Insecurity: A Complete Guide
What causes insecurity? Discover what underlies your insecurity and learn how to undo insecurity to live a life of authenticity and self-acceptance.
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You know that feeling you get when you walk into the cafeteria on your first day starting at a new school and you have no one to sit with? That’s probably you feeling insecure. There a lot more causes and forms of insecurity, but one thing is certain: everybody feels insecure at certain points in their lives.
Even the most narcissistic people you know are likely to experience waves of insecurity – it’s just part of the human experience. In this article, we’ll dive deep into insecurity. We'll cover the definition of insecurity, its causes, the signs of insecurity, and techniques to get over it. This is the complete guide to insecurity that you’ve been looking for.
What is Insecurity?
Insecurity is defined as a lack of confidence or a feeling of uncertainty that drives you to be anxious about yourself. Insecurity is when you doubt yourself and find yourself short on self-confidence or self-esteem. If you often feel like a fraud waiting to be exposed despite your evident accomplishments, or you feel that you don’t deserve to be loved and that partners will eventually get bored and leave you, that’s insecurity.
If you fear putting yourself out there and meeting new people because you feel like you don’t bring anything to the table, or you walk around most of the time feeling stupid, overweight, ugly, boring, or guilty, then you’re dealing with insecurity. The truth is, you’re not alone. Almost no person can avoid encountering insecurity; most of us feel insecure sometimes. Some of us feel insecure a lot of the time.
Unfortunately, the term “insecure” is frequently used as a negative label for a person who doubts themselves while, in reality, no one is totally free from feeling insecure.
We all experience self-doubt and anger that stems from a feeling of insecurity. We may even feel worried, frustrated, and groundless as a result of our insecurity.
Why do People Feel Insecure?
In her book Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, Dr. Lisa Firestone wrote: “The critical inner voice is formed out of painful early life experiences in which we witnessed or experienced hurtful attitudes toward us or those close to us. As we grow up, we unconsciously adopt and integrate this pattern of destructive thoughts toward ourselves and others.”
In research with her psychologist father, Dr. Robert Firestone, they used the Firestone Assessment for Self-Destructive Thoughts (FAST) tool to evaluate people’s “critical inner voices” . They found that the most common self-critical thought people have toward themselves is being different, and not in a positive sense but rather in a negative, alienating manner.
Whether our self-esteem is low or high, as a generation, we tend to compare, judging, and size ourselves up too harshly. The only way for us to challenge such self-directed toxicity and overcome the destructive limitations caused by our inner critic is to understand where this insecurity stems from, why we feel the need to constantly put ourselves down, and how this negativity affects our lives.
What Events Affect and Shape Your Inner Critic?
The experiences we go through during our childhood with our early caretakers can be the fundamental root of our insecurity as adults. For example, take a child that’s being constantly yelled at by a parent. Negative comments such as “You’re never focused”, “Can’t you figure anything out on your own?”, and “You never do anything right” may seem harmless in the heat of the moment, but it’s really not. These "lessons" imprint the child’s personality the more they hear it. They may start to believe it to be true and begin to behave accordingly.
Similarly, consider the negative comments and attitudes parents often express toward themselves while children are around. Things like “I look terrible in this” and “I’m so fat” can greatly influence the child, even if not expressed towards the child.
The absence of a parent can also cause children to feel insecure as they may believe it’s their fault and something is wrong with them.
What are the Types of Insecurity?
Insecurity comes in various forms. The following are the 3 most common types and some tips on how to cope with them:
1. Insecurity Based on Rejection or Recent Failure
Rejection and recent setbacks or failures in our lives can have a huge impact on both our attitude towards life and how we feel about ourselves. Research done on happiness suggests that up to 40% of our “happiness quotient” comes from recent life events. The biggest events that negatively affect happiness is the ending of a relationship, followed by the death of a partner, job loss, and health issues.
Since being unhappy influences our self-esteem, experiencing failure and rejection can deliver a major blow to your confidence. The thing about rejection is that we end up viewing ourselves and others in a more negative light, even if it’s only for a while.
Those of us who already struggle with lower self-esteem are more vulnerable when it comes to failure. It’s as if an incident like losing your job causes old negative thoughts about your self-worth to resurface. It may help to understand that failure is an experience, just like any other, and pushing through it can be a path towards success. Before becoming president, Abraham Lincoln lost his job, was defeated for nomination to Congress, and failed twice in Senate bids!
Here are some tips you can follow to overcome rejection- or failure-based insecurity:
● Allow yourself time to heal and adapt to the new situation.
● Seek feedback from people you trust.
● Reach out to friends and family for distraction and reassurance.
● Get out and welcome new challenges that relate to your interests.
● Keep moving towards your goals.
● Be open to trying a different strategy if necessary.
2. Perfectionism-Driven Insecurity
Sticking to high standards for the things we do isn’t bad. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get the highest grades, the best job, the perfect figure, the biggest apartment or house, neat and polite kids, or a loving and devoted partner. Unfortunately, life doesn’t always follow the plan we have in mind, even if we work extra hard to make it happen. There’s a possibility that you may get an outcome that’s at least somewhat out of your control.
Your boss may be too critical, jobs may not line up on your door, partners may have commitment issues, or your body may make it genetically difficult for you to lose weight. If you keep getting bummed out and blaming yourself for falling short of your “perfect”, you’ll start to feel insecure. Trying your best and working hard are good aspects of perfectionism, but constantly beating yourself up and worrying about not being good enough is the bad side that can cause depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or chronic fatigue.
Here are some ways to help you fight perfectionism-driven insecurity:
● When you evaluate your performance and progress, try to do it based on the amount of effort you put in, rather than the results. You see, the first is an aspect you can control, but the outcome is dependent on external factors.
● Perfectionism is all about an “all or nothing” mindset, so your mission is to find the grey areas in between. Is there a more understanding way to view an issue? Are you taking your unique circumstances into consideration when evaluating yourself?
● Think about the actual difference it would make if you fulfilled every one of your perfectionism urges. Would the time and energy spent triple-checking or answering every single email really change anything?
● Try to steer away from the conditional self-esteem. This is when you like yourself... as long as you’re on top and you dislike yourself the moment things don't go the way you planned.
● Can you learn to appreciate yourself even when things aren’t perfect? Try to focus on inner qualities like your personality, sincerity, or good morals, instead of only on how much money you’re making or how many people like your picture on social media.
3. Social Insecurity
Many of us encounter social insecurity in the form of a lack of confidence in social situations such as parties, presentations, dates, family gatherings, and job interviews. The fear of being judged by others and deemed to be lacking can cause us to experience negative emotions like anxiousness and self-consciousness. As a result, people may end up avoiding social events altogether, or if they do decide to go, they suffer from anticipation anxiety or feel self-conscious and awkward during them.
Past experiences can amplify your feeling of not belonging, feeling inferior, feeling irrelevant, or feeling uninteresting. In such situations, insecure people often revisit traumas of being bullied or excluded from a group of friends in school, where the negative effects of these experiences take a toll on their confidence as adults.
Growing up with critical parents may also cause you to be overly concerned with what others think of you. Here, the feeling of insecurity is generally built upon false beliefs regarding your self-worth and the extent to which people evaluate you.
The truth is, most of the time, people are too busy trying to properly present themselves to spend that much time judging others. In fact, those who do a lot of judging are often trying to cover up their own insecurities.
Here are some tips to help you overcome insecurity in social situations:
● Don’t let your inner critic run the show. Remind yourself of all the traits that make you interesting, unique, and fun or the qualities that’d make you a good friend or partner.
● Take the time to prepare beforehand. Think of some topics that you like and feel comfortable talking about. This can be anything from current events or your job to movies you’ve watched or hobbies you enjoy.
● Try to socially challenge yourself by setting a realistic goal. For example, talking to three new people or getting to know one person’s profession and hobbies.
● Deliberately direct your attention towards others to avoid focusing too much on your own insecurity. Observe what other people seem to be feeling and how they’re conducting themselves. Are there any skills you can learn from them?
● Know that avoiding social situations will just make your insecurity worse. So, put yourself out there and go on a date or to a party even if you're feeling nervous. Your anxiety should gradually drop the more you engaged with others.
How Insecurity Affects Our Behavior
There’s no doubt that experiencing any type of insecurity can significantly affect the way we behave. Below are some common examples of behaviors that insecure people often demonstrate:
● Jealousy in a relationship
● Jealous of someone on social media
● Irritated with the way someone acts because they can’t act the same
● Procrastination on challenging tasks
● Feeling overwhelmed or behind on everything
● Being really bad losers and equally horrible winners
● Giving excuses for criticizing others
● Running down the way others look
● Lots of bragging
● Dismissing the success of others
Building the skills you need to overcome insecurity
As you have learned, insecurity can be challenging. But, on the bright side, you can learn skills that help you manage your insecurity. Here are a few skill-building activities to get you started:
Video: How insecurities can actually be good and help you connect with others
Everybody feels insecure one way or another, it’s just a part of life. The way you deal with it makes all the difference to your well-being. The key is to refrain from judging others, lashing out, complaining, procrastinating, or shutting yourself off when in a place of insecurity. Instead try to accept yourself self-compassionately.
1. Firestone, R., & Firestone, L. A. (2006). FAST, Firestone Assessment of Self-destructive Thoughts, FASI, Firestone Assessment of Suicidal Intent: Professional Manual. Psychological Assessment Resources, Incorporated.
About Dr. Tchiki Davis
Dr. Davis is founder of The Berkeley Well-Being Institute. After getting her PhD in psychology at Berkeley, she started creating online content & programs to boost well-being—some of these have reached more than a million people. As author of Outsmart Your Smartphone, and contributor to Psychology Today, The Greater Good Science Center, and Shine Text, Dr. Davis aims to share her insights on happiness & health with people all across the world. Learn more about Dr. Davis.