“Did I just say that? Everyone thinks I’m stupid.”
“Did I just do that? Everyone must think I’m completely incapable.”
“I got that answer wrong. I bet my friends all think I’m dumb.”
“Whenever I’m with other people I’m worried that they think I’m unintelligent.”
It’s normal to replay conversations in your head after the fact. And it’s also normal to worry about something you said. “Imposter syndrome”—when you feel like a “phony” and undeserving of your own success—is also a very real and common phenomenon.
But if you feel as if you’re preoccupied with being perceived as stupid—even among friends and family who know you well—there may be something more going on. Here’s what could be at the root of the problem and how to get a handle on it.
Why do I constantly obsess over people thinking I’m stupid?
If you obsess over people thinking you’re stupid, you might behave in certain ways as a result. Maybe you don’t speak up in groups out of a fear that whatever you say will come off as “dumb.” Maybe it’s just easier to avoid social interactions altogether, even though you’d actually like to go. Or perhaps you go anyway because you know you can have an alcoholic drink to “loosen up” and forget your fears so you’re more willing to talk to people.
Fear of sounding stupid or people thinking you’re dumb is often an aspect of social anxiety. You don’t speak up or attend social functions because you fear that if you do have to speak, you won’t be able to say anything intelligent or you’ll remain quiet, and as a consequence people might form an ill opinion of you.
In this case, the anxiety is telling you that you sound stupid, says Patrick McGrath, PhD, Chief Clinical Officer at NOCD. Social anxiety disorder is a type of mental health disorder where you have a fear of social situations due to an extreme worry of how you’ll be perceived, according to the Mental Health Foundation. We all want to make good impressions on others, but social anxiety pops in as a little voice telling you that you’re saying or doing something wrong, embarrassing yourself, or always saying the wrong things. Symptoms may include:
- Fear of being judged
- Worry about embarrassing yourself
- Fear of talking to strangers
- Avoiding social situations because of that worry you’ll embarrass yourself
- Being self-critical regarding social interactions
Fear and avoidance of social situations creates significant problems. You might struggle with making eye contact with others, striking up a conversation (even among people you know), going on dates, and it can affect your ability to go to school or a job, notes the Foundation.
Avoiding interacting with others takes its toll. People with social anxiety tend to experience more loneliness compared to people without the disorder, according to 2022 research in the Journal of Psychopathology and Clinical Science. What’s more, says Dr. McGrath, there’s also a real risk of developing a substance abuse problem if you use it as a crutch to “act like everyone else” or “come across as confident.” “People with social anxiety may turn to alcohol for liquid courage in social situations,” he says, corroborated by research showing that about one out of five people with social anxiety disorder also have alcohol abuse or dependence.
Substance abuse can then create social problems of its own, however, that only make social anxiety worse. When you’re less in control of your behavior, you may indeed be more likely to say or do something that you feel is “stupid.” Instead of giving yourself grace or forgiveness, you’ll then come down harshly on yourself, which “then reinforces those beliefs,” Dr. McGrath says. It’s a vicious cycle.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is often another potential factor behind the fear that people think you’re dumb or stupid. People with OCD experience uncontrollable, recurring, and distressing thoughts (obsessions), followed by repetitive behaviors (compulsions) that are done in an effort to neutralize those thoughts. Compulsions can be both mental and physical, including repeating, counting, seeking reassurance, avoidance, repeated checking, and rumination, among others.
OCD can manifest here in multiple ways. People with various themes of OCD may experience intrusive thoughts or worries in OCD about being—or being perceived as—dumb, stupid, or incapable (or any other negative opinion about your intelligence). Because it feels so uncomfortable to think that others might perceive you as dumb, you’ll seek relief with a compulsion: often reassurance-seeking or checking.
These compulsions take several forms, and can vary widely from one person to the next. As Dr. McGrath points out, a specific compulsion to counter an intrusive thought about your perceived intelligence might be doing a crossword puzzle or online memory quiz “to see if you can still do it,” asking a friend or partner if they think you come across as stupid, or seeking out an opportunity to be praised for your intelligence, like dropping a little-known fact into conversation. The goal is to feel better—if only for a moment—about your doubts, safe in the knowledge that others don’t see you as “stupid.”
The problem here is that you don’t always get what you’re looking for. You may not finish the crossword puzzle, ace the quiz, or get the response you want. And if you don’t succeed at those things, your obsessive worries use this as proof that you are stupid, says Dr. McGrath. That is not reality, of course, but it’s what OCD relentlessly says. “OCD tells you that one of the reasons why your compulsion isn’t working is that you’re not trying hard enough—so it tells you to try harder,” he says. That can create a dangerous cycle where you’re continually raising the stakes to prove to yourself that you are smart “enough.”
There’s also the risk that you will believe that the mere presence of an intrusive “I’m so dumb” thought is proof that the thought is valid, reasoning that you wouldn’t have those thoughts if people actually thought you were smart. But assumptions like these only increase symptoms of OCD, distress, and reassurance-seeking behaviors, research shows.
On the other hand, if you live with OCD, you may fear that you’ll do something embarrassing while performing compulsions or that those compulsions will make you look stupid to others.
For an outsider looking in, performing compulsions may look out of sorts—and as someone who has OCD, you may be hyper aware of this perception. “There’s a recognition in OCD that compulsions can appear wacky,” says Dr. McGrath. For that reason, you may fear that compulsions like repeated checking or reassurance-seeking will make others think that you’re confused, incompetent, or “stupid.” This might not manifest the same way around everyone you know. For instance, Dr. McGrath points out, family members tend to be more accepting of their loved ones, whereas friends, especially if they’re relatively new or mere acquaintances, may not accept them as readily.
If you have OCD and are obsessing over someone thinking you’re stupid, there also may be a social fear here: You don’t want to be evaluated and judged. As a result, this can bring about a lot of masking where you’re able to hide your symptoms in certain environments. “There are many instances where families of children with OCD will say that the school had no idea they have OCD because the student acts completely ‘normal’ in class,” Dr. McGrath shares.
When should you seek help for your worries?
When intrusive thoughts and compulsions done to tame them get in the way of your quality of life, it’s important to seek help. Seeing a clinician for a potential diagnosis like social anxiety disorder and/or OCD will get the necessary wheels in motion to help you find the right treatment and support. You do not need to be plagued by intrusive doubts about your own intelligence, especially if it prevents you from seeking friendship with others, keeps you from pursuing important opportunities, or causes you to avoid social situations.
It’s also important to keep in mind that even if reassurance-seeking makes you feel better in the moment, the relief is only temporary. Getting reassurance that you’re not, in fact, “dumb” only falsely teaches your brain that your fears were a reason for worry in the first place. When you continue to indulge OCD’s demands, rather than learning to accept uncertainty about how you’re perceived, your symptoms only get worse over time.
How to tame anxiety and obsessive thoughts about being stupid
Treatment depends on the underlying factors behind obsessive thoughts about being stupid or dumb. If social anxiety disorder is driving these thoughts, you’ll work with your clinician on deliberate mistake-making, says Dr. McGrath. “We do mistakes purposefully, and teach people that they can handle them,” he says. One way this might be put into action is going to McDonalds and asking for a Whopper (which is only available at Burger King).
“That’s a great way to learn that it’s worse in our head than in reality,” he explains. Other effective treatments include acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), which develops mindfulness and goal setting, as well as medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or anti-anxiety medications.
If OCD is the driving force behind these worries about being seen as stupid, then exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is important. ERP is the gold standard treatment for OCD because it challenges your obsessions and compulsions directly, interrupting OCD at its source. Your therapist will work with you to intentionally trigger an obsession (in this case, an intrusive thought like I’m so dumb or Everyone probably thinks I’m an idiot).
When your inclination is to immediately engage in a compulsion (taking an online quiz to “prove” to yourself that you are smart or slyly inserting a fancy word into your conversation) to rid yourself of the discomfort of feeling dumb, “we sit in the discomfort with no reassurance,” says Dr. McGrath. “We want people to see they can live their lives without believing what the OCD tells them. So, go out and make predictions and then see if they come true or not. You’ll learn that you can’t know or control everything, but you can handle it. That’s good ERP,” he says.
The good news is that both conditions are entirely treatable, and it’s quite common to have both OCD and social anxiety disorder, which is also called social phobia. In one study in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology in 2021, one-fifth of OCD patients were also diagnosed with social phobia, which was also linked to more severe symptoms of depression. When it comes to treatment, both social anxiety/phobia and OCD will be addressed together.
To develop a formal treatment plan, you can connect with qualified therapists at NOCD, who specialize in treating OCD and related disorders. The platform features face-to-face virtual appointments with a licensed therapist who is trained in ERP therapy. You’ll also receive between-appoint support via your therapist and the NOCD community. Book a free, 15-minute call to see how NOCD can help you.