By Hara Estroff Marano, published on July 1, 2009 - last reviewed on November 20, 2015
I am falling in love with a brilliant, sexy, accomplished scientist, and it's wreaking havoc on my self-esteem. Growing up I was a geek and an honors student, overweight and not very popular or pretty. At home I was called stupid for getting Bs and made fun of for being overweight. My mother nicknamed me "Ugly." But when I entered college, I grew into myself and embraced my quirky sense of humor. People liked my nerdiness. I lost weight and turned into something of a beauty. All of a sudden, men were telling me how beautiful and interesting I was. It took a while to get used to the attention. By 25, I had become comfortable with who I was and proud of my intelligence, love of books, and knowledge of politics, arts, and music. Then I went back to school and the scientist turned my life upside down. Suddenly all my confidence is gone. Chemistry is completely over my head, and I have never been to Thailand or South Africa. I wonder why he likes me. I am "Ugly" again. The feeling of inferiority and the fear that he will leave me are preventing me from letting go of my heart.
Please pack up "Ugly" and send her back to your mother ASAP. Maybe your mother still has some use for a whipping girl. You don't, and certainly not if she's going to sneak back into your psyche whenever you encounter someone you deem smarter or more worldly than you, obviously qualities you value highly. There are quite a few of those people in the world (especially at universities). It's delightful to be around them—but not if you suddenly turn on yourself and worry that you don't measure up. The wonderful thing about truly accomplished people is that they're usually looking to be around people who are interesting in their own right. They are not generally looking for a partner to write an introduction to a chemistry text or a travelogue of the places they've been. Romance isn't a competition, and it's energized by differences. ChemMan finds you interesting and attractive. Part of your attractiveness is probably the confidence you exude—or did. "Ugly" has returned not because you suddenly lost your appeal but because you have delegated to ChemMan the power to decide how attractive you should feel. Please take that power back from him. And please note: You are attractive with or without the presence of ChemMan in your life. If you want him in your life, you're going to have to find a way to quiet the resurgent old voices before they throw your insecurities into glaring relief and make you behave in off-putting ways, such as constantly seeking approval. That's not you, and that didn't get you where you are. He's more accomplished than you for a reason; he's further along in his career. You might find it helpful to up the quotient of activities that keep you from focusing too much on yourself: going out for a run or workout, watching a funny movie, helping someone else.