We’ve all had the feeling.
That itching thought; “is everyone like this?”
Maybe you worry that other people are judging you, or that you’re destined to fail at everything you try to achieve. You may spend a lot of your life ruminating over these questions and the uncomfortable feelings that come with them. Or you may have lost touch with the fact that they are simply thoughts. They’ve become the truths of your existence, the puzzles and problems you must solve in order to fix your life.
But then one day you see through these worries and concerns, and the question comes forth;
“Why am I so insecure?”
Convinced that you are a good and ruthlessly honest self-evaluator, you put yourself to work improving yourself. You sign up for a course on how to impress people and come across well in the social and business realms. Then you try your best to discover a latent talent that would make life as easy as you’re told it should be. You read self-help books looking for the answer to the question of what’s wrong with you.
But what if instead of these things, you asked if the fundamental assumptions you have about yourself were even true? What if you considered for a moment that maybe your life doesn’t need to be fixed—that maybe you don’t need to be fixed?
What Is Insecurity?
At its core, insecurity is a lack of feeling certain, safe, or stable. It is often characterised by fear and anxiety.
As human beings, it’s in our nature to fear the unknown. For most of our history, we’ve had to navigate by biological instinct alone, and one of those guides that served us well was to avoid the shadows and the deeps of the forest in the dark of night, as well as the rushing rapids or precarious cliffs.
A rock is an insecure place to stand when it has the potential to break loose and plummet hundreds of feet into the ravine below. A hinge is insecure when the screws are loose and it could fall off at any moment. These visual metaphors show us that insecurity is ultimately a fear of falling in some way—falling down, falling off, or falling apart. This is probably why one of its most common dream manifestations, next to being naked in a crowd, is of falling in slow motion. To be insecure is to be unable to trust even the ground underneath your feet.
What Causes Insecurity?
There are kinds of insecurity that are grounded in the real world. Material insecurity arises when a person lacks the resources to be able to count on having a safe place to sleep and something to eat. Unfortunately, millions of people around the world suffer from this kind of insecurity, and the only meaningful solution is social action to improve the material conditions in society.
Most of us, however, mean something much less tangible when we say we’re “insecure.” We mean that we mistrust the stability of our status in the world.
We mean we aren’t sure whether people respect or care about us. We’re uncertain whether we’re good for anything or matter to and in the world. We lack confidence in the core of who we are. We wonder if our bodies or minds are about to betray us, or if a part of us is just broken.
Insecurity is largely dictated by our self-perception, and there are three main factors affecting this construct: our relationships with ourselves, our relationships with other people, and our relationships with the wider world.
Fortunately by better understanding each factor, you can start to better understand why you may be so insecure.
Your Relationship with Yourself: The Inner Critic
More than any other relationship, it is the way you relate to yourself that has the biggest impact on whether you feel insecure. Much of the time, when you are flooded with worries about your worth, your inner critic is to blame. When your inner critic is overactive, it’s like being followed around by a loud group of Internet trolls who jeer at even your smallest mistakes and call you names.
But why are we haunted by such cruelty from within?
While the concept of the conscience is goes back thousands of years, Freud was one of the first in the modern era to label and study this critical inner voice, which he called the superego. He believed it was something shaped by social rather than cosmic forces. According to Freud, the superego reflects wider social values, however it is instilled by our parents. This means that regardless of the values of the society in which we live, we have harsher superegos if our parents were more critical of us when we were growing up.
Recent neuroscientific research supports Freud’s model of the mind by linking his description of the superego with metacognition. Studies show that this part of the mind imposes order by observing, analysing, and assessing other cognitive processes, and that we are more likely to act in a conscientious way when metacognitive processes are stronger and more active—when we can be self-critical of our own thinking.
The superego theory has also been shown to correspond with theories of attachment. According to attachment theory, the extent to which we trust others and the world depends on how stable and trustworthy our relationships with our parents were. Interpersonal trauma has been shown to foster greater attachment insecurity and to make people more prone to severe depression. In other words, people who have been severely harmed by people they trusted, especially their parents, are less likely to trust other people—and themselves.
Just as Freud posited that the superego can be healthy or unhealthy, and can provide benefits as well as drawbacks, research on metacognition and self-awareness shows that our ability to be self-critical can sometimes be beneficial and sometimes be harmful. The way we think about our thinking can either worsen or improve depression and anxiety. The key is whether we tell ourselves negative or positive stories about what our thoughts mean and what they tell us about who we are.
Your Relationship with Yourself: Overthinking
In general, overthinking has more of a negative than a positive effect. This doesn’t mean it’s better to be thoughtless and completely uncritical of ourselves. It means that many of us who have the good attribute of being thoughtful end up overdoing it a lot of the time, getting stuck in obsessive thought loops rather than stopping when we have finished a good-enough rational analysis of a situation. The psychological term for this kind of overthinking is rumination.
While it has been defined in different ways, rumination is best understood metaphorically in relationship to its original definition: the process by which certain herbivores regurgitate and re-chew the grass they have eaten. When we ruminate, we go back over the same thoughts and ideas again and again, even after prior attempts at such analysis have proven unfruitful. Many studies have shown that rumination is a major factor in depression, due at least in part to its power to reinforce overly general beliefs about past events and the self.
A more popular term for this phenomenon is “analysis paralysis.” When we overthink things, we can end up failing to make decisions or making poor ones when we had enough information to make a good decision. This happens because we mistrust and undermine our own thinking. We look for certainty when it’s impossible to achieve. Research shows that such overthinking or “analysis paralysis” worsens performance on mentally demanding tasks, lowers mood, diminishes creativity, and erodes willpower.
The character of Chidi Anagonye on the American television show The Good Place is a perfect example of this problem. Despite his robust sense of morality, mastery of ethical thinking, and profound desire to do good, he often ends up causing as much misery as crassly self-serving characters because of his inability to make decisions. Chidi tortures himself, turning even the smallest dilemmas into impossible crises. He negatively impacts others around him with his agonising, despite his best intentions. These negative impacts would go away completely if he had the confidence to make decisions in the absence of total certainty.
Relationships with Others: What You Hear
It’s not only your relationship with your parents that shapes your relationship with yourself. From an experience with a bully when you were five years old to the conversation you had with your partner three days ago, the way other people respond to you has an enormous impact on how you feel about yourself.
If you’re already hard on yourself, harsh words from another person are hard to dismiss, especially if you’ve heard them more than once. Whether you think of yourself as attractive or ugly, intelligent or stupid, or good or bad, has more to do with the feedback you’ve gotten from other people than from any other source of information.
Even if you have objective evidence to the contrary, such as a high score on an intelligence test, it can be hard to believe you’re smart if other people regularly tell you that you’re stupid. Even if you had kind parents that didn’t leave you with an overly harsh superego, you can still feel insecure if other people frequently say unkind things to you.
The problem is that other people aren’t objective reporters and that trusting their assessment makes us vulnerable to developing false beliefs about ourselves. This can happen even in the absence of relationships, when we falsely blame ourselves for having no friends. The truth is, we can become alienated, or become subject to others’ cruel words, for many reasons that have nothing to do with our inherent worth as people.
Relationships with Others: What You Say and How Others Respond
Part of the problem is that we often communicate with one another in hurtful ways. When we’re angry, we tend to lash out and blame someone or something else for how we feel. When we’re on the receiving end of such anger, we hear terrible things about ourselves. We tend to interpret these accusations as meaningful information about who we are, even though we all know how often we say things we don’t mean when we’re angry.
American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg developed Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to address this problem. Practicing NVC means communicating in a way that removes blame and other ways we try to induce shame and guilt in others, focusing instead on clear communication about our feelings. Rosenberg said he developed NVC not just because he wanted to encourage people to be more compassionate, but because our usual violent and blaming communication style isn’t very effective. It breeds resentment and insecurity, instigates a battle of wills, and encourages momentary capitulation destined to breed later rebellion and counterattack.
Your Relationship with the World
While the main causes of insecurity are how we talk to ourselves and how others talk to us, these can be complicated by our larger relationship with the world. We lose our sense of self-worth when our actions in the world aren’t as effective as we want them to be.
It’s natural to feel insecure when you’re struggling at school or work. If you’re getting negative feedback from a boss or professor, or even if you’re constantly frustrated with your inability to perform at a certain level, it’s going to affect your self-esteem. Other common struggles can eat at your self-worth, including difficulties getting physically fit, organising your home, cooking, or caring for children or pets. It’s normal to struggle in one or more of these areas, but the dominant narrative in modern society can make you feel like something is wrong with you when you can’t easily “do it all.”
How to Overcome Insecurity
Just as the causes of insecurity can be linked to our relationships with ourselves, with others, and with the world, so too are the keys to overcoming it.
The key to overcoming insecurity that arises from your relationship with yourself is to build self-confidence. To have self-confidence is to trust yourself and have faith in your own being in a way that is independent of your circumstances, abilities, or successes. The primary way to develop such a robust positive attitude toward yourself is to learn how to challenge and question your inner critic.
For example, the next time you find yourself saying, “I’m a hopeless failure,” ask yourself, “Is that true?” Come up with counter-examples. “I graduated college. I helped a friend in need. I’m financially independent.” None of these things are meaningless, but the inner critic would make it so. Similarly, practice cutting yourself off when you find yourself circling back and worrying over the same thoughts you’ve already run through multiple times. Let this be a sign you’ve thought through the issue at hand to the best of your ability, then commit to a decision based on your imperfect knowledge.
It’s the best any of us can do in that moment—remind yourself of that. It’s not only okay to misjudge and make a mistake, it’s the only way we actually learn.
The key to overcoming insecurity that arises from your relationships with others is to build self-knowledge. When you doubt yourself in the context of relationships, it means you don’t know enough about yourself to determine whether the things people say about you are true.
From stories of Socrates to cartoons of people of climbing mountains to ask the hermit at the top about how to be better people, we recognise that acquiring self-knowledge isn’t easy. But it’s possible. Relationships are actually the world’s best laboratory for the development of self-knowledge. Sometimes, partners, family members or friends say things that reflect their own unresolved issues, but sometimes they point out our blind spots with remarkable accuracy.
To look at such criticism honestly, of course, requires self-confidence, the ability to hold on to faith in your value as a person even as you examine your imperfections. The paradox is that the more you can accept your flaws, the more likely you’ll be able to do something about them. Shame is paralysing and an essential co-conspirator in fostering insecurity.
The key to overcoming insecurity that arises from your relationship with the world is to develop self-worth. When you’re insecure about how you are in the world, you need to prove that you have value. Sometimes, this is as simple as learning how to recognise the ways you already benefit others or are competent. At other times, you need to develop a particular skill or engage with the world in a new way.
Maybe there’s a specific shortcoming that makes you feel insecure at work, or maybe you’ve never felt as good about yourself since you quit dancing or painting or reading books. Whatever it is you want to improve, it’s important to understand that there’s nothing wrong with the way you are now. Picking a skill to develop won’t help you overcome insecurity if it becomes a new way to be hard on yourself. Enjoy the journey and the fun in finding new things to love.
The Value of Therapy
Building self-confidence is difficult, especially if you’ve recently gone through a period in which your self-esteem has suffered. But there’s one amazing tool that can help you simultaneously improve your self-confidence, self-knowledge, and self-worth: therapy.
There are many different styles of therapy, but the core of all of them is building a relationship with a therapist who listens to your self-talk without judgement, and responds in a way that allows you to recognise and change it. Many therapists will give you active feedback and help point you to false beliefs that are driving your insecurity and undermining your self-confidence. You might explore where these beliefs come from or address them only as they arise in the present, but either way, you’ll quickly learn that you’re far better than your inner critic usually lets you believe.
As you realise that your imperfections simply make you like everyone else, you can follow the famous advice of John Steinbeck: “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
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