What You Can Learn From Rats About Your Insecurities

Strategies We Use When We Feel Insecure

Posted Jul 29, 2019

All of us can feel insecure, or threatened, at some time and/or in some situations.  I want to talk about two different but related ways we try to manage feeling threatened: escape and avoidance.  A helpful way to think about these interpersonal strategies comes from what psychologists learned from rats.

Rats are one of the animals psychologists use to test one theory of how learning occurs. A major finding of this research is what is called escape and avoidance learning. Escape learning or conditioning refers to the situation in which a rat learns to “escape” a noxious stimulus, i.e., it learns to jump off an electrified platform into water when a shock is turned on. This is the “get me out of here” or “shut this thing off” response."

The rat learns quickly that it can avoid being shocked if it jumps off the electrified platform before the shock is turned on, when it gets a cue that the shock is coming. Avoidance behaviors are incredibly persistent; they continue long after there is no longer anything to avoid. The rat will jump off the platform at the sound of the cue long after the shock generator is turned off, even if the experimenter never turns it on again. What keeps the avoidance behavior going is the relief the rat experiences as it jumps off the platform.

We humans demonstrate a similar escape-avoidance learning in the face of a noxious (highly unpleasant) situation. One fundamental human noxious stimulus is feeling threatened in an interpersonal situation. Feeling threatened, usually signaled by feeling angry, irritated, miffed, hurt, anxious, and/or fearful, is the dreaded sense of being exposed as inadequate in some way. ( See post "Your Emotions Are Not "Things" in Your Brain")

Take the case of Sara who reacted to her husband Lucas not listening to her one evening.  Sara, becoming aware that Lucas was not listening, blurted out “How can you ignore me like this?  I work so hard at being nice to you.”  To which Lucas, being taken totally off-guard, responded, “I don’t know what you are talking about.”  Lucas not responding to Sara in the way she wanted triggered her fear that he is not interested in her enough to pay attention to her.  This fear of not being valued is “threatening” to Sara—it is her noxious stimulus.    Her automatic reaction was to accuse Lucas of ignoring her. Holding Lucas responsible for her experience, expecting him to change—i.e., getting rid of the noxious stimulus—is Sara’s way of escaping. You can learn to recognize your escape responses. You will either do something to “shut this thing off” (blame your spouse, friend, co-worker for what is happening) or to “get me out of here” (shut down verbally or leave the room).

Like the rats in those experiments, we develop strategies designed to avoid noxious situations that feel threatening to us. These strategies are typically identified as defenses—and it’s no wonder we develop such self-protective strategies; we do not want to continually escape experiences that cause us to feel insecure or inadequate, and to behave badly toward our spouses, friends, co-workers, etc.

Early in life, we develop subconscious patterns that we use to avoid threatening feelings of not being good enough in some way. The early forms of these defenses morph into adult self-protective strategies. These well-entrenched strategies become the way we try to avoid situations that will cause us to feel threatened or feel insecure. I prefer the term “self-protective strategies” to “defenses” because most people associate defenses with the common Freudian (Anna, not Sigmund) defenses of denial, repression, regression, projection, intellectualization, rationalization, and sublimation. These defenses are used to protect our self from our self (our ego from our id). The strategies I am identifying here, in contrast, are the ones we use to protect our self from perceived interpersonal attack, criticism, rejection, etc. from other people.

Here are 8 examples of frequently used self-protective strategies and how we rationalize them:

Catherine E. Aponte, Psy.D.
Self-Protective Strategies
Source: Catherine E. Aponte, Psy.D.

Trying to manage your insecurities with these self-serving strategies is neither psychologically nor interpersonally healthy.  You can manage or modify them with some effort on your part.  Here are several approaches:

Recognizing You Self-Protective Strategies.  The items in the Rationale column describe the way you typically think of yourself because these strategies are well-entrenched and seem like they are part of us, e.g. “I am a nice person.” “I am a quiet person.” “I am a competitive person.” You are likely to think of these interpersonal strategies as personality traits.  Be cautious about viewing these strategies as traits that you cannot modify.

Take A Personal Inventory Regularly.  Pay attention to when you get angry, irritated, annoyed, pissed, fearful, etc.  What kind of escape strategies do you use in these situations?  Try asking yourself, “What is the threat to me in this situation?” before you react to the situation.  Pay attention to the kind of situations that are threatening to you, i.e., that elicit fear of not being enough in some way, e.g. not pretty, smart, sexy, important, vaued enough. 

Try To Identify Where The Insecurities Come From.  Ask yourself, “How old is this sense of not being ____________enough (responsible enough, lovable enough, valuable enough, etc.)?  You may be able to trace such thoughts and feelings to some childhood experiences. Did you feel like you weren’t fitting in? Did you feel like a burden to your family? Did you feel like you weren’t quite acceptable?  Old feelings from childhood  can be triggered in the current moment.

Embrace Your Insecurities.  Feeling insecure is not a sign of some psychological malady or impairment; it arises in childhood because of the cognitive-emotional limitations of being a child (children take everything personally).  You can come to honor what is your lived experience and manage such feelings of insecurity.  You can acknowledge them (once you identify and take responsibility for them) instead of trying to escape/avoid them, usually to no avail.

Seek Out Talking Therapy.  Don’t hesitate to get assistance to help you understand, embrace, and manage your insecurities rather than acting them out interpersonally to your own and others detriment.