What is insecurity?
Insecurity is a state of dread based on the premise that we are in some way inadequate, emerging whenever we struggle with life changes and setbacks. That could be at work, or in relationships, a break-up, redundancy, moving to a new town or country, the arrival of a child, or the stress of life in general.
At such times thoughts might turn to the burden we are carrying, our aloneness, helplessness or inadequacy. Side by side with feelings of edginess, anxiety, depressed mood, restlessness and fear. We may also be plagued by worries:
- Will I be all right?
- Can I cope?
- Am I good enough
- What if things go wrong, or get worse?
- Sometimes life is too much for me
- I am not good enough
Moments of dread may come with an acute sense of isolation or loneliness as if we are cut off from the world, yet carrying the weight of it on our shoulders.
This state of inadequacy is often confused with ‘low confidence’, But while confidence is a matter of experience in life (which comes from getting out of our comfort zones) insecurity seems to point to something deeper.
Some people are plagued by insecure feelings that trace back to childhood. Often this is linked to feeling abandoned or neglected, or made to feel that we are inadequate in some way. Difficult home experiences: the death of a parent, family break-up, or constant changes of residence may compound this. Or difficult experiences such as bullying or social exclusion in teenage years may be another source.
As the child grows insecure thoughts and feelings may become ingrained, ready to erupt as life changes come along. It is important to realise that the problem is kept going by the negative thoughts we have about ourselves, and that it is possible to change these.
Types of human insecurity
Insecure feelings may refer to life as a whole, which can produce generalised anxiety. Or it can manifest in specific areas of life, or as self-judgments, some of which are listed below.
Low self-esteem. This is based on the self-judgment that we are worthless or inadequate. Such thoughts often trace back to an earlier stage of life, leading to general anxiety.
Material insecurity. This should not be confused with real life problems that arise from social disadvantage, poverty or unemployment. These are enough to make anyone wonder whether they can cope. In this type of anxiety individuals worry that they will never have enough, no matter how well paid they are. Again, this may refer back to earlier experiences in life. Or it may relate to worries about future disasters that never happen.
Possessiveness. This refers to insecurity in relationships, and may manifest as jealousy. Based on the idea that one is not good enough sufferers believe (wrongly) that they are about to be abandoned by their partner. Typically, they see themselves as inadequate and their partners as more attractive. Or else that partners will be lured away by someone else who is attractive. If unchecked this attitude can lead to clinginess, control freakery, or endless anxiety about partners’ whereabouts. Some psychologists believe that the problem stems from broken attachments in earlier life, in which the child felt abandoned.
Imposter Syndrome. This is grounded on the self-judgment that one is a fake, and usually appears in the work-place, or at college or university. For a full account of causes and treatments see this article here.
Worries about body image. This is not the same as full-blown body dysmorphia, which is a more serious condition that may be linked to an eating disorder. This is a milder problem in which individuals worry that they look unattractive in comparison with others. This may, or may not, be linked to specific physical flaws. We may think of such people as not feeling secure inside their own skin.
Social Anxiety. This is an incredibly common problem in which people dread meeting others, believing that they are unworthy of attention. It may come with specific worries about mixing in a crowd, not knowing what to say or do, or it may be sourced in a fear of rejection. As a result many social phobics avoid social encounters.
Fundamentally, all human beings are insecure. It comes about from the fact that we are embodied human beings living in an isolated consciousness in a complex universe. In a life that must end with personal death, and in which we frequently feel alone. This deeper insecurity is known as existential dread.
This has been a major theme in western philosophy over two millennia and is referred to in the writings of the Stoic philosophers, and in Existentialist writers such as Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre. All of them stressing the plight of the lone individual struggling to make sense of life in an alien world. Some spiritual writers also address this problem; most notably Alan Watts in The Wisdom of Insecurity.
Ultimately, this is a human problem that can only be overcome through acceptance of the absurd, or though spiritual change. This falls outside the scope of this article, which addresses psychological, or ego insecurity.
Since Freud psychologists have sought to explain the general problem of insecurity by pointing to attachment insecurity (see above) or to problems with the Ego. In the latter case insecurity comes from ego cravings that are impossible to satisfy: to be wealthier, more successful, more admired, more powerful than we really are. Yet these cravings seek to cover up the deeper insecurity of existence.
One way the ego seeks to overcome its insecurity is through the delusion of control. On the premise if that if we only worry enough then we might be able to control situations, people and events so that we will not come to harm. Unfortunately, life cannot be controlled and as setbacks occur the control freak experiences still more anxiety and insecurity.
How to overcome insecurity
In what follows I describe some steps than address insecurity.. The key to making this approach work is to identify, accept and defuse from the thoughts and feelings that maintain the problem. If insecure thoughts have been around from a long time repeated practice may be required. The approach is closely related to developing resilience, which I have written about elsewhere on this blog.
First map out what the state of insecurity means to you. This could entail feeling jittery, nervous, anxious, or worrisome. Or it could be something harder to define, like a feeling of dread that seems hard to pin down.
Now identify the context. Insecurity is nearly always linked to specific life events: changes in work, relationships and family life; or to setbacks and life disasters. What just happened (or what did you hear about) a few moments before the state supervened? It might help to write this down. For example: I just learnt I was turned down for the position I applied for, and now I’m upset.
Now identify the thoughts and judgments you are processing about the event. Some examples are given in the first paragraph of this article. My observation in clinical practice is that the most common insecure thought is: I am not good enough.
At this point it can also be useful to identify the voice of your Internal Judge, who relays this judgment over and over to you in your head. Use this process here to neutralise the judge.
Next use a normalisation process to remind yourself that insecurity is human, it is common, and it happens a lot when life changes become too overwhelming for us. There is nothing at all abnormal about it.
Soothe those painful feelings with self-compassion: sidelining the Internal Critic, embracing your imperfections, and exercising self-nurturing.
Once you have completed the tasks of normalising, accepting and self-soothing you are ready to defuse from the thoughts handed down to you by your Internal Judge. This can be as simple as watching the thought float away as if it were a balloon carried away by the wind. Other thought defusion devices are described here.
If you feel ready to do so confide in a trusted friend, partner or family member. One thing that can make insecurity hard to bear is the sense of being alone with it. Remind yourself that you are never alone, and that many others have experiences of insecurity they might be willing to share.