We are called a narcissistic generation. We are told that technology and social media are giving us an inflated sense of self. But most of us don’t walk around feeling like we are all that great. In fact, there is one underlying emotion that overwhelmingly shapes our self-image and influences our behavior, and that is insecurity.
If you could enter the minds of people around you, even the narcissistic ones, you’re likely to encounter ceaseless waves of insecurity. A recent survey found that 60 percent of women experience hurtful, self-critical thoughts on a weekly basis.
In their research, father-and-daughter psychologists Dr.’s Robert and Lisa Firestone used an assessment tool known as the Firestone Assessment for Self-Destructive Thoughts (FAST) to evaluate people’s self-attacks (or “critical inner voices”) along a continuum.
What they found is that the most common self-critical thought people have toward themselves is that they are different – not in a positive sense, but in some negative, alienating way. Whether our self-esteem is high or low, one thing is clear; we are a generation that compares, evaluates and judges ourselves with great scrutiny.
By understanding where this insecurity comes from, why we are driven to put ourselves down and how this viewpoint affects us, we can start to challenge and overcome the destructive inner critic that limits our lives.
How to Overcome Insecurity: Why Am I So Insecure?
Why am I so insecure? What causes insecurity?
So, what events or attitudes shape this inner critic? The experiences we have with our influential early caretakers can be at the root of our insecurity as adults. Imagine a child being yelled at by a parent. “You’re so spaced out! Can’t you figure anything out on your own?”
Then, imagine the negative comments and attitudes parents express toward themselves. “I look terrible in this. I’m so fat.” These attitudes don’t even have to be verbalized to influence the child. A parent’s absence can leave children feeling insecure and believing there is something fundamentally wrong with them.
An intrusive parent can cause children to become introverted or self-reliant in ways that make them feel insecure or untrusting of others. Studies have even shown that exaggerated praise can be damaging to a child’s self-esteem.
The reason for this is that children must feel seen for who they are in order to feel secure. A lot of our issues with insecurity can come from our early attachment style. Dr. Daniel Siegel, author of Parenting from the Inside Out, says the key to healthy attachment is in the four S’s, feeling safe, seen, soothed and secure.
Whether children are being shamed or praised, they are, most likely, not feeling seen by the parent for who they really are. They may start to feel insecurity and lose a sense of their actual abilities.
A healthy attitude for parents to maintain is to see themselves and their children realistically and to treat them with acceptance and compassion.
The best way a parent can support their children is to allow them to find something that is unique to them – something that lights them up and that they will work to achieve. This activity must appeal to the child’s interest, not just the parents.
As author and civil rights leader Howard Thurman famously said, ““Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
As the child pursues whatever interest makes them “come alive,” the parent should offer support and acknowledgment for the effort involved as opposed to focusing too much on the result. It’s the difference between saying “What a stunning picture.
You are the best artist I’ve seen” and saying, “I love the way you used so many colors. It’s awesome that you worked so hard on this. What gave you that idea?” This practice helps a child establish a sense of self-worth.
The Effect of Insecurity
It’s clear that there are many things that shape our critical inner voice, from negative attitudes directed toward us to attitudes our parents had toward themselves.
As we get older, we internalize these points of view as our own. We keep these attitudes alive by believing in our insecurities as we go along in life. The most common critical inner voices Dr.’s Robert and Lisa Firestone found people to experience throughout their day include:
- You’re stupid.
- You’re unattractive.
- You never get anything right.
- You’re not like other people.
- You’re a failure.
- You’re fat.
- You’re such a loser.
- You’ll never make friends.
- No one will ever love you.
- You’ll never be able to quit drinking (smoking etc).
- You’ll never accomplish anything.
- What’s the point in even trying?
Like a mean coach, this voice tends to get louder as we get closer to our goals. “You’re gonna screw up any minute. Everyone will realize what a failure you are. Just quit before it’s too late.” Oftentimes, we react to these thoughts before we even realize we are having them.
We may grow shy at a party, pull back from a relationship, project these attacks onto the people around us or act out toward a friend, partner or our children. Just imagine what life would be like if you didn’t hear any of these mean thoughts echo in your head. Imagine what reality might actually look like if you could live free of this prescribed insecurity.
Insecurity at Work
Insecurity can affect us in countless areas of our lives. Every person will notice their inner critic being more vocal in one area or another. For example, you may feel pretty confident at work but completely lost in your love life or vice versa. You may even notice that when one area improves, the other deteriorates.
Most of us can relate, at one time or another, to having self-sabotaging thoughts toward ourselves about our career. Old feelings that we are incompetent or that we will never be acknowledged or appreciated can send our insecurities through the roof. Some common critical inner voices about one’s career include:
- You don’t know what you’re doing.
- Why do they expect you to do everything yourself?
- Who do you think you are? You’ll never be successful.
- You’re under too much pressure. You can’t take it.
- You’ll never get everything done. You’re so lazy.
- You should just put this off until tomorrow.
- No one appreciates you.
- You’d better be perfect, or you’ll get fired.
- Nobody likes you here.
- Put your career first. Don’t take time for yourself.
- When are you ever going to get a real job?
- No one would hire you.
Insecurity in Relationships
Whether we are single, dating or in a serious, long-term relationship, there are many ways our critical inner voice can creep in to our romantic lives. Relationships, in particular, can stir up past hurts and experiences. They can awaken insecurities we’ve long buried and bring up emotions we don’t expect.
Moreover, many of us harbor unconscious fears of intimacy. Being close to someone else can shake us up and bring these emotions and critical inner voices even closer to the surface. Listening to this inner critic can do serious damage to our interpersonal relationships.
It can cause us to feel desperate toward our partner or pull back when things start to get serious. It can exaggerate feelings of jealousy or possessiveness or leave us feeling rejected and unworthy. Common critical inner voices we have toward ourselves about relationships include:
- You’re never going to find another person who understands you.
- Don’t get too hooked on her.
- He doesn’t really care about you.
- She is too good for you.
- You’ve got to keep him interested.
- You’re better off on your own.
- As soon as she gets to know you, she will reject you.
- You’ve got to be in control.
- It’s your fault if he gets upset.
- Don’t be too vulnerable or you’ll just wind up getting hurt
How Can I Overcome Insecurity?
Once we have a better sense of where our insecurity comes from and the profound influence it is having on our lives, we can begin to challenge it. We can start by interrupting the critical inner voice process. Voice Therapy is a cognitive/affective/behavioral approach developed by Dr. Robert Firestone to help people overcome their critical inner voice. There are five important steps to this process, which I will briefly outline.
The first step of Voice Therapy involves vocalizing your self-critical thoughts in the second person. You can also write down these thoughts. Instead of writing “I am so stupid. What is the matter with me? I’ll never be successful,” you would write, “You are so stupid. You will never be successful.” This process helps you to separate from these vicious attacks by seeing them as an external enemy instead of your real point of view. This process can also be an emotional one, as saying these statements can bring up underlying feelings from the past.
In the second step, you can start to think and talk about the insights and reactions you have to exposing these mean thoughts. Do they remind you of anyone or anything from your past? It can be helpful to uncover the relationship between these voice attacks and the early life experiences that helped shape them. This too will allow you to feel some self-compassion and reject these attitudes as accurate reflections of who you are.
People often struggle with the third step of this process, because it involves standing up to long-held beliefs and insecurities about oneself. You will answer back to your voice attacks, expressing your real point of view. You can write down rational and realistic statements about how you really are. Respond to your attacks the way you would to a friend who was saying these things about him or herself, with compassion and kindness.
In step five of Voice Therapy, you start to make a connection between how the voice attacks are influencing your present-day behaviors. How do they affect you at work? With your partner? As a parent? In your personal ambitions? Do they undermine you? What events trigger the insecurity? In what areas is this insecurity most influential?
The final step involves making a plan to change these behaviors. If insecurity is keeping you from asking someone on a date or going after a promotion, it’s time to do the actions anyway. If you’re indulging in self-hating thoughts that encourage you to engage in self-destructive behaviors, it’s time to interrupt these behaviors and unleash the real you.
This process will not be easy. With change always comes anxiety. These defenses and critical inner voices have been with you your whole life, and they can feel uncomfortable to challenge. When you do change, expect the voices to get louder.
Your insecurities aren’t likely to vanish overnight, but slowly, through perseverance, they will start to weaken. Whenever you notice an attack come up, stand up to it and don’t indulge in its directives. If you want to be healthy, don’t let it lure you to avoid exercise. If you want to get closer to your partner, don’t listen when it tells you to hold back your affections.
To Overcome Your Insecurity, Recognize Where It Really Comes From
Raymond closed down. Sandra snapped. They both had solid records and promising career prospects, and yet they felt that something was not working. Their bosses, colleagues, friends could tell too, but they were equally puzzled. How could someone so talented get so lost, or lose it, in seemingly trivial discussions, for no obvious reason?
The answer is deceptively simple and widespread: insecurity at work. The nagging worry that we are not quite as smart, informed, or competent as we ought to be, or as others might think. The fear that we are not good enough, or simply not enough. The second thoughts about our ideas, observations, and even about our feelings. The constant concern about being judged.
Feelings of insecurity leave us overdependent on external factors — admiration, praise, promotions. But even then, the feeling of achievement is generally temporary. Soon after, we turn inward, digging inside ourselves for a vein of confidence that remains elusive.
Insecurity makes it difficult for us to make our voices heard, leaves us unable to dissent, and makes us tentative in our work relationships. It leaves us dissatisfied, undermines collaboration, and renders our teams less creative and efficient. If there is one enemy of authenticity and innovation, insecurity is it. No wonder we try so hard to get rid of it.
In our work as teachers, consultants, and coaches, we have met hundreds of Raymonds and Sandras over the past two decades. Like them, we have felt confused and frustrated by insecurity from time to time;
we know what it’s like to want to grow stronger, to want to care less about others’ judgment of our work. And we have come to realize that perhaps the ways we understand insecurity and try to deal with it might be part of the problem.
Just as people turn inward when they struggle with insecurity in the workplace, so do those who write about it. Insecurity at work is commonly seen as a personal foible, associated with imposter syndrome. Sometimes it’s linked with ambition and overwork
— as in the case of people labeled insecure overachievers. These views cast insecurity as both a flaw and a drive, the result of a deeply rooted belief that one is a fraud, that one’s achievements are a product of circumstances rather than competence.
Such beliefs make us cautious and resentful in relationships. If they really knew me, they would not like me, the imposter’s story goes, but I will show them. Hence insecurity becomes a driver for chronic efforts to prove oneself — I’m only as good as my last success. But every time, the praise that follows achievement is quickly hollowed out by self-doubt.
While these descriptions do feel true to the experience of insecurity, they also frame it as a personal problem — a product of our history and ambitions, talents and sensitivities. Shipping people off to a development workshop or to a coach to “work on” their insecurity does the same thing.
This approach suits the insecure, who often quietly agree that something is wrong with them. And while coaching can be of great help, the usual advice — set better boundaries, take some distance — puts too much emphasis on insecurity as an individual failing.
In fact, insecurity is a social issue with psychological consequences, not a psychological issue with social consequences. In the workplace, the roots of insecurity are often found around us, not within us.
Insecure people are made, not born. Take the insecure overachiever, a type of person that many firms intentionally recruit and cultivate. If the only results that matter are tomorrow’s, and if you are only as valuable as clients and colleagues judge you to be, then being an insecure overachiever is not a pathology; it is a necessity.
Becoming one is an adaptation to a cultural ideal — one that may be personally costly and, for some, professionally harmful.
The research on women and minorities in professional settings, for example, has made it clear that insecurity is much more of a social issue than a psychological one. While women are constitutionally just as confident as men, a cocktail of conflicting messages and personal feedback tinged with bias
— be more assertive but less confrontational, be authentic but less emotional — puts them in circumstances that would make anyone second guess themselves.
“Insecure” behavior such as speaking less in meetings, or shying away from confrontation, in those circumstances, is not the expression of a sensitive psyche. It is both a response to subtle threats and a way of fitting in, or, more precisely, of acquiescing to the status of misfit.
Treating insecurity as a personal issue, then, leaves unquestioned the expectation that creates insecurity in the first place. It’s the insecure person’s job to toughen up, not the organization’s job to loosen up. No wonder the insecure work hard and feel alone.
The aspiration, for those who suffer from insecurity and those who try to help, is a certain detachment — an autonomy that frees us from dependence on others’ approval. That is all well and good until you realize that, throughout life, we need loving others in order to be healthy, independent people.
It is precisely when we lack solid, supportive relationships that we turn inward and become insecure. Belonging is as fundamental a human need as autonomy.
We all have some experience of relationships in which we have freedom, can speak our minds, can be vulnerable, can be seen, all without much fear of jeopardizing the relationship itself. We might even have experience of relationships that make us feel truer to ourselves than we could be alone. What if those relationships were not an exception at work, but the norm?
You guessed the answer: Insecurity would be a momentary state, not a chronic condition. It might afflict all of us at times, but it would not define some of us for good.
Bringing our full selves to work, our strengths and vulnerabilities, ideas and questions, would be neither an achievement nor a privilege. It would be a gift that we receive and give in turn.
Seen this way, insecurity is neither a flaw nor a drive. It is a byproduct of a workplace culture in which individualism is rampant, relationships are instrumental, and bias goes unquestioned.
The answer to it cannot be simply to set better boundaries. To accept and overcome insecurity, we rather need to stop caring too much about each other and start to care more for each other, and for the place we work in