Untangling Identity: Letting go of “smart” ego

The smell of seven snickerdoodles was almost assured every time a new report card came in the mail.

As a kid, my brother and I were front-row customers at our local Cheryl’s Cookies bakery on report-card day. It was family tradition. Some well-kept secret in the neighborhood had somehow reached our doorstep: For every “A” on the report card, a child could earn a free cookie at Cheryl’s.

We cashed in every quarter. By the end of my elementary school days, I remember my brother and I were only allowed up to five cookies per roll — even if we had more “A’s” to share — just so the bakery would have enough cookies to sell at regular price.

From that point on, I associated smarts with sweet rewards.

Smart was good. Smart was appreciated. Smart was awarded with measurable, quantifiable success.

At school, I started to notice how the “good” kids also happened to be the “smart” kids. We sat in the front row and raised our hands. We never raised a ruckus. We never got our clothespins moved — and if we did, there were tears of shame and embarrassment involved. We always turned our homework in on time. We were the teacher’s favorites, other teachers even knew about us from across the hall.

And it was here, in the halls of High Point, where I started to tangle myself up in the egotistical sweet reward of being smart. Perhaps even more importantly, in being seen as smart — by my peers and by my parents.


Both my parents have always been exceptionally smart, with accolades from both college and high school to be very proud of. It was an awe-inspiring thing as a kid: To have smart parents. They encouraged my brother and me to achieve our best, helped us (always!) with our homework, and taught us that getting an education was one of the most sure-fire ways we could set ourselves up for success in the future.

Starting to absorb the smart-reward feedback loop, and wanting to impress my hard-working parents, the expectation I then set for myself was one that proved exceptionally hard to achieve: I had to be smart (enough).

But I wanted more: I wanted my own reputation at school. Being relatively smart wasn’t good enough to get noticed — not when I went to school with a bunch of other high-achieving students with smart parents, as well.

I remember the feeling of being passed up for “gifted” classes. I remember trying hard to study up, to learn more vocabulary words, to be quicker at solving math puzzles. I remember.

And I remember the feeling of losing friends because I wasn’t “smart enough.” I wasn’t in enough “smart” classes. I wasn’t excelling exceptionally in math or science.

I wasn’t enough.

And so I made myself enough. I hardened my personality, I took on those extra classes and that extra reading, and made myself smarter on paper. I read hours into the night, I kept my grades at the top of the leaderboard. I took every point seriously. I evaluated every assignment under my perfectionist standards.

I got into college with above-average scholarships, and maintained my smart persona in earnest, all the way up until graduation. Even when there were so many ways to let it all fade into mediocrity, I pushed and pushed and became a junior academic, almost by default.

So much of my identity I wrapped up into “good student,” “smart girl,” and “overachiever.”

It’s easy to remember all the ‘warm-fuzzies’ from being seen as smart — all the awards, and the praise, and the feel-good-grade moments. All the triumph and the glory and the ego-stroking recognition. But I also remember all the loneliness that my impossible expectation lent itself to. All the hours of agony over tests and projects. All the worrying and the stress. All the intimidation and the jealousness. I remember.

Now that I’ve not been in school for almost a full year, I’ve realized just how much of my ego was wrapped up in praise for academic achievement — and how much of that ego was born in the brain of a high-achieving first-grader.

It’s amazing how much the past can influence the ways in which you see your future.

And I’ve learned so much since I’ve been “out” — so much more about life and love and my own self than I ever thought I could learn beyond the halls of an academic institution. I’m still learning new things every week.

But the need for “smart” rewards still lingers.

I catch myself sometimes slipping back into my previous “smart” mentality — admonishing any of my time not being “productive,” evaluating career or job choices based on their perceived “smartness,” worrying about my hard-earned reputation for “being smart” and wondering how I can ever live up to the impossible expectations I set at such a young and unknowing age.

I wrote months ago that: “I’m honestly more interested now in being kind than in being smart.” And I remember how I felt when I wrote it — like the world had a lot more possibilities, like I could do or pursue anything I wanted.

In these last few months, when fear of failure and anxiety about the future has threatened to take hold, I remember that longing for a Bethany unbound. I remember.

And I know I’ve still got a lot of work to do, untangling my identity and my ego from a personally inflicted — and assumedly self-measured — evaluation that just might not serve me anymore. I’m still learning.


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