Not a complement

I was in the break room at a client’s office, the kind with drab gray linoleum tiles and blinding fluorescent lighting. I was putting half and half in my cup of lukewarm coffee. A colleague, impeccably dressed and quaffed, wandered into the room, looked over at me, and said that she was going to call me “The Professor” going forward because she never understands what I am talking about. She threw in a light laugh for good measure and sauntered out of the room. Regardless of how it was framed, the commentary was not a complement.

One of the topics about which I have struggled to write is my paradoxical combination of impostor syndrome and intellectual self-regard. On one hand, I recognize that I am smart and capable. I can acquire and apply knowledge across a broad array of subjects and I’ve seen for myself, and had others confirm, that my insights are often unique and valuable. On the other, I perceive my confidence in my intellect as sophomaniacal (from the Greek words sophos, meaning wise or adept, and mania, meaning madness; sophomania describes a state of delusion about one’s actual intelligence). Simultaneously, I believe that I am and am not intellectually gifted. My head is a strange place to live.

More times that I can count, I have been told that I would be more successful if I came across as less intelligent, although no one has bothered to explain how to accomplish that. I’ve been told that I intimidate people because my ideas and words are too big. Being told that you are too smart while contemporaneously believing that if you were smarter you’d play dumber is a mind-boggling exercise. I hate writing about it, because I don’t like how it makes me sound. Human beings, the psychological research tells us, are obsessed with controlling how others see things, especially how they perceive us. The technical term for it is impression management. I love that phrase, but despise the theory mostly because it is such an accurate description of my own behavior.

On more than one occasion, my therapist has noted that my ability to articulate how I feel and make connections between experiences and emotions masks my true state of being. Listening to me speak, she says, someone who is only superficially acquainted with me would not see what is simmering just below the surface. I’ve come to think of it as a liability. Because I can clearly describe what is happening in my head, even connecting it to theory and scientific study, I present as someone who is far more put together than I am.

It is both paradoxical and frustrating.


  1. A “complement” is a group, usually of people engaged in a common venture, e.g., a ship’s “complement” is its officers and crew. A “compliment,” is a polite expression of praise. As for the person who could not understand you, it might be better to speak more slowly. Especially to those who, however elegantly coiffed (hair arranged), might have quaffed (that is, drank heavily) too much alcohol.


  2. Wow! I’m totally agree. Being able to articulate the situation does not mean I can solve it or overcome it. And yes that is so frustrating! Hang in there Liz!


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