They come into my 6th grade accelerated math class with confidence, believing that they are smart and capable. Few of them have ever experienced struggle in math and so, because of the nature of my course and my teaching philosophy, when they first encounter a concept that is not readily apparent, they panic.
Because in their minds, it’s not simply a matter of not understanding this one type of math problem, it’s a potential threat to their very self-image.
And as we progress through the first few weeks of school, that earlier confidence is often replaced with a growing sense of insecurity.
You’re never insecure unless you have something good that you want to hold onto.
In the aftermath of my divorce, I had a strange sense of nonchalant assurance. It was strange because my confidence, in both myself and my future, were at an all-time low. Yet, perhaps because I both had nothing else to lose and couldn’t summon the energy needed to be anxious about small things, I was gifted a respite from normal insecurities.
The more you have, the more you can lose.
For months, I lived almost without fear. Without inhibition. Without insecurity. I adopted a “whatever” attitude when it came to love or money or any of those other things we so desperately attach ourselves to. The chasm between what I wanted and what I had was so great that I couldn’t imagine ever crossing it.
When we desire something, we focus more on the pursuit of it than the lack of it. We may even reach a sort of truce, a tacit acceptance of its absence.
And then ever-so-slowly and without intention, I started to fall for someone who was supposed to only be passing through my life. And suddenly, I had something to lose.
And as science has found, we have evolved to fear loss almost more than anything else.
We all have times when we’re feeling anxious or uncertain. You may feel confident and adept in one area of your life and insecure about another. You may find that your doubt-whispering inner voice is triggered by certain situations and that your anxious brain, once activated, spirals into endless questions and worries.
At its core, insecurity indicates that we lack belief in ourselves.
Insecurity, although common, is not a healthy state to occupy for long. When we’re operating from a place of fear, we’re likely to make poor decisions and contaminate others with our own worries. When we express excessive doubts and try to grasp on too tightly, we have a tendency to push others away. And that’s not even counting the horrible way that insecurity makes you feel.
Signs of Insecurity
Not everyone responds to insecurity in the same way. Some people express it openly. Others try to stuff it down with their favorite junk foods. Or build big muscles in an attempt to hide their self-doubts. Insecurity can be found in the agoraphobe afraid to leave the house and in the high-powered executive who secretly feels like a fraud.
Even though the outward signs differ, there are certain internal signals that you can attune to in order to recognize when you’re feeling insecure –
If you find that you are consistently having strong emotional reactions that are out of line with the situation at hand, you may be experiencing a period where you are questioning yourself. These self-doubts mean that you can easily misinterpret or catastrophize normal exchanges.
Insecurity seeks certainty. And so it keeps asking questions in an attempt to either confirm or deny the fears. And no matter how many reassurances are uttered, it’s never enough. Sometimes these questions arise within our minds and our never vocalized. Rather, they are bounced around within our own echo chambers. These unasked questions are often even worse than the ones we speak because we have nobody to call us out on any irrational thoughts.
When you’re feeling insecure, you’re not comfortable in your own skin. This can lead to a feeling of being on edge or even irritable. This can manifest as a sense of wanting things to be different, feeling like you’re waiting for something to happen or even in an increased difficulty in sleeping.
Excessive Social Media Use
Whether you’re making comparisons with others or obsessively checking how many “likes” your recent post received, an increase in social media usage suggests that you may be having a crisis of confidence. Pay special attention to how your time spent on social media makes you feel. If it’s constantly making you feel “less than” and yet you’re continuing to return to source, your insecurity has become a problem.
Attention or Validation Seeking
Insecurity wants other people to tell you that you’re okay. It seeks an external stamp of approval to quiet the internal voices that question if you’re enough. If you notice that you’re increasingly looking for others to pay attention to you or express their approval, it’s a sign that your trust in yourself is lacking.
Causes of Insecurity
There is not a single, universal cause of insecurity. For some, it is a constant underlying buzz, always present and rooted in beliefs formed in childhood. Others experience it more on a situational basis, with a corresponding ebb and flow in intensity. By pinpointing some of the precursors to your own insecurities, you can begin to view them as a reaction rather than a core part of who you are.
Fear of Loss
This is probably the most common underlying source of insecurity. Maybe, like my incoming 6th graders, you fear losing the labels that you identify with. Or maybe you are concerned about losing status. Or wealth. Perhaps you are afraid that if you say the wrong thing or act the wrong way, that you will lose somebody that is valuable to you. Insecurity occurs when you have something but you fear that your grasp is not strong enough and that it will slip right through your reaching fingers.
Periods of Transition
Whenever we are in a state of flux, changing from one state or role into another, we often feel a sense of inadequacy due to underdeveloped skills and unmastered knowledge and a fear of the unknowns inherent in change. This can lead to a sense of being an imposter (even once the learning curve has leveled) or avoiding transitional periods whenever possible.
Times of Uncertainty
Some people handle a state of limbo better than others. For those prone to anxiety, periods of time that have an abundance of unknowns can give rise to insecurity. It’s not uncommon to fret over every decision, turning the perceived pros and cons over and again until your mind is spinning. This lack of trust in your abilities to make a solid choice can lead to decision paralysis or an acquired helplessness if decisions are always relegated to others.
Concern of Not Being Enough
This cause may begin in childhood, with an absent or hard-to-please parent giving the impression that you’re not good enough for them. This sense of insecurity may be generalized or may be tied to a particular skill or trait that your parent held in particular esteem. In adulthood, this sense of not being enough can develop after (or in anticipation of) rejection or abandonment.
Our brains despise a vacuum. So when you’re in a situation where you receive inadequate feedback or information, that void can trigger a sense of insecurity as you begin to ponder the worst. One of the problems with this type of insecurity is that it is difficult to tell what may be your intuition cluing you in that something is amiss and what is simply your brain telling you scary fiction.
Gaslighting or Emotional Abuse
This is the most malevolent insecurity, as it is intentionally cultivated by somebody else in an attempt to manipulate or control you. This sort of covert abuse is challenging to recognize and overwhelming in its intensity. If you’re starting to doubt yourself and your perceptions ay every turn and you cannot pinpoint a reason, you may want to examine your relationships for signs of control.
What NOT to Do to Overcome Insecurity
Insecurity is an awful feeling. It’s a restlessness, an agitation that precludes feelings of peace. It often causes us to act in unhealthy or ineffective ways as we search for external fixes for our internal plight. The following are some of the common methods attempted to eradicate insecurity that are ineffective at best and maybe even harmful.
Pretending to Be Someone You’re Not
There is definitely something to the adage, “Fake it until you make it” when you’re navigating a new situation or challenge. But some take this too far and assume an entirely new persona in an attempt to please others or fill a perceived role. This will ultimately only compound your problems as you begin to feel like you will only be accepted if you hide your true self.
Assigning Responsibility to Others
I see this response so often in my female students. When they’re feeling insecure about their looks (just like every other preteen and teenage girl on the planet), they often turn to social media in a search for validation and approval. With every “like,” their spirits soar. And then just one cruel or harsh comment can undo every positive reaction. And in a strange way, the negative comments ring more “true” because they echo the self-doubts that are already within. And there’s another problem with fishing for compliments – at some level, you always know that you’re baiting the hook.
I’ve noticed that when I’m feeling insecure, I develop an urge to purchase new clothes or makeup. This is a type of bandaiding, covering the discomfort with a temporary covering in an attempt to make me feel more confident. I’ve also noticed that this reaction often backfires, not only offering a short period of relief, but also creating feelings of regret.
This reaction is often seen in those struggling to avoid their ex’s social media. Their own insecurities are manifested in an obsessive focus on their ex and/or their ex’s new partner. It’s both a distraction from the insecurity and a source of fuel that feeds the insecurity. Like with bandaiding, it may feel good in the moment, but often leaves you feeling worse after.
Immediately Discounting the Feeling
Some people have trouble admitting to feeling insecure as it is seen as “weak” or vulnerable. When insecurity is immediately brushed aside without consideration, it leaves no room to understand and address the actual causes of the doubt. In the worst cases, the insecurity is hidden behind a steamrolling force of false bravado, the ego leaving little room for compassion.
Attempting to Control
It makes sense, doesn’t it? If we’re worried about losing something, we have a tendency to grasp on even stronger. As though we can prevent loss through sheer determination and force of will. For some people, insecurity manifests in an attempt to orchestrate everything around them. To make it “just so” so that they can maintain the illusion that control can replace trust.
What TO Do to Overcome Insecurity
Insecurity can become overwhelming. Your fear of taking the wrong step preventing you from moving forward at all. Your endless comparisons leading you to believe that you’ll never measure up. Your hesitation at facing the truth keeping you blinded.
Insecurity feels all-powerful. Yet you’re really the one at the helm. Here’s how you can learn to overcome your insecurity:
Accept That Certainty Is an Illusion
Consider for a moment the antonyms of insecurity – safety, protection, invulnerability, and certainty. Those are all states that we strive for. We yearn for that ultimate sense of security that the lucky among us experienced periodically as a child. And the reality is that even that occasional sense of ultimate stability was only because we were too young to understand how easily it could be threatened.
A state of insecurity is inevitable. No foundation is immune to cracks. No rug is completely slip-resistant. And change and loss are guaranteed. When you’re feeling insecure, it’s because you’re fighting against the natural and the inevitable.
There’s a sort of confidence that can come from accepting this impermanence. From stopping the illusion that if you just work hard enough, hold on tightly enough, or control everything enough, that you can keep things as they are.
Detach From the Outcome
When I first started dating again, one of the many fears that held me back was the concern that the relationship would end, like my marriage, with some sort of abandonment or betrayal. I led with that fear, feeling insecure in my ability to maintain a relationship with somebody who wouldn’t behave badly.
During one particularly difficult evening, I pulled out my journal and made two columns – things I can control and things I cannot control. Under the first list, I added items like choosing a partner, learning to handle my triggers and not tolerating abusive behavior. Betrayal and abandonment went in the second column. No wonder I was feeling insecure; I was trying to control the outcome when I could only influence the process.
No matter what you do or who you are, it will not be enough for some people. And as long as you have acted within your values, done your best to be kind and put forth your highest effort, they’re opinions don’t matter.
Strive to Get Out of Your Head
When you’re in an echo chamber, you risk only hearing your own critical thoughts bouncing back at you. It’s amazing how our minds can take one little fact (They didn’t text back immediately.) and spin it into an entire narrative (I bet they’re falling out love and they are currently flirting with someone that they met at lunch. I won’t go through that again. I wonder if I’ll be able to get out of the lease…).
And like with anything, the more you allow your mind to travel that path, the more of a habit it will become.
Take a break from your own thoughts. Surround yourself – and listen – to others. Even, perhaps especially, those you disagree with. Get moving, when your body is moving forward, your brain naturally tags along. Strive to enter a flow state through art or sport or work, where time ceases to exist and the activity has become all-consuming.
Recognize That Insecurity Is Often Fleeting and Cyclical
I’ve just wrapped my seventeenth year teaching. And I’m still insecure at the beginning of every school year. I doubt my abilities to form relationships with the kids, I worry that they will be unable to master the material and I question my own capacity with the mathematics. I still feel insecure, but it no longer bothers me. I trust that it will build through the first week of school and then begin to dissipate as I again find my stride.
And this is often how insecurity operates. It swells and recedes, according to the calendar or some other external rhythm. This sort of periodic insecurity doesn’t require much intervention. Just an acknowledgement (Oh, I’m feeling insecure again.) and faith that it will only be temporary.
Set and Accomplish Meaningful Goals
When everybody gets a trophy, every trophy becomes meaningless. It is much the same with our personal goals. When you set (and even reach) a low bar, you fail to build any confidence in yourself. In fact, you may even find that you outright dismiss your achievements because you know that they don’t really represent a challenge.
Insecurity begs us to set these safe goals, to stay in a place of guaranteed success. Yet staying there only feeds the self-doubt. Instead, try something new. Something scary. Something difficult.
Yes, you may fail (And so what if you do?). But you also might surprise yourself. And that trophy certainly has meaning.
Separate Mistakes From Your Character
When you’re feeling insecure, mistakes become very threatening. An error in judgment or a misstep can easily be interpreted as a defect in character, thus both confirming and inflating your feelings of unworthiness. When you’re operating from this place of low esteem, it’s easy to see others as flawless and fear that you are somehow irrecoverably broken.
Of course, neither is true. And your mistakes are a sign that you are learning and trying, which is an indication that you’re brave and persistent. Both excellent qualities to have.
The end of the first nine weeks is often a crisis point in my 6th grade accelerated math class. The kids are insecure, questioning their abilities no matter how many times I reassure them that struggle is normal and no matter how much they see the kids around them falter as all. Some give in to this feeling and drop out, preferring to move to class where they are again assured of their top standing.
But most tough it out. And even as they question their ability to master the math, they keep trying. When they receive a poor grade, they no longer see that number as a reflection of themselves. They begin to accept that struggle is not only inevitable, but often desirable. Instead of turning away from challenge, they embrace it.
They become willing to take risks, trusting that they will find their way through. Mistakes become normalized and simply part of the process. They slowly start to again see themselves as smart. As capable.
But this time, those beliefs are not so easily threatened because they have been constructed to withstand the inevitable tremors and obstacles that will come their way.
And ultimately that’s how to overcome insecurity – Not by believing that your foundation is solid, but by trusting that your footing is capable and malleable. That even when things change, you’ll be able to adapt and thrive.