5 Types of Smart Self-Saboteurs

Which one are you?

Eric Sangerma
Jan 14 · 8 min read
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Having a high IQ means you’re great at certain kinds of problem-solving. But this won’t always lead to greater joy and success in life.

Some extremely smart people keep making self-defeating choices. They get stuck in unpleasant situations and see no way to improve the situation.

I’d like to share five stories, with some details changed to protect anonymity.

1. The Constant Worrier

Andrew is a charming guy, he’s often the life of the party. He prides himself in being rational about everything, and he’s quick to make fun of superstitions or irrational thinking.

His friends don’t know that Andrew keeps losing sleep because of anxiety. He can’t stop worrying about his loved ones, and he keeps thinking about worst-case scenarios. He also worries about silly, inconsequential things, like small verbal gaffes and misunderstandings. Andrew’s wife believes he needs help with his anxiety — but Andrew dislikes the idea. He’s “the rational one” in their marriage, so he thinks his fears are rational too.

Researchers have found that worrying and verbal intelligence are linked.

People who spend a lot of time worrying and ruminating are likelier to score well in verbal intelligence tests. The same is true for people who like to self-analyze their own sadness. If you often ask yourself things like “why am I cursed with these problems?” or “why didn’t I try harder to prevent this?”, you probably have a well-developed verbal intelligence.

Of course, constant worrying won’t always lead to self-sabotage. But it can have a paralyzing effect, causing you to avoid big decisions or run around in circles. It also causes sleepless nights, physical stress reactions, and strained relationships.

If someone has an innate tendency to worry too much, it’s important to get help. That can mean therapy and medication in some cases. For some, it’s enough to write the ruminations down and practice mindfulness.

But some smart people reject the possibility of getting help.

According to psychologist Alice Boyes, “[s]mart people sometimes see in-depth thinking and reflection as the solution to every problem. Bright people are accustomed to succeeding through their thinking skills, but can sometimes overlook when a different approach would be more beneficial.

Even though rumination is counterproductive and exhausting, smart people may see it as necessary, and they won’t recognize that their worries are pointless.

If you’re prone to worrying 24/7, you should find out whether you have high-functioning anxiety or another mood disorder. These conditions are especially frequent among people with a high IQ, and they are treatable.

Additionally, it’s important to recognize the difference between pointless, repetitive worries and actual problem-solving. Pay attention to your thought processes and learn the right ways to handle anxiety spirals.

2. Burned-Out “Gifted” Child

Brianna used to be the smartest kid in school, talented at practically everything. She absorbed new information very quickly. It wasn’t easy for her to decide on a college major, but Brianna had big dreams.

Then things started going off the rails. College was harder than she expected, and Brianna didn’t know how to keep studying without constant positive feedback from her professors. Eventually, it was easier to stop showing up for class.

She also became too nervous to check her emails, dead-certain that every message was going to contain some kind of criticism. At 22, Brianna felt like a complete failure and she had no idea how to move forward.

Children who did very well at school grow up to feel disillusioned and anxious by the time they’re finishing college. They can’t handle stress well, they are isolated from others, and they have no idea what to do in life. Decades-old research backs this up: being called gifted as a child makes life harder later on.

There is a mismatch of expectations and reality. Kids who were exceptionally smart got told they were destined for greatness. Then they come to an environment where everyone else is just as talented, and they start doubting those promises.

Sometimes, these kids make it all the way to the job market, and then they plunge into depression when they can’t immediately get an awesome, high-ranking job (or any job). They’re especially frustrated if they see that others are succeeding with less talent or poorer qualifications.

Plus, with the state of the world right now, there’s a bunch of things they have to worry about — financial and health concerns, politics, etc. — and being smart doesn’t make any of it easier or less unnerving.

That’s when the self-sabotage comes in. Rather than finding ways to thrive in less-than-ideal circumstances, these former gifted kids start procrastinating. They are terrified of failure, so they avoid trying anything at all.

If you’re stuck in a burnout situation, the best way to go forward is to seek therapy. Behind your procrastination, there might be a mood disorder lurking — just like anxiety, depression is especially common among people with a high IQ.

There’s a winding road ahead of you, and you can only succeed in life if you let go of perfectionism. I recommend these wise words by Dr. John Amodeo:

“An attachment to being perfect reflects a lack of self-compassion and wisdom. The failure to embrace our humanity with its joys, sorrows, and imperfections leads to a rigid sense of self that shatters easily when we miss our goals. Emotional health requires gentleness toward ourselves as we embrace inevitable failures.”

3. The Confident Dupe

Cameron is a microbiology professor — a truly brilliant scientist and lecturer. Cameron is also 100% convinced that the moon landing was faked.

People tend to assume it’s a joke but Cameron is adamant, saying the evidence is all out there if you know where to look. It’s starting to cause some problems at work, which only makes Cameron more certain that there’s a conspiracy out there.

A 2014 study found that high intelligence is correlated with a higher level of generalized trust. The researchers remark that this is actually an evolutionary advantage — showing trust made it easier to cooperate. But being too trusting can have disastrous results in today’s world.

In addition to having a trusting nature, smart people may have an inflated sense of their own ability to understand complex systems. They think that a few hours of research is enough to understand how something works, and they may think themselves smarter than all the experts studying that subject.

Everyone needs to learn to resist hoaxes, especially if they think they’re immune to such silliness. Learn to ask the right questions (“Why would anyone create such an elaborate scheme? How many people would have to be involved to make this work? What’s in it for them?”) and never let your guard down.

Remember that having a degree won’t necessarily make you more skeptical — grad students are far likelier to believe in ghosts than undergrads!

4. The Arrogant Loner

Daniel is extremely good at finance, and his coworkers and managers happily rely on his insights. He’s also usually alone during breaks. When his colleagues tried to engage him in small talk, he didn’t seem interested, so they assume he likes to keep to himself.

In truth, Daniel is extremely lonely. He feels isolated at work, and he wants more friends in general. But he thinks people are uncomfortable around him because of his intelligence. For example, he has no time for small talk — he wants to talk about more challenging subjects than the weather. Clearly, people just can’t keep up with him.

The stereotype of the lonely genius is very pervasive in our society. This leads to a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Science confirms that “more intelligent individuals experience lower life satisfaction with more frequent socialization with friends.” Those with a high IQ may need more time to themselves.

But everyone needs friends, including introverts. And if someone believes that their high IQ sets them apart from the crowd, it gets far more difficult to reach out to others.

Keeping people at a distance makes it impossible to move forward. The habit may come from bad childhood experiences — lots of smart people felt left out as kids, and they developed coping mechanisms that aren’t useful anymore.

At the same time, there’s a bit of an ego trip involved here too. It’s tempting to believe you’re too special for most people to handle, or to think everyone is jealous of you.

There’s no secret formula for making friends — you just have to make a sincere effort.

Although it’s not intellectually challenging, small talk is important, especially now that we’re extra isolated because of the pandemic. Building casual, shallow bonds with people is the first step toward deeper ones.

Do your best to cultivate kindness and humility. Accept that some people won’t like you (and that’s okay) but plenty of others will.

5. The Risk-Taker

Eileen seems to have everything figured out. She’s a rising star at work, and people often come to her for advice because she’s great at solving (other people’s) problems.

Unfortunately, she’s got a gambling addiction nobody knows about. She keeps it quiet, draining her bank account over time. She’s pretty sure she can get all of it back though — as long as she keeps playing…

Some smart people are born risk-takers.

They are curious, confident, and energetic. This means they want to try new experiences, explore the highs and lows life has to offer.

This is why highly intelligent people are likelier to use drugs. Curiosity can lead to self-sabotage — an “I’ll try anything once” attitude can cause serious problems over time. Plus, addiction is often fueled by rationalization, and smart people are very good at rationalizing their bad choices.

Addiction isn’t the only danger to consider. Studies show that exceptionally intelligent people don’t always make sound financial choices: “Financial distress, such as problems paying bills, going bankrupt or reaching credit card limits, is related to IQ scores, [and] higher IQ scores sometimes increase the probability of being in financial difficulty.

It’s important to realize that risk-taking isn’t a bad thing, as long as you find positive ways to challenge yourself. Hobbies, volunteering, ambitious personal projects can help keep you occupied.

Practicing mindfulness is also a good way to improve your decision-making process. It helps you cut through the rationalizations and stop yourself from getting stuck in a loop of bad ideas.

Of course, you don’t have to do any of it alone. In particular, people with addictive tendencies should seek out help as soon as possible. This can mean treatment and counseling, but help from friends and family is invaluable too.

Nothing Is Written In Stone

If you recognized yourself in this list, there’s no reason to despair. Self-sabotage can happen to anyone, and there are plenty of ways to undo the damage.

Being smart isn’t a magic spell that will make your life easier. But it’s also not a curse. Our decisions are up to us, they’re not defined by genetics or any other factor.

To each man shall his own free actions bring both his suffering and his good fortune. — Virgil

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Eric Sangerma

Written by

Dad, Husband, Entrepreneur, Co-Founder of Wholistique. Connect with me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ericsangerma/

Wholistique

Our goal is to increase health and wellness awareness , to promote healthy lifestyle behavior through well-researched content. We aim to educate and inform, as well as to raise debate and reflection. Check us out: http://wholistique.com

Eric Sangerma

Written by

Dad, Husband, Entrepreneur, Co-Founder of Wholistique. Connect with me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ericsangerma/

Wholistique

Our goal is to increase health and wellness awareness , to promote healthy lifestyle behavior through well-researched content. We aim to educate and inform, as well as to raise debate and reflection. Check us out: http://wholistique.com

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