As far back as preschool, my intelligence has always been, for better or for worse, an important part of my identity. I had always been told that I was “smart,” and praised for it. Over the years, the habit of seeking out that praise has been deeply ingrained in me. I like to think I’ve mostly broken this habit, but it’s so deeply ingrained that I still fall back to it at times.

When one recieves a compliment, it is the social Thing To Do to respond humbly. So naturally, when I recieved a compliment, I would usually respond with the opposite sentiment. For example, if someone congratulated me on a test score, I might respond that others had better scores and mine was nothing much compared to theirs.

But it’s nearly impossible to pretend something so often without starting to believe it, if only a little. So after years of this, I began to develop a set of self-deprecating beliefs which I would call on whenever I received a compliment.

These beliefs were in direct contradiction to my factual beliefs about my intelligence, which are that I am significantly better than average at academic tasks (especially tests), even with much less study than my peers, but in other tasks (e.g. social tasks) I am typically average or worse. I also believe that my academic capability will likely not translate well into practical ability after I finish my education.

But it doesn’t end there. As praise grew sparser over time, I began to develop a third set of beliefs regarding my intelligence. To maintain the sense of specialness I had because of my intelligence, I began to fantasize that I was a “genius” — a person on par with the greats. Over time, some of this fantasy became belief and I had a third set of beliefs: I had the potential to be truly great in an academic field like mathematics or computer science.

Whenever I made concrete predictions, I would use my factual beliefs. Whenever I talked to others, I would use my self-deprecating beliefs. Whenever I was depressed or down, I would use my fantastical beliefs. But occasionally, I would get them mixed up. Eventually, I noticed this happening and after many hours of introspection, I started to realize what I was doing.

It fascinates me that the human mind is able to do this. I had heard of cognitive dissonance before, but to notice it in myself gave me a totally new understanding of it. Now, I can’t help but wonder what other dissonant beliefs I hold.


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