Before you read this post, here’s a bit of a heads-up… It’s probably not going to be an easy or comfortable read. It is entirely possible that some of its contents may induce uneasiness and even embarrassment. You might experience a tinge of defensiveness. You may also (understandably) consider some bits to be too academic and a tad weighty for a blog.
But I urge you to read this article anyway.
Why? Because it comes from a loving place. And because it is well-intentioned.
And because I’m hoping that it will help you identify and perhaps even come to grips with (what I believe to be) one of the greatest impediments to personal happiness and contentment, namely emotional insecurity.
The following is not a criticism. It is an observation. My observation. Of myself and of my fellow human being. This is not about breaking oneself down or trying to live up to some impossible ideal. None of us are perfect. I’m not trying to challenge you (too much). The aim of this blog is to get you to just stop for a moment. And think.
So, if you start to feel uncomfortable, stop scrolling down. You can always return to it when you’re ready. And feel free to skip over the scholarly bits if you find yourself ‘tuning out’. I felt I had to include them to back up the anecdotal stuff.
Let’s be honest, we all have some form of insecurity. I actually consider a small degree of emotional insecurity to be quite a healthy thing in an individual. Mild insecurity can compel us to acknowledge our shortcomings. Our faults and failures can teach us valuable lessons. They breed humility.
It’s been my experience that even the most (outwardly) self-assured people grapple with hang-ups or wish that they could change some aspect (or aspects) of themselves. I like it. It makes them more interesting – especially if they have the courage and integrity to admit to it.
But there is a certain type of individual I frequently encounter who I liken to a ‘bottomless pit’ of emotional insecurity. Their self-confidence is so compromised, that no matter how much people affirm, reassure and praise them, their default response seems permanently set to ‘I’m not good enough’ mode.
I find they’re very easy to recognize…
That’s because I used to be one of them.
Surprised? Don’t be.
Extreme insecurity is usually marked by a preoccupation with winning the approval of other people – and I’m willing to bet that (if they felt safe enough to do so) many celebrities and other public figures would admit that their initial desire for prominence and fame was, in no small measure, fuelled by an underlying need for widespread affirmation and approval to appease their insecurity. Studies have shown that low self-esteem or a diminished sense of self-worth can often manifest in overcompensatory behaviour such as narcissism or excessive vanity and self-aggrandizing.
But it’s not just actors, pop stars and politicians seeking validation to fill the void of inadequacy or self-doubt. The social network has made it possible for anybody and everybody to make contact with not only their friends, but also their inner-narcissist. For every person using social media as a genuine means of staying connected, there are many more using it to flaunt themselves – in the hope of garnering praise and congratulation.
Of course, not all narcissistic behaviour is bad. There is such a thing as ‘healthy narcissism’ – which Sigmund Freud argued was an essential part of normal development. Indeed, I believe it’s crucial to have a favourable regard for and a realistic interest in one’s self – if one is to cultivate self-respect. But unhealthy or ‘destructive narcissism’ is symptomatic of a deeper problem. And it’s disturbingly rife.
There are several differing studies on the subject, but I’ve long felt that extreme narcissism is a by-product of debilitatingly low self-esteem – the foundations of which can be traced back to the formative years of a person’s life. In other words, their childhood…
In fact, in “Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development”, Erik Erikson, a developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst (famous for, amongst other things, coining the phrase “Identity Crisis”), goes even further – by organizing human life into eight stages of development that extend beyond childhood to early, mid and late adulthood (which, for me, reinforces the idea that we are all indeed ‘a work in progress’).
But I’m convinced that it’s the early years of a person’s life that have the most impact on their development and affect the quality of their adult years. I maintain that if you know someone who is troubled or riddled with ‘issues’ and you’re looking for an explanation for their dysfunction – all you need do is follow the trail of breadcrumbs (and destructive behaviour) back to their childhood.
I won’t dilute the core message of this article with the details of where my past insecurities originated, but let’s just say that my story is by no means unique. So many people have struggled to ‘fit in’ whilst growing up; how many countless others have experienced the sense of isolation or ‘otherness’ – and the subsequent shame and self-loathing – that comes with being ‘different’? And we’ve all experienced some early form of rejection and disapproval from peers and even parents. To a fledgeling spirit, these factors alone can be extremely destructive. But can you imagine how much more catastrophic the damage becomes when you add trauma or abuse to the equation? Or blatant discrimination? Parents’ divorcing? Domestic violence?
If you think I’m piling it on just to make a point, it might interest you to know that I’m acquainted with many individuals who’ve grown up having experienced all, yes all, of the above! The phrase ‘scarred’ psyche hardly applies to these adults when you consider just how fresh, (and easily reopened) so many of these deep emotional wounds still are. And yet, they keep them so well hidden. That’s because people have canny ways of masking their insecurities.
I ought to know. I’ve employed several forms of camouflage (and self delusion) over the years to conceal mine. Perhaps you’ll recognize some of these examples in others. Or even yourself?
“The Life of The Party” : When I was a young man in my 20’s and early 30’s I would often compensate for feeling intimidated or unsure of myself by behaving in an overly-confident, exceedingly gregarious manner at social gatherings. I spoke resoundingly and didn’t mind taking the opportunity of dominating the conversation. My outgoing manner and unfailing banter would often attract an audience – and I recall how many times I unashamedly lapped up their attention, basking in (what I haughtily believed to be) their admiration! I’m blushing as I write this, by the way.
There were, of course, those who saw through (and sometimes past) that facade of self-confidence – but most people fell for my charismatic ‘performance’ – and invitations to many more dinners and parties flooded in. People are always attracted to confident individuals. They’re inspirational and enlivening. But know this : true confidence doesn’t roar. It has a quiet dignity – and doesn’t need to make a display of itself.
Nowadays, I choose to attend intimate, less raucous gatherings where I can enjoy more meaningful exchanges with people. But every now and then – while attending a work-related event – during the course of the evening, I’ll inevitably hear a booming voice rise above the buzz of general chatter in the room. Scanning around for the source, I’ll soon discover a group of people clustered around one beaming individual, holding court. And then, after briefly eavesdropping on the schmoozer’s repartee (I’m always curious to see if the material has changed much), I’ll flash him or her a knowing smile.
“The Rescuer” : I wouldn’t say that I suffered from a full-on ‘saviour complex’, but I most certainly put the needs of others before those of my own. There are some who would consider such a self-sacrificing tendency to be quite a noble and virtuous quality. I beg to differ. For while it is important and good to help others, habitually doing so at the expense of yourself will eventually lead to resentment, bitterness and even anger. My overly-accommodating manner and need to please everybody spoke more of my insecurity than any altruistic instinct I might have been guided by. Simply put, feeling useful and needed fed my hunger for approval.
Nowadays, I’ve learned to (politely) say “no” when a request trespasses boundaries of comfort. And when people ask for my help or assistance – I still give of myself wholeheartedly, but now know when and how to extricate myself from their dilemma and leave them to get on with it. And guess what? They do.
“When I loved myself enough I learned to meet my own needs and not call it selfish.”
– Kim McMillen (author of “When I Loved Myself Enough”)*
“The Competitor” : When you’re insecure, you’re very hard on yourself – and deeply afraid of failure. Even more frightening is the prospect of having to admit to your failures. This fear engenders a will to win or succeed, no matter what. Throw in a hefty dollop of testosterone and you have a recipe for disaster! I developed a seriously competitive streak as a young man – that led me to play childish games and pursue foolish rivalries. A little competitiveness is good, but when things didn’t go the way I wanted or if I didn’t emerge on top of a situation, I was crushed! I didn’t know how to lose gracefully. I wasn’t gracious towards the victor. Why? Because I didn’t know how to extend grace to myself. Instead of patting myself on the back for putting in a valiant effort, I berated myself harshly. It’s as if I needed to win all the time so that others would admire me and I would consequently feel better about myself. Interestingly, whenever I did notch up a success, the resultant euphoria didn’t last very long – and soon thereafter I was onto the next challenge and conquest.
I know many, mostly men (there’s that testosterone again!) and women who set themselves up for failure, precisely by being deathly afraid of it. Ironic isn’t it? That same fear of falling short of expectations makes them fiercely ambitious and often combative in their personal and professional lives. They become sucked into the culture of one-upmanship that’s so prevalent in today’s society – a society that values bigger, better and faster. That is not to say that all who set out to achieve success are necessarily insecure – but when the individual is a relentless over-achiever; is materialistic; tends towards obsessive perfectionism; is a ruthless go-getter who pursues success and power at all costs or furthers their personal interests at the expense of others, then the insecurity-alert alarm bells go off in my head.
The above represent just some examples of how my self-esteem issues played out during the course of my early adulthood. But a lack of confidence or anxiety about oneself can manifest in a myriad of other (surprising) ways too.
Forgive me for assigning ‘labels’ to these archetypes. Insecurity is layered and varying in degrees from person to person. And whilst I don’t wish to oversimplify a complex issue that manifests in nuanced ways within each individual – I do find that when one gives language to something, it immediately becomes more tangible and relatable…
“The Control Freak” : Sticklers for perfection who think that if they’re not in control all the time, then they will re-live their childhood angst and disappointments.
“Power Junky” : People in positions of power who abuse their authority or people who are overly-authoritative. They make up for their deep insecurities by venting their frustrations on others or humiliating them. They needn’t be high-flying executives either. I was once barked at by a civil servant who knew very well that I had been queuing for hours to renew my driver’s license and would be unlikely to put up a fight. I gritted my teeth as I watched him – barely able to contain his smug satisfaction.
“Deflectors” : In my experience, these take two forms : The person who can never accept a compliment because they have so little faith in themselves – and the individual who becomes defensive and truculent when they receive criticism of any kind.
“The Conversation Hogger” : those who selfishly and habitually dominate conversation in groups and one-on-one scenarios; typically don’t give others the opportunity to get a word in edgeways; will soliloquize endlessly about themselves and their lives, paying scant heed to what others have to contribute. This individual will probably never get around to uttering the words “So, how are you doing?” (and mean it) – and if they do, it will be more of a socially appropriate afterthought rather than a sincere question born out of genuine interest. Some would remark that this person simply loves the sound of their own voice – but I don’t think this person really loves anything about themselves at all. The need to be the presiding voice in company speaks more of this individual’s need to assert themselves and self-promote, in an attempt to garner admiration and approval.
“The Bully” : This sort of behaviour isn’t limited to school playing grounds. Bullying and intimidation are rife in the social arena, the corporate world and on the internet (where anonymity and detachment offer cowardly refuge from reprisals). The bully feels threatened by others and copes with his/her fear by picking on them. Of all the insecure types, bullies arguably do the most damage to society – because victims of bullying often become perpetrators themselves. More disturbingly, I witnessed (during my schooling years) how many educators and authority figures were complicit in this reprehensible form of oppression, by turning a blind-eye to it.
“The Critic” : You know someone like this I’m sure. Nothing is ever good enough for them. Terminally over-critical, they seem determined to always be disappointed and disgruntled with everything and everyone. Posturing as individuals of discernment and superior taste, they complain, whine and sigh in the most vocal way – when, in all likelihood, nothing is ever good enough for them because they don’t feel good enough about themselves.
“The Self-Saboteur” : Often, when a person grapples with incessant self-doubt, they can become their own proverbial ‘worst enemy’ – by constantly listening to the voices of dissent in their heads. By doing so, they often undermine their own success and ultimately rob themselves of happiness. Think of the person who constantly finds fault (and therefore, an excuse to break up) with all their partners to avoid intimacy or having to forge a meaningful relationship, for fear of being hurt. Or how about the determined under-achiever who dismisses opportunities for professional or personal advancement and yet constantly bemoans the absence of success in either department. Self-saboteurs desperately want to be happy and yet don’t allow themselves to be – because they consider themselves to be unworthy of it. Of course, a certain amount of self-criticism is absolutely essential for growth and self-improvement – but be wary of the person who constantly puts themselves (and often others) down. I know of quite a few people like this. I tell them not to bother with flagellating themselves, when there’s a whole society of similarly insecure types out there dying to do it for them! Then, I give them my therapist’s number.
The list seems endless doesn’t it? I could go on, but I think I’ll wrap this one up – as I believe I’ve made my point.
If you recognize people in your life who display similar behaviour that’s symptomatic of their insecurity,
If you see some of yourself in any of this, just remember…
Try not to judge them or yourself too harshly. We’re all products of our upbringing and circumstance. However, we needn’t be victims of it.
Do do something about it.
And there is much you can do about it, if you have the will…
*”When I Loved Myself Enough” by Kim McMillen is a very special book. Do give it a read sometime. It’s a little book with a big message!