What’s the Upside of Feeling Insecure?
Ironically, accepting your insecurities is generally to your advantage.
Posted August 21, 2019 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
Show me someone completely devoid of insecure feelings and I’ll show you a pathological narcissist, hijacked by such defense mechanisms as denial, displacement, projection, and repression. To whatever degree, we all start out in life as insecure. And remnants of this insecurity remain even after we become adults.
Consider that as children there’s so much we can’t yet do, haven’t yet learned, don’t yet understand. And so, if we're to get by on a daily basis, we must depend on our family. That outward reliance gradually dissipates as we get older; develop our physical, mental, and emotional resources; and demonstrate an ever-increasing ability to function independently. Nonetheless, perhaps because we can never know everything and the world presents us with so many moving targets, a certain amount of humility about our capability (i.e., insecurity) is in order—vs. an overconfident, “know it all” attitude.
Ironically, there’s a “just right” Goldilocks of insecurity. If feelings of insecurity are excessive, we’ll shy away from tackling anything we’re not sure we can handle successfully. We’ll be uneasy worriers, respond anxiously (and avoidantly) to challenges, and obsess endlessly about things beyond our control—or seemingly beyond our control. On the contrary, if we feel totally, unreservedly secure about ourselves, we’ll be prone to a cocky, conceited attitude, overestimate our abilities, and take on endeavors beyond our grade level . . . and probably fail. But if we’re in the “sweet spot” of insecurity—not too secure, yet not self-defeatingly insecure either—we’ll be optimally motivated to exert the additional effort needed to prove to ourselves that we can do better today than we did yesterday.
For instance, if we’re slated to give an important talk, a little anxiety (read, insecurity) will induce us to prepare all the more conscientiously. But if we’re overly intimidated by such exposure to others, our emotional distress and sense of vulnerability will lead us either to postpone or cancel the talk (calling in sick, perhaps?) or prepare so frantically that once the day arrives, our so-distracting anxieties will seriously compromise our performance. (And this is what a lot of self-fulfilling prophecies are all about.) On the contrary, if we’re overconfident, we may decide to take it easy and just “wing” it, ultimately impressing our audience as uninformed or smug—or maybe both.
The reasons that many people fail to overcome earlier insecurities isn’t this post’s main focus. But they’re certainly important enough to mention. And the various explanations for major, enduring self-doubts have already been covered in an article entitled “The Causes of Insecurity.” Although the comprehensive list compiled by its author, Gerald Stein, is, if anything, over-inclusive, I’ll highlight the childhood ones that to me most exemplify why some people never get beyond the nagging insecurities hindering them from reaching their full potential:
- Inborn Temperament (e.g., being highly reactive, extremely introverted or emotional, etc.);
- Having Harsh, Judgmental, or Neglectful Parents (and in my clinical experience, this may be the central determining factor in an impoverished self-image that eventuates in chronic underachievement. Growing up in such a dysfunctional family typically creates what John Bradshaw calls a “shame-based identity.” And unless there exists a strong counterforce—such as the individual’s having a powerful support system outside the family, or their being involved in an extensive therapeutic relationship—such deep-seated insecurity can be exceedingly difficult to rectify);
- Bullying (that in certain individuals leads to withdrawal and lasting feelings of inadequacy, hampering them from being sufficiently pro-active in their behalf);
- Body Image (that can keep some people from “exposing” themselves to others—and even when, over time, their physical appearance has favorably changed);
- Learning Problems (such as dyslexia and other educational disabilities—as well as ADD/ADHD);
- Multiple Changes of Residence (especially for shy, reserved children);
- Parents’ Being Overprotective, Over-Controlling, or Having Super-Lofty Expectations (inasmuch as these parenting styles generally give the child the message that they’re not good enough, or smart enough, to take effective control of their lives);
- Growing Up in a Sibling’s Shadow (i.e., constantly getting reminders that they’re not the family’s “golden child”); and
- Social Isolation (lacking opportunities to develop the necessary social skills to successfully relate to others).
The above impediments represent the primary barriers to being both prosperous and happy in life. Inasmuch as the opposite of insecurity is confidence, unless we gradually “grow” such confidence by overriding our hesitancies and self-doubts and taking positive, courageous action, this self-affirming belief will continue to elude us. Rather, our lives will be governed by our fears and anxieties, and we’ll remain angrily frustrated with ourselves.
The well-known proverb “Nothing succeeds like success” is particularly apt here. As is Lao Tzu’s famous maxim: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” That is, if we’re not to submerge all feelings of insecurity (which, as I’ve already suggested, wouldn’t ultimately be very good for you), we should at least try to moderate them. And that means taking prudent risks—“going for it” but not in ways that would be reckless, irresponsible, or foolhardy.
Comparable to the just-right Goldilocks level of insecurity, such balanced behavior might be seen as insecurity’s golden mean. For it’s about being cautious, but not hypervigilant; skeptical and wary, but not to the point of complete cynicism or inaction; daring and even bold, but still stopping short of the impetuous, audacious, or rash; careful and deliberate but not procrastinating either; and so on.
In short, being somewhat insecure increases the odds that you’ll act with foresight, discretion, and judiciousness. And, more than likely, succeed.
In this respect, it’s notable that a study led by Tel-Aviv University behavior researcher Yael Steinhart, Ph.D. (2019), demonstrated that personal insecurity is linked to both protecting one’s financial resources and adding to them. Which is to say that concerns about having enough money to weather possible financial storms leads those with such insecurities to save more money than those who don’t take into account such future contingencies. And obviously, it’s only sensible to save for the (proverbial) rainy day.
In the context of relationships, especially intimate relationships, some insecurity can also be beneficial. For feeling convinced that your partner will never abandon you can lead you to be less thoughtful, attentive, or nurturing toward them—and so increase the odds that they may in fact be driven by such neglect to leave. Just as mild-to-moderate feelings of insecurity can motivate you to achieve your very best individually, so can having some doubts about another’s lifelong devotion to you can prompt you to put more effort into showing them appreciation and respect for all they do for you.
Again, over-confidence can encourage complacency or self-righteousness. But a modicum of insecurity typically fosters a healthy motivation to “secure” one’s place in the world as well as scrupulously cultivate relationships experienced as pivotal. So unless your insecurities seriously constrain you and hold you back from fully engaging in life’s challenges, consider that maintaining a certain level of uncertainty or self-doubt may be much more a blessing than a curse.
To conclude, as long as you don’t permit your hesitancies to dictate all your behaviors, might you begin to feel more secure in your insecurity? For it’s really a positive thing to recognize your limits and operate within them—as opposed to blithely disregarding innate restrictions and reaching for the (metaphorical) moon. Making that latter choice will surely lead to defeat, whereas living contentedly within your capabilities will promote a satisfying, self-supporting, happier life.
Or, looking at all this inversely, as Matt Alesevich puts it:
Whatever their source, physical or emotional, genetic or circumstantial, insecurities of all shapes and sizes live inside every single one of us, and the more energy we spend on trying to evict them, the more emotional real estate we’re actually granting them.
© 2019 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
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Steinhart, Y., & Jiang, Y. (2019, April 8). Securing the future: Threat to self-image spurs financialsaving intentions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication, http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000159