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The Key to Overcoming Insecurity

Recent research on how to fight the feeling, and maybe even beat it.

Feelings of insecurity can come from many sources, both real and imaginary. You may feel unsure about whether other people really like you or whether you’ll get to keep your job. Or you may just be generally insecure. Whether the basis of your insecurity is real or not, the feeling can be crippling unless you know how to handle it. One study by Peking University’s Wenjie Yuan and Lei Wang (2016) provides a simple step you can take to keep insecurity from getting in the way of your happiness and your mental health.

As proposed by Yuan and Wang, there are specific forms of insecurity, but also a general life insecurity, which they regard as detrimental to your mental health. They define general life insecurity as “a diffuse psychological concern about the safety issues across all life domains including, but not limited to insecurities of job, food, economic affairs, public incidents, health and medicine, and traffic” (p. 312).

The authors draw from Hobfall’s (1989) classic stress theory, Conservation of Resources (COR), which proposes that insecurity drains resources from our mental bandwidth, sapping any resources that are already threatened by loss or the prospect of loss. It’s difficult to concentrate on what you need to do to improve a bad situation if the situation itself is causing your coping resources to drain away.

The potentially easy way to put an end to those insecurities, as proposed by Yuan and Wang, is to crank up your optimism levels. When you’re optimistic, you tend to attribute events that could have negative consequences in a way that reduces their threat value, primarily by seeing those events as being caused by outside factors that will undoubtedly change for the better. Being an optimist, in other words, means that you see the glass as half full, that you ultimately view it as completely fillable, and that you are not responsible for its emptying.

It stands to reason that optimism would be beneficial to your mental health, and the Peking University researchers maintain that optimistic people are not only happier and less anxious, but better prepared to handle stress as well. Their optimism becomes a resource they can draw on in times of difficulty. The beneficial effect isn’t unlimited—under enough actual insecurity, when one is in danger for prolonged periods, it can become entirely eroded.

To test the relationship among insecurity, optimism, and mental health, Yuan and Wang recruited a sample of 209 adults (52 percent male, with an average age of 29) to complete questionnaires over two time points, about a month apart. The researchers used a four-item measure of general insecurity, gauging whether participants felt that all aspects of their life were “safe,” whether they felt generally insecure in “current social conditions,” “when walking down the street sometimes,” or if they wanted to “escape” due to feeling threatened.

The tendency to attribute success and failure to external events was assessed by asking participants to indicate, for example, how much chance causes problems in their relationships with friends. A Chinese version of a measure of “psychological capital” assessed whether participants tend to “look on the bright side.” Finally, general mental health was measured by asking participants to complete a standard questionnaire that included an assessment of one’s ability to concentrate.

The prediction was that the tendency to use external attribution would play a role in affecting optimism’s role in reducing the effects of insecurity on mental health. In other words, people who tend to make external attributions could face situations that threaten their feelings of security by drawing on optimism as a coping resource. Looking at this result, you may conclude that it’s fine to be optimistic as long as you’re a “glass half full” kind of person. However, the authors argue that optimism is modifiable: It's a state (something that one can change) and not a trait (part and parcel of your personality).

In viewing optimism as modifiable, we can now discuss the challenge of viewing situations that threaten your safety and security in a favorable enough light so that you can cope with them. The ability to do so seems to lie in the attributional piece of the puzzle. Although the study regarded the tendency to externalize as a part of one’s psychological makeup, because it is a cognitive attribute (a function of the way we think), it would also seem to be modifiable under the right circumstances.

Let’s consider what happens when you're facing a job interview or a first meeting with someone you met online. The measure of insecurity used in this particular study involved a general sense of being threatened, not a specific situation. However, if you’re someone who goes about your day feeling uncertain and afraid, such a situation could tap into those general feelings of anxiety about how you’ll respond. You may know it's best for you to maintain an optimistic attitude because you’ll seem more self-confident and therefore more attractive to a potential employer or date. However, in the back of your mind, all you can think about is the last time you blew an interview or first date, and how badly it reflects on your personal qualifications; your insecurity levels are now sky-high.

Instead of making an internal attribution for your failure on the previous occasion, the study suggests you find someone or something else to blame: You didn’t get enough sleep; the weather was bad; the other person lacked the wisdom to see your many stellar qualities. You were not at fault. Now you can change your outlook and approach this new situation with a much brighter view of what’s going to happen. Presumably, your lowered stress levels will make that success all the more likely to occur.

It’s not necessarily wise, of course, to chronically ignore negative outcomes or personal culpability when bad things happen to you; you can always learn from failure. In the moment of trying to prepare for a successful encounter, though, that negativity will only make things worse.

Taking a vacation from self-blame can be the key to giving yourself the latitude to succeed, even at difficult tasks. By building your optimism, you can tackle feelings of insecurity through “proactive behaviors” (p. 316) that nip them in the bud. You may not be able to fend off all forms of insecurity all the time, but you’ll at least be able to prevent the threats that are within your control.

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Hobfoll, S. E. (1989). Conservation of resources: A new attempt at conceptualizing stress. American Psychologist, 44(3), 513–524.

Yuan, W., & Wang, L. (2016). Optimism and attributional style impact on the relationship between general insecurity and mental health. Personality and Individual Differences, 101312-317. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2016.06.005