In a previous blog post, I offered four tips for spotting people who feel insecure. Now it’s time to provide tips on how to help them.
The people in our life who are insecure can make life tough for others, but their insecurity makes their lives far worse for themselves. In relationships, they constantly need reassurance that they’re loved. At work, they need to look more competent and skilled than everyone else, and so may step all over their coworkers to prove the point. Even their kids can suffer because the insecure person needs to have them outperform their classmates, teammates, and the other children taking music, dance, or skating lessons.
The very factors that lead people to feel inferior provide the clues on how best to handle them. However, the first step, as in so many relationship issues, is for you to stop and think about how these people make you feel. Very often, they will cause you to become defensive in response to their one-upmanship. You can become angry and want to lash out at them. If they’re not only plagued by insecurity but also somewhat narcissistic (not a contradiction in terms), they can really needle you with their apparent attempts at self-aggrandizement. Once you recognize where their insecurity is coming from, though, you can get over these reactions and move on to where you can actually help them.
The concept of insecurity has a long history in psychology, stemming back to the work of Alfred Adler. Adler stressed the “striving for superiority” among people with “inferiority complexes” (his terms). To him, this was the crux of the neurotic personality, and he believed it had its roots in early childhood. The theory of adult attachment styles proposes also that insecurity stems from the earliest experiences we have, and that those with “insecure” attachment feel they will be abandoned or neglected by their caregivers. From both theoretical points of view, the way you help someone overcome feelings of inferiority is to correct for those early experiences.
An intriguing study by a team of Norwegian psychoanalysts (Håvås, et al., 2015) approached this issue from the point of view of how therapists can best alleviate attachment insecurity in those seeking help. In their study, the team asked raters to evaluate the therapy transcripts of 40 sessions. Participants gauged how attuned the therapists were to the affect clients with personality disorders expressed (and insecure attachment). The ratings were based on the Affect Attunement Scale (AAS), a measure that evaluates a therapist’s verbal and nonverbal responsiveness to the client’s verbal expressions.
Somewhat surprisingly, it wasn’t what the therapists had said that helped alleviate insecure attachment, but how they said it. In other words, nonverbal attunement was far more powerful than verbal in promoting positive therapy outcomes.
In translating these findings to help improve your relationships with people who feel insecure, we can look at the items on the AAS to see which ones had maximum impact. From these, it becomes clear what steps you can take to reduce the insecurity that makes it so difficult to work with or be in a relationship with people plagued by these troubling feelings:
1. Be open to and have regard for the other person’s subjective experience.
This requires that you allow people to express their feelings without interrupting them, even if it is difficult for you to keep quiet. People who are insecure may attack you or cause you to doubt your own abilities, but the affect behind their attacks may be anxiety and not anger. Allowing people to express their feelings without interruption will show you are attuned to their emotional state. Listen attentively, show you’re interested, and allow your voice to express your compassion.
2. Try to match the other person’s affective state.
Speaking sharply, loudly, or too fast when a companion is not will communicate that you’re out of sync with them. At its best, being affectively attuned to others involves your resonating to their own feelings. You don’t have to become discouraged or angry if they are, but you can match the level of arousal they are exhibiting.
3. Choose words that are consistent with showing you’re attuned to the other person.
Although verbal assuagement was not as effective in the statistical analysis as nonverbal, we do of course communicate with words and so we should choose them carefully. You can show this sensitivity by acknowledging the feelings the other person’s speech expresses and not challenging their accuracy (even if they're wrong). For example, your partner may complain that you don’t show your love often enough. Don’t defend yourself by asserting that you do love your partner. Acknowledging that this is how your partner feels will be far more effective than trying to rebut the statement.
4. Use body language to reinforce your sensitivity to the other person’s feelings.
The Håvås team analyzed only the audio data from therapy sessions, so their study would not have been able to report on the physical behavior of the therapists. We can extrapolate, however, from the idea of “attunement” in the realm of vocal expression to bodily attunement. Your sensitivity to another person’s affect can come from mirroring the person’s posture (leaning forward or backward, for example) to other gestures such as hand motions, head tilt, and eye contact. However, the key here is mirroring, not putting on a posture to communicate a particular message. Take your cues from the way the other person presents himself or herself before you adopt a particular bodily position.
Helping the insecure people you care about, work with, or interact with on a regular basis can produce positive change in the long run. It will make your life much more pleasant when the people you’re with feel less insecure, and will also help to benefit their own long-term fulfillment.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015
Håvås, E., Svartberg, M., & Ulvenes, P. (2015). Attuning to the unspoken: The relationship between therapist nonverbal attunement and attachment security in adult psychotherapy. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 32(2), 235-254. doi:10.1037/a0038517