Why I never expect to be right


A friend of mine read my post on my reaction to the blog carnival theme of intersectionality. She and I have fairly similar thought processes, and both arrived at the same conclusion about intersectionality as a concept. (That is, that it’s a fairly abstract theory-land construction of a very real-life situation and that we preferred practical descriptions to using an abstract term for it.) However, she arrived at the conclusion instantly, and it took me a whole post worth of muddling before I figured it out. And today I finally realized why there was such a time discrepancy in our reactions.

The fact is, I come at the world as if everyone knows more than I do, thinks better than I do, understands more than I do, and is generally in all ways superior to me. It’s a deeply ingrained unconscious reaction and has nothing to do with reality or even how I think about these things (I don’t even think that kind of inferiority/superiority exists. But that’s how I think.

Don’t tell me I shouldn’t feel this way because people who were classified as gifted children/child prodigies never feel this way. It’s not true. First off, I never knew I was classified that way until (ironically) I was at an age where I no longer even tested that way (which I wouldn’t know for many years to come). Second off, I doubt the knowledge would have given me the equally ridiculous sense of superiority that it gave many children around me.

Why? Well look at it through my eyes: I was in a world where everyone but me seemed to know sone important thing that I didn’t know. My receptive language was barely there, and I relied on patterns and the keen observation of non-word-based aspects of the world around me to navigate the world. I was good enough at it that nobody guessed the extent to which I didn’t understand things, but bad enough at it that I ended up making and wearing a fake nude suit out of construction paper in response to finally watching the behavior of other people to try to piece together what was wanted of me during an assignment that was due that instant that I hadn’t even picked up on as existing. (The kid I was partnered with kept drawing attention to his hat, and lots of the paintings in a book we were supposed to give a presentation on were wearing hats. Lots of them were nude, too, so I stood in front of the room covered in orange construction paper reciting fairly random sentences.)

And understanding language was only part of it. It seemed to me that everyone other than me was moving along to the pattern of music that I couldn’t detect. And that every time I tried to insert myself into the pattern, no matter how hard I tried the music turned dissonant and terrible and pushed me out again. So I would never have guessed that my ability to turn written into spoken words, or my general ability to find and memorize and analyze the world through patterns, had been impressive enough for a five-year-old to earn me a high score on a test that people believed all sorts of ridiculous things about. (Meanwhile the people who tested me thought those abilities meant so much that they would disregard my receptive language scores and all other scores that didn’t make sense to them. My guess is that my being white and middle-class also helped them forget.). I still remember the test and the manner in which I worked out the answers. I literally didn’t know the meaning of the word “test”. But my answers were apparently impressive for a five-year-old (not so much for a fifteen or twenty-two-year-old, but that’s another story.)

Anyway, despite my talents, I never really compared them to anyone else or even knew I was ‘supposed’ to. I only knew that I was outside this intricate dance that everyone else seemed perfect at. So when I did learn to compare myself to others, I only noticed my faults. And as I got older, and the gap widened between my abilities and other people’s expectations (whether the generic.l expectations of someone my age or the inflated expectations of ‘gifted’ children), I only became more convinced that I was uniquely defective and destined for some sort of hellish life of the sort that I knew ‘had to happen’ to people who didn’t measure up.

This has resulted, even now that I understand how nonsensical such comparisons and hierarchies are, in a deeply held assumption that if lots of people write about something I can’t seem to write about, then it’s because they know something I don’t. I almost never think that my way of understanding things is real or valid. So I frustrate myself by bashing my head on a concept for (at least) hours before realizing that my instinctual reactions to the concept have merit. And even when I figure out they do, I am sitting there just waiting to hear that I am just ‘too stupid’ to contribute anything to the discussion.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

12 responses »

  1. *gives virtual flowers* Even when you feel inferior, other people think highly of you and value your words. I am one of many.

  2. Me too. Thanks for explaining back to me much of the ‘why’ I feel so inferior all the time. I guess I got off easy in school… I was just uniformly described as “weird” and by college everyone presumed I was on drugs or had brain damage. Glad to hear that somebody else doesn’t think in competitive terms.

  3. For what it’s worth, I find your writings to be tremendously insightful. I view this as a firm testiment to the general idea that all of our various perspectives are valuable — no matter how different they are.

    Or, in other words, you see things that I don’t, I see things that you don’t, and we all benefit from learnig about the other’s viewpoint.

  4. I know that feeling of “everyone knows better than I do,” as though they’ve got the secret that I keep missing. As you say, it’s a deeply ingrained and unconscious response. I can analyze the response and feel passionate anger that anyone should have to deal with it, but the feeling remains. For me, the response derives from the fact that living an autistic life is a process of living in paradox: I have certain abilities that the larger culture values, but they’re often not abilities that I value; and the abilities that I value are often completely off the radar of the larger culture. So I wonder what’s wrong with me that a) I don’t value what everyone else is cheering about and b) the stuff I do value is nearly invisible to your average observer.

    If it helps any, whenever I read your posts, I think, “I wish I could think and write as incisively as Amanda does,” and I feel like my writing is just pablum by comparison. Then, I realize that I’ve just bought into the idea of a hierarchy amongst autistic people (blech), which leads to me believe that I’m hardly at square one in my thinking, which leads to me to realize that I’ve again bought into the idea of a hierarchy amongst autistic people (blech). And on it goes.

  5. A lot of this sounds way too familiar.

    I only became more convinced that I was uniquely defective and destined for some sort of hellish life of the sort that I knew ‘had to happen’ to people who didn’t measure up.

    *nods* Even once you realize these patterns of thinking aren’t helping you in any way, it’s hard to let go of them completely. They’ll jump up unexpectedly and bite you, when you think you’ve developed a much better sense of worth.

    I’ve been trying just to let this kind of thought pattern go away on its own; it may keep cropping up, but I don’t have to keep engaging with it and helping it hurt me. (This works a lot better than trying to directly counter thoughts, for me.)

    Feeling like (a) I don’t have anything to say that other people would be interested in, and/or (b) they certainly wouldn’t be interested in the way I say it, helped keep me from writing much for a long time. Knowing that this is BS–even if the conclusions seem logical in a way, based on some other people’s reactions–helps, but doesn’t do away with all the nagging doubts.

    I have also really appreciated your writing. You come up with analogies and ways of describing patterns which are refreshingly different, and help me to look at things from a different angle.

  6. You are able to…….um………….articulate things that others cannot. I feel that way quite often when reading your posts…….of course I can’t tell you which ones…..don’t remember……but it doesn’t even matter. I hate the phrase “speak for others”……..hence the “um” and ellipsis points above…..but……you can do that, without intending to or specifically trying to (not that you would try that, anyway.)

    What I’m trying and probably failing to explain is a one-way secret…..

    The secret is something like……hey, you articulated something I feel very often but can’t write about.

    The person reading your posts knows the secret……but you don’t. That’s the best analogy I can come up with……..I have no idea what intersectionality is……but it kinda sounds like a secret to outsiders or whatever. A one way secret.


  7. Even fairly ‘standard’ gifted kids can end up thinking that way. I remember hearing about a girl with a profoundly gifted IQ who thought she was stupid because when given assignments, she’d have lots of questions about how to do the assignments while the other kids just started working right away. She thought the other kids had figured out the answers to those questions on their own, when in fact they hadn’t even thought of the questions.

  8. People put a lot of subconscious (or overt) pressure on you to maintain this level of smartness that you didn’t choose and can’t control. Lots of gifted kids feel like the got accolades they don’t deserve. Some of them intentionally sabotage their school careers to take the pressure off.

  9. That’s interesting, I didn’t know that. I personally didn’t need to intentionally sabotage anything — my brain just started melting at a certain point and I ended up crashing pretty hard both cognitively and emotionally and being in no shape for school for several years. When the same thing happened after my next attempt at formal education (a few years later), I realized more quickly what was going on and pulled out before I could repeat history again, although that again wasn’t deliberate sabotage as much as basic safety. (But by that point I was realizing I couldn’t even keep up with a typical school career for someone of that age, let alone an advanced one. School and I just don’t mix, at all.)

  10. It’s definitely possible for people labeled as gifted during childhood to get that kind of feeling. It’s a label that most people associate with “You’re exceptionally smart and talented, and likely to know better than the average person”, but that’s not always the message in the environment, and not everyone picks it up even when the people around are trying to convey that. Being labeled as gifted or a prodigy can lead to a number of different things, not all of them good.

  11. Pingback: Culture, how we view human difference, and abuse « Urocyon's Meanderings

  12. Pingback: Ballastexistenz » Post Topic » Why I almost didn’t paint.

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