said, “I don’t blame you. That’s so expensive!”

As I’ve started to experiment more with being brave in spite of feeling stupid, I’ve been met with wonderful reactions from people, like the cashier in the example above. Positive feedback loops help change behavior, but they only work if you make the first move.

The more I put myself out there and the more I open up, the more people seem to relate to me. 

Sometimes it’s not so easy. Certain people feel safe and welcoming. Other people - my family - feel unsafe and hostile. This is where Warren Buffett’s idea of the inner scorecard comes in. From Alice Schroeder’s biography, The Snowball: 

“Would you rather be the world’s greatest lover, but have everyone think you’re the world’s worst lover? Or would you rather be the world’s worst lover but have everyone think you’re the world’s greatest lover?”

The point is, it doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks. What matters is what you think, so even if I know that my family will ridicule me, it’s good practice to work on my own authenticity and self-worth.

I know I’m not alone in this. I know that other people have these moments, too. Which is why it’s even more important to continually put myself out there - because I want other people to feel safe. 

I especially want my unborn son to feel safe. So when he asks me about the chicken legs, I can tell him that he’s right, all of those chicken legs can’t come from the same chicken. And I can tell him that he asked a great question.