Attachment

Are You Feeling Insecure?

Exploring two primary sources of insecurity.

Posted Aug 17, 2020

One of the biggest afflictions I see people struggle with is insecurity. This is in large part why I’ve dedicated much of my life to studying the self-critical thoughts or “critical inner voices” people experience.

It’s probably no surprise to you that in decades of research, one of the most common self-attacks I’ve seen people report is, “I am different from everyone else.” Feeling left out and low about ourselves is incredibly common, with some studies estimating that as much as 85 percent of people suffer from low self-esteem. Those of us who experience insecurity may feel alone, but we are amongst a majority.

One of the questions I’ve grappled with lately is how current events may be impacting people’s sense of self. Insecurity is something that can be amplified when people spend a lot of time alone and in their heads. For those who feel insecure about social or relational interactions, the longer they are isolated, the deeper they sink into fear.

While our circumstances may be new, the ways to effectively understand and overcome insecurity remain the same. My approach to dealing with insecurity primarily involves exploring two main concepts: attachment theory and separation theory.

Attachment Theory and Insecurity

Our attachment history plays a heavy hand in the level of security we feel in life, within ourselves and in our closest relationships. The early attachment patterns we experienced with our primary caretakers serve as models for how we expect relationships to work throughout our lives, and they inform our sense of identity. If we feel safe, soothed, and seen by our parents or caretakers, we'll form a secure attachment to them. However, when our parents are unable to attune to us and repair ruptures in the relationship, we will form an insecure attachment pattern. The patterns of insecure attachment in childhood are anxious-ambivalent attachment, anxious-avoidant attachment, and disorganized attachment. 

A child with an anxious-ambivalent attachment may have a parent who is intermittently available but often demonstrates more emotional hunger than love. The child may adapt by turning up the volume on their needs and being preoccupied by a focus on the parent. They attempt to get what they need from the parent by clinging, crying, or commanding attention. Because the parent is sometimes there emotionally and sometimes not, the child is left feeling insecure, like they need to make the parent take care of them. This pattern leaves a person to feel unsure if they can depend on others. They internalize a sense of anxiety and desperation. As adults, they’re more likely to choose emotionally unavailable partners and situations in which they often feel hurt, because even though these things are painful, they feel familiar and reinforce their internal working model of how others are likely treat them. People also contribute to this dynamic by continually seeking reassurance from their partners by demanding attention.

A child will form an avoidant attachment if they have a parent who is not attuned to their needs and emotionally unavailable. The child adapts by suppressing awareness of their own needs to avoid the painful experience of expressing a need and having no one respond. Because the child can’t afford to see the parent as flawed and thereby lose their sense of safety, they feel like they don’t matter, which manifests as shame.

The child learns to self-soothe and self-parent to take care of themselves. They may then grow up to feel pseudo-independent and burdened by the needs of others. They often seek out a partner with the ”big” feelings and needs of the anxious type. This choice reinforces their internalized view that they need to take care of themselves, and that those who express wants are needy. However, an avoidant person’s insecurity still shows up when they feel stressed and can’t maintain the effort it takes to suppress their needs.

A child develops a disorganized attachment when they have a parent who scares them or who feels overwhelmed and afraid when the child gets afraid. A parent like this creates fear without solution. The child wants to go to them for safety but feels fear when they are close, so they need to get away. This leaves a child with no organized strategy to get their needs met. As a result, they grow up internalizing fear of others and at the same time a fear of being without others. Their insecurities can feel overwhelming based on the traumatic nature of their upbringing.

These insecure patterns of attachment formed in our earliest relationships often manifest in insecure adult attachment, which particularly impacts our romantic relationships and parenting style, but also informs how we feel about ourselves. If we want to understand our insecurity more fully on a personal level, we have to be willing to go back into our attachment history, which gives us critical clues into why we think, feel, and operate the way we do, why we continue to feel insecure, and why we continually cast ourselves and our needs in a negative light.

Separation Theory and Insecurity

Separation Theory was developed by my father, psychologist and author Robert Firestone. The theory illustrates how damaging early childhood experiences in combination with existential awareness lead people to develop psychological defenses. Defenses that were appropriate to actual situations that originally threatened a person’s emerging self, e.g., the rejection, neglect, emotional hunger, or abuse of a parent, go on to hurt or limit a person’s sense of self throughout their lives.

A child will internalize the critical attitudes their parents have toward them as well as the harsh ways a parent sees themselves. Because a young child relies on the parent for survival, it feels too threatening to break from the parent’s point of view or see the parent’s limitations. Instead, children internalize their parent’s negative attitudes and beliefs as their own. For example, if a parent is misattuned or unavailable, the child may see themselves as unworthy or unlovable. If a child is reacted to as if they’re too loud or needy, they may continue to see themselves as obnoxious or a burden.

The negative core beliefs a child adopts go on to form an inner dialogue known as the “critical inner voice.” This “voice” becomes a running commentary throughout a person’s life, perpetuating most of their insecurity. As we move through different stages of life, we experience ourselves through this filter. The critical inner voice attaches itself to certain negative characteristics that fit with an early image we had of ourselves. When we’re looking for a relationship, our inner critic may tell us, “You’ll never find someone who loves you. You’re too unattractive/boring/awkward/insecure/damaged/unworthy.” When we become parents, it may say, “You can’t handle this. You’re a terrible mother/father.” When it comes to our careers or goals, it may tell us, “You’re not talented/capable/intelligent/noticeable.”

Even when it comes to living through a pandemic, the voice may jab at us with a wide array of attacks that exacerbate our struggles. "You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re failing at this. Your kids hate you. You’re going to lose your job. You’ll be alone forever. You’re going to mess up and get sick. No one cares about you." Whatever situation we’re in and whatever words we put to it, it’s valuable to remember that the critical inner voice comes from core feelings we had toward ourselves that we either witnessed or experienced in ways that hurt us very early in our lives. If we want to get stronger and get past them, we need to understand and challenge these old beliefs and how they were integrated into our sense of self.

Looking to our past can help us cast light onto the origins of our negative self-concept. Knowing the source of our insecurities can help us challenge them from the ground up. In part two of this series, I talk about techniques to start to overrule these core ideas and build a healthier sense of self.

Join Dr. Lisa Firestone for a webinar on "How to Overcome Insecurity." Learn more here.