Maggie and Me (A Philosophical Dialogue): Judging Ourselves and Feeling Stupid

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John: If you recall, we are responding to your comment that you feel stupid lately.

Maggie: Yes, I remember.  And this is the third and last blog post in this series, addressing my statement.

John:  And here we will be addressing how you arrived at your conclusion by looking at your reasoning processes.

Maggie: Okay.  Where do you want to begin?

John: I would like you to tell me why you feel stupid.  What is making you feel that way?

Maggie: I feel like everyone is smarter than me.  When we have class discussions, I sometimes have a hard time following along.  And I don’t understand the books that we read in classes like American Lit.

John: Are other’s struggling with the books too?

Maggie: I don’t know.  Some probably are.  But it seems like most of the kids understand the books.

John: Okay.  Anything else?

Maggie: No, not that I can think of right now.

John: All right.  Let’s explore this.  In gist, you said you feel stupid because school is challenging, or at least some of your classes are difficult.  But shouldn’t school be difficult?  Otherwise you are not learning, but just having what you already know confirmed.

Maggie: I guess so.  But it is not difficult for other kids.

John: And that, my friend, is the crux of the problem.  You feel stupid, not because school is challenging, but because it is more challenging for you than for some others.  In other words, your feelings arise because academic learning is easier for others than for you.  Does this make sense to you?

Maggie: A little.  I am doing what we talked about in a previous blog, comparing myself to other kids.

John: Right.  Let me ask you this question, “Do you feel stupid when you are alone in your room reading a book that is challenging to read?”

Maggie: Not really.  Sometimes I get frustrated.  But I don’t feel stupid.

John: That is because negative feelings about ourselves almost always arise when we compare ourselves to others; when we are alone we do not usually make such comparisons.

Maggie: But I wasn’t aware that I was making comparisons.

John: Yes, that sounds about right. We make these comparisons in two ways.  First, we do so intentionally.  How many times have you heard people say that they are smarter or prettier or more athletic than another person? 

Maggie: Lots of times.

John: But we also make these comparisons unintentionally, almost without knowing that we are doing it.  We say we are stupid, for example, but we really mean that we are not as smart as that other person who knows all the answers.  We chastise ourselves for being ugly, but we really mean that we are not as beautiful as someone else in our social circle.  We don’t intentionally make these comparisons, but negative feelings arise because we subconsciously make them and judge ourselves less as a result of the comparisons.

Maggie: Do you do this?

John: Yes, of course, almost everyone does this.  Even people my age.

Maggie: How do you compare yourself to others?

John: I unconsciously compare my accomplishments to the accomplishments of others and find myself lacking.  So I am continuously plagued by self-doubt. But I am working on it.

Maggie: I would have never guessed.

John: Well, everyone does this to some extent.  Remember our discussion of ressentiment?

Maggie: I think so.  But can you explain it to me again?

John: Sure.  People of all ages compare themselves to others. In-and-of itself, this is not a bad thing. It only becomes a problem when we value ourselves, or disvalue ourselves, as a result of these comparisons.

For example, when a person suffering from ressentiment judges another person as better than herself, she feels bad about herself as a person. She may even begin to resent the other person. If left unchecked, that resentment turns into depression and self-loathing, and even hate for the other person.

On the other hand, if she judges the other person as less than herself, she feels good about herself. She feels more powerful or more valuable than the other person, thereby demeaning the other person.

Maggie: Are you saying that some comparisons are okay, but they become bad when we disvalue ourselves based on the comparisons?

John: Yes.  You are exactly right.  Some comparisons motivate us to work harder.  And if we can identify when we are disvaluing ourselves as a result of comparisons, we can prevent the negative feelings from arising.  And if they do arise, we can begin to fix them because we are aware of their root cause. Does this make sense to you? 

Maggie: Yes.  I feel stupid because I am comparing myself to others at school.  But now that I have identified why I am feeling stupid, I can begin to work through those feelings.

John: You are very smart.  Identifying the problem is the first step towards getting rid of the negative feelings.

Maggie: But I still feel stupid, and a bit sad about it.

John: I know.  But now that we know why, we are on the right path towards getting rid of those feelings.  And, we are on the right path to prevent further bad feelings.

Maggie: So you are plagued by self-doubt, huh?

John: I am going to regret bringing that up, aren’t I?

Maggie: Yes, yes you are!

John: Good grief!

Maggie:  Did you just say “Good grief?”  Who are you, Charlie Brown?  No one says that any more.  Just so you know.

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