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Healthy and Unhealthy Insecurity and the Impact on Relationships

Three ways to classify insecurities and know if a partner is exploiting you.

Key points

  • A person who is consciously aware of an insecurity and is able to take responsibility for the insecurity may be emotionally intelligent.
  • A partner who uses an insecurity to pose as the victim or control a person may be emotionally abusive.
  • Inflated unconscious defense mechanisms such as deflection, projection, and distortions allow a person to displace an insecurity onto another.
  • A partner who utilizes idealization and devaluation may be exploiting insecurity in a person in order to gain emotional control.

An awareness of insecurities is usually a sign a person is self-aware and in touch with difficult emotions. Although uncomfortable, insecurities are common and human. Typically, three indicators qualify an insecurity as standard. First, a person is wholeheartedly conscious of the insecurity and can talk about it. Second, he or she does not use the insecurity to control a partner or friend. Third, a person takes full responsibility for it and strives to improve.

For example, Sally is insecure about her body shape. At the park, she and her partner run into several classmates who, in Sally’s mind, have “perfect” figures. She is ashamed, but on the way home from the park, she opens up about it. Her partner empathizes and says, “I get it. I feel insecure around your friends too. They are really smart and I feel like I say dumb things sometimes.” Sally and her partner empathize with each other and provide one another with understanding and reassurance.

They are conscious of their uncomfortable feelings and, thus, equipped to talk about them. The discussion provides them an opportunity to understand and act constructively on the unpleasant emotions. Opening up brings them closer and they agree to spend individual time working on issues impacting their confidence while the relationship progresses.

Alternatively, four rigid and robust defense mechanisms may exist that avert insecurities from a person’s conscious awareness. Troubling feelings are ushered away by deflection, projection, denial, and cognitive distortions.

For example, at the park, Sally is rude to her partner’s classmates. In the car, she devalues their appearance and attacks her partner for flirting and possibly cheating. She continues to shame her partner and informs him he is no longer able to interact with the classmates. Instead of talking about her internal shame, Sally unconsciously defends against it and projects it outward onto others. She feels entitled to control and dominate her partner while positioning herself as the “victim.”

On the other hand, a person who is cognizant of an insecurity and actively takes responsibility for the uncomfortable feeling may be emotionally healthy. If insecurities persist regarding a relationship, it may be necessary to consider the manner in which a partner copes with his or her insecurities. A partner who is unaware of insecurities often manages a relationship by exploiting them in a partner, like Sally in the second scenario. Maintaining emotional control affords her “security.”

An emotionally unavailable partner often gains control in a relationship by exploiting insecurity in a person. Frequently he or she does this by idealizing and later devaluing a person. This cycle is confusing because an individual is treated lovingly one minute and with indifference the next. The sudden fall from grace is devastating and a person feels like he or she is fading into a partner’s backdrop. Clamoring to avoid additional emotional pain the person does anything and everything to regain his or her loved and cherished status. In doing so, a person frequently incurs responsibility for the partner’s change of heart, wondering what he or she did to lose a partner’s affections.

The emotionally immature partner has the “upper hand” in the relationship because he or she maintains emotional control of a person who is desperate to salvage the love. At this juncture, the partner may flip the script and coax the person into feeling comfortable again by flattering him or her. Yet, the idealizing and devaluing cycle repeats itself and the person is admired only to be treated as if he or she is invisible the following day.

Most human beings who have experienced this roller coaster attest to the emotional pain it creates. A person’s sense of self is eroded over time and when he or she attempts to talk about it, a partner may use the material against him or her, shaming the person for admitting insecurities.

For example, Jon and Pete are inseparable. Enamored, they spend every waking hour together, hiking, walking their dogs, and relaxing with friends. Pete eludes to an engagement and marriage. Deeply in love, Jon is excited to discuss a long-term commitment.

Yet, Pete grows preoccupied. He calls and texts less and spends limited time with Jon on the weekends. Jon is panicked and asks Pete if something is wrong. Pete dismisses Jon’s feelings and excuses his behavior, citing deadlines for work. Jon accepts Pete’s reason, but continues to wonder if he did something to lose Pete’s affections. He grows self-conscious, anxious, and finds it difficult to focus on work. In anguish, Jon discloses his concern to Pete again, but Pete slams him for it. “Jon, I am busy at work. Stop being so needy and insecure. Everything is fine.” After the conversation, Jon feels worse and beats himself up for feeling insecure. He stifles his emotions tries to hide his worry about the distance in the relationship.

The next day, Pete sends flowers to Jon’s work. Jon is overjoyed and relieved at the display of affection. Excited and determined to protect the relationship from growing cold again, Jon rushes over to Pete’s place with an expensive dinner and tickets to the opera the following weekend. Pete agrees and seems thrilled, but when the time comes, cancels on Jon. Jon is crushed and racks his brain trying to decipher what he did wrong. Pete dismisses Jon’s attempts to talk about what he is feeling and labels him as “insecure.” The cycle continues and Jon’s self-esteem diminishes. Pete maintains emotional control of Jon.

A person who is spinning in a relationship with an emotionally abusive partner may try several activities which help with anxiety and self-esteem. First, talk with a trusted confidant who is empathic. The emotionally abusive dynamic described above, is nearly impossible to recognize when a person is in it. Eliciting an objective response from a faithful friend may help illuminate a partner’s manipulations. Second, take back what has been sacrificed for the partner and re-invest in personal goals, pursuits, and ambitions. Third, spend gobs of time outside and with a beloved pet. Nature decreases stress and releases endorphins in the human body. It may also help a person ground himself or herself, and pets provide an empathic and distracting presence. Fourth, it is important for a person to continue educating himself or herself on this dynamic. Knowledge is power and may help a person arrive at an educated decision regarding the health of the relationship and whether it is wise to continue.

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