A few weeks ago, I was in line waiting for a cup of coffee behind two women who appeared to be about my age—you know, young, about 60. I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation, which in a nutshell, was one of the women talking about why she hadn’t shared her thoughts in a meeting the day before. Even if I hadn’t overheard the reason, I know I could have finished her sentence -maybe because I have heard it so many times as a psychologist, but also because I have felt it and said it myself on a few occasions.  Drum roll— she said, “I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to sound stupid. You know, I wasn’t sure that it was what they wanted to hear… not sure I was prepared to share my thoughts yet … There it is! We not only hate feeling stupid we actually avoid anything that we fear could make us feel stupid. To summarize,  we fear looking or feeling stupid to others who, ironically, also fear feeling and looking stupid. Yep, this is true!

Apparently, the fear of feeling stupid in front of others is a universal concern that paradoxically unites us in our shared vulnerability. This anxiety often stems from a deep-seated fear of judgment and the potential for embarrassment—a feeling that can significantly hinder our personal and professional growth. However, it is essential to recognize that this fear is not an isolated experience but a common thread that connects us all. Once we get our heads around this idea, we can take more risks and push ourselves forward toward exciting challenges and opportunities. We can overcome the fear of feeling stupid and use it to our advantage– a reminder that if we approach it with curiosity and confidence, growth will happen.

Our Brain Trying to Protect Us from the Fear of Feeling Stupid

To be clear, we will probably never eliminate this fear totally, but being aware of it and challenging it is necessary to keep us from holding ourselves back from experiences, growth, and success. Our fear of looking stupid can lead to avoidance behaviors, limiting opportunities for learning and development. This fear is rooted in our brain’s center for emotional processing, which triggers a fight-or-flight response in the face of perceived threats. The brain can distinguish between a real threat that warrants an anxious response and simply our fear of looking stupid.  Recognizing this can empower us to challenge and reframe our fears to signal to the brain that this is simply an emotional response rather than a reflection of threatening reality.

Our brains are wired to protect us from discomfort, including the discomfort of feeling inadequate. This protective instinct can lead us to avoid new challenges, preferring the safety of our established knowledge and skills. This behavior is a form of self-preservation, aiming to keep us within the boundaries of our comfort zones. However, equating the feeling of stupidity with not knowing and our discomfort with uncertainty creates a vicious cycle. It inhibits our growth as we shy away from situations that might expose our vulnerabilities or highlight our gaps in knowledge. The very thing that our brain needs to stay strong is more opportunities to fill in our knowledge gaps and reinforce our confidence when we push ourselves out of our comfort zones.

I get it. This is easier said than done, but let’s consider the following.

Fear of Feeling Stupid is JUST fear of Our Vulnerability 

Feeling ‘stupid’ is not just about lacking knowledge—it’s intricately tied to feelings of shame, weakness, and the fear of being judged. This visceral reaction to not knowing something is profoundly human, reflecting our deep-seated need for belonging and competence. However, it’s essential to challenge our assumptions around this reaction: Is stupidity truly about not knowing, or is it about not knowing yet? Our societal emphasis on speed and immediate understanding further compounds this issue, fostering a belief that equates rapid knowledge and inherent knowing with intelligence and worthiness. Thus, if we don’t grasp something quickly, we label ourselves as ‘stupid’ and as disappointments to those around us. Maybe even whispering to ourselves that it’s better to wait and say nothing until we are really sure about the idea and if it will be accepted. This not only keeps us in a cycle of self-doubt but prevents the expression of creative and innovative ideas that are different from the norm or the usual way of thinking.

The Paradox of Avoidance

In our attempt to shield ourselves from the discomfort of not knowing, we ironically deepen our ignorance. Avoiding new challenges doesn’t preserve our sense of intelligence or competence; it merely solidifies our fears and insecurities. By equating feeling stupid with an inherent lack of knowledge, we lose sight of the essential nature of learning and growth: the transition from not knowing to knowing. Engaging in open communication and seeking constructive feedback can also help overcome the fear of looking stupid. This involves actively seeking opportunities for growth and learning, even in the face of potential criticism, and viewing such experiences as valuable for personal development.

Comparison Fuels Our Fear of Feeling Stupid

We are social beings, so of course, our social interactions are essential and contribute to our emotional well-being. But maybe we give it too much power.  We rely heavily on comparison, which compels us to gauge our standing, abilities, and achievements against our peers. While sometimes motivating, such comparisons often serve as a double-edged sword, mainly when they contribute to our fear of looking stupid. The underlying issue with comparison is that it places us in a perpetual state of evaluation, where our self-worth becomes contingent on outperforming others or meeting specific external standards. This relentless benchmarking distorts our self-perception and amplifies our fear of inadequacy and public embarrassment.

When we compare ourselves to others, we tend to focus on areas we perceive ourselves as lacking. This selective attention magnifies our deficiencies, real or imagined, fueling a narrative that we are somehow less competent or knowledgeable. The fear of looking stupid, then, becomes not just about our feelings of inadequacy but about how we believe we are perceived in the eyes of others. This social aspect of fear intensifies its impact, making us more hesitant to take risks, ask questions, or venture outside our comfort zones. Moreover, in today’s digital age, where social media platforms showcase curated slices of success and achievement, the pressure to compare and measure up is ever-present, exacerbating our fears of falling short and looking foolish.

Embracing the Discomfort of Not Knowing

Despite its discomfort, feeling “stupid” may actually be our signal that we are on the edge of transformation. This is the intersection where we can make a clear choice to either avoid and wait until we are sure we won’t feel stupid, look stupid, or worry about how we will be perceived ( Spoiler alert: waiting to never feel stupid isn’t coming) or we can push forward. We can choose to recognize this feeling as a signal of our current knowledge and understanding’s boundaries, prompting us to push beyond them. Recognizing that we “don’t know what we don’t know” propels us towards greater consciousness and curiosity. It’s a call to action, inviting us to explore, inquire, and learn.

Embracing the discomfort of not knowing can catalyze profound personal growth. Rather than retreating at the first sign of uncertainty, we can lean into it, recognizing that true learning often begins with acknowledging our lack of knowing, yet. This acknowledgment doesn’t signify failure but rather the first step in a journey of discovery. By staying curious and open, we transform our relationship with the unknown, shifting from avoidance to engagement. And this is where the magic happens. Our confidence rises, our imagination is triggered, and our brain builds new networks, keeping it strong and healthy.

Thank you, Fear of Feeling Stupid, for the reminder and the push!

If you liked this post, please pass it on! xo