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Love’s most potent saboteur.

Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock
Source: Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

Partners in committed relationships rely on each other to keep their love intact. When they face unexpected threats or challenges, they work together to keep each other protected and safe. If they enter their relationship secure and confident within themselves, they are much better equipped to do so. People who are fundamentally confident and secure in their own ability to handle peril do not readily fold when it occurs. Those individual resiliencies blend into a unified stance of greater strength as partners navigate hardships together.

Unfortunately, when one or both partners enter a relationship without their individual security intact, they rely on the relationship itself to define their current value. If uncertainty challenges the partnership in any way, their individual insecurities are likely to emerge and take precedence over the crisis that needs to be resolved. The ensuing instability can overwhelm the teamwork that is necessary for optimal resolution.

As insecurity increases in any of us, so do the symptoms associated with it. Anxiety, paranoia, fears of loss, instability, and an increasing need for reassurance begin to diminish our capacity to think and act effectively. Even if the less insecure partner in the relationship does everything right to help the other feel safe, he or she will eventually pull away if not successful.

If you become insecure in the face of a relationship challenge, you are not alone. Confidence is a relative experience, and even the most self-assured people can be stressed beyond their limits when threatened with loss or abandonment. Still, if you do feel that your sense of worth is too easily shaken when you face uncertainty, there are things you can do about those responses that will strengthen your ability to triumph over your fears.

The first step is to learn the most common causes that make people more insecure and evaluate how they impact you. The following descriptions can help you pinpoint your own reasons for your strong reactions to uncertainty and how you have been expressing them within your relationships. The next step is to learn how to lessen the impact of those drivers and change those responses in the future.

The 6 Most Common Causes of Insecurity

1. Genetics

All people have a built-in alarm system to protect them from harm. When threatened, their bodies produce chemicals that help them to survive by fighting, fleeing, or freezing. When the threat is vanquished and their fears subside, their bodies produce another set of chemicals that put them back at ease.

Some people have a more physical trigger-ready response to threats from birth. Those individuals react more intensely to perceived threats and are more likely to anticipate future ones. They are naturally more likely to become hyper-vigilant and ever-watchful over time as each new threat emerges.

2. Environmental Stressors

People who have suffered trauma in childhood often have more intense fight-or-flight reactions when they feel threatened. They may have witnessed important caretakers experiencing tragedies, or have been on the other end of broken promises, physical or emotional threats, or other losses over which they had no control.

If those people had understanding and supportive nurturers during those stressful times and became stronger as a result, they would have a better chance to become more resilient when they face future challenges. Alternatively, if they were abandoned or wounded during those episodes, their confidence and innate sense of security will become more vulnerable in subsequent losses.

3. Fear of Disappointing Others

Many people, especially those who have suffered, are terrified of being discounted by those important to them. They have assumed responsibility for lost relationships by feeling that they did not measure up. If losses accumulate, they become even more reticent to express their reactions, for fear they will again push the other partner away. That kind of insecurity feeds upon itself and can reinforce feelings of being basically unlovable.

4. Conflict Aversion

Confidence increases when people are able to triumph over adversity. If relationship partners are innately insecure, for whatever reason, they are less willing to take chances that might give them the opportunity to develop alternative options and more resilience.

Some people, whether from childhood trauma or innate characteristics, are unnerved by disharmony of any kind. They cannot tolerate tension or conflicts, and avoid them whenever possible. They develop heightened accommodation tendencies whenever they face dissonance. They are extremely susceptible to folding in order to maintain security, often giving up who they are to ensure there will be no loss of safety.

5. Dependency

People who feel that their partners are only with them because they haven’t yet found someone better often become hyper-vigilant and increase their dependency on their partner’s supportive responses. Ever-fearful that the relationship will end, they try too hard to please and avoid challenging anything that might lessen their partner’s commitment to the relationship. They tend to narrowly focus on only the behaviors that keep things in order and become totally dependent on those outcomes.

6. Broken Trusts

Intimate partners who have been abused, abandoned, or betrayed in the past are going to be naturally more wary in subsequent relationships. They inadvertently allow past failures to overly influence their future behaviors, especially if they haven’t learned from them. If they continue to expect a new love to make up for past betrayers, they are certain to recreate the same patterns that haven’t worked in the past.

7 Steps to Becoming More Secure

Ultimately your success in relationships will boil down to getting a handle on your own insecurity, whether it comes from childhood trauma, past relationship failures, or a genetic predisposition to worrying and hyper-vigilance. Even if you have a great deal to offer with your capacity to love and to be loved, your fear of loss might keep you from fully expressing those values. Fortunately, there are ways to change your perception and control of your insecurity. They may not be instantly easy to master, especially if you have suffered insecurity your whole life, but you will become more able over time to make them part of your new commitment to yourself.

1. Mattering

Make a list of all the people in your life that you believe in your heart care about you. To whom have you truly mattered? Use as your criteria whether they have loved you, known deeply who you are, and enjoyed your company.

Ask yourself what each would say about you if they were asked, and why they felt that way about you. As you let yourself feel that safety and comfort, listen for any voices in your head or heart that have made you doubt those positive feelings. They represent people in your past who took away your sense of personal value or did not make you feel that you had a right to be loved and appreciated.

2. Agency

Every person needs to feel that what they say or do affects the people who are important to them. Think about relationships where you have felt you’ve made a difference, where the person on the other end is truly affected by who you are and what you’ve had to say.

Ask yourself why you have stayed in relationships where you’ve not been effective. Those are your attachments, the things that people have a hard time letting go of, even if they have negative consequences. If you're afraid that you cannot afford to lose them, you could always be emotionally blackmailed by those who can take them away.

3. Spiritual Connection

The only way any of us can stay truly secure is to know that we are ultimately accountable to something greater than us which gives us meaning and purpose, independent of our relationships with others. That connection does not have to be religious and certainly not obligatory. It is a proven fact that when people regularly meditate, pray, or convene with nature, they feel a sense of responsibility to honor what is most sacred in themselves and the world. That commitment creates awareness and appreciation of what each person needs to do to be the best person he or she can be.

4. Fallback Networks

No intimate relationship can survive and prosper if it is the only meaningful connection a person has in his or her life. Secure people seem to know that innately and maintain many quality relationships they can fall back on if their primary one is in jeopardy. They continuously keep those networks alive and available. Trusted and committed friends, family members, co-workers, spiritual advisers, communities of like minds, and sacred causes are all places to regenerate that do not depend on only one person in one relationship.

5. Acknowledgment of One’s Own Marketability

Although it may be a very difficult concept to accept, an accurate and honest assessment of our own value is crucial to knowing what we can expect from others. If you are in an intimate relationship with someone you truly believe is “more marketable” (i.e., is worth more on the open market), you will naturally feel more uncertain in that relationship. That “rating” is relative and susceptible to change. You could be on the other end of someone who is, at this moment in time, less valuable.

Perhaps you are choosing to be in your current relationship knowing that you are compromising, but don’t have anyone better at the time. Or you may be fearful there may not be anyone better out there for you. You are not alone. Value on the open market is a factor that affects everyone. You must believe in your own value, no matter who you are with, and be realistic in terms of where that puts you in the current partner-availability process.

6. Not Letting the Past Define Your Future

The past is for lessons. The present is for experiences. The future is for dreams. Insecurity increases when the past continues to become the future — when people have not resolved their past fears or failures. Many people enter new relationships with a self-defeating, cynical, pessimistic expectation of loss. Biased by their predictions, they see only what they expect to see and react as they have in the past. They may even continue to choose the same kinds of partners, because of the familiarity those relationships offer.

7. Understand the Difference Between Abandonment and Disappearance

Fear of abandonment is a common driver of insecurity for many people. Everyone wishes they could control fate and fears being alone and unwanted. We are tribal creatures, interdependent on one another for existence and comfort. Most people do not thrive when disconnected from others.

When a romantic partner chooses to leave a relationship, the person left behind often feels forsaken and worthless. Even when people lose someone through the death of a loved one, they still may doubt their own worth, while grieving the sorrow of that loss. Others are left behind by betrayal and are decimated by the unexpected loss. If a partner has focused heavily on only one person, they will understandably feel completely unprepared to live life without that other person beside them, even if they have established others who care for them.

Imagine how you would feel to be with someone you care deeply about, but who is constantly fearful and anxious. You would naturally try as hard as you could to heal those feelings of uncertainty and reassure that person that everything will be okay. But what if that person’s terror of loss leaves them unable to benefit from your sincere efforts to quell their fears? Worse, what if those feelings become more pronounced even if you’ve done everything you could to help?

No matter how deeply you love, no matter how committed you are, no matter how much you want to help, you are human. At some point, you will begin to feel helpless and powerless, insecure in your own ability to make a difference. Insecurity breeds insecurity. It is a formidable saboteur of love’s potential to heal. Whether you are the insecure person in a relationship or the one who is trying to rein in that demon, it is imperative that the battle is won.

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