10 Steps to Self Esteem: Step 7 - Overcome Insecurity

Welcome to the sixth step of your 10 steps to self esteem 

ACTION POINT. Remember to fill in your Progress Checker before you start!

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The psychic task which a person can and must set for himself is not to feel secure, but to be able to tolerate insecurity.

Erich Fromm

Low self esteem has a way of making us feel insecure around other people, and especially in significant relationships.

Do they like us? Will they like us?  How can they possibly like us when we don’t like ourselves all that much? Good grief, what’s wrong with them for liking us? Are they just pretending to like us to make us feel better?

All the clichés of feeling that come with low self esteem certainly apply to relationships.

So what makes low self esteem cause people to feel so insecure when dealing withother people?

Insecurity in relationships – the need to feel safe

We all, each and every one of us, have a strong fundamental need to feel safe and secure in life.

We need to feel physically safe, financially safe and emotionally safe. Wanting to feel safe and secure has nothing to do with ‘being insecure’ – it’s just human. We all have needs, and that’s normal.

Feeling worried that something is about to go wrong is a natural response to uncertainty and stressful conditions. During our evolutionary past, if there were predators around and we had not yet provided ourselves with protection (perhaps by building a fortified shelter) we would have needed to feel insecure to drive us into protective action. That feeling of insecurity would have stayed with until we had made ourselves more secure – perhaps by building a fire, or getting members of a tribe to stand guard. ‘Feeling insecure’ drove humans to build civilisations and develop all kinds of positive inventions and ideas.

Think about this: ‘Feeling insecure’ is a ‘signal’ that we need to pay attention to some potential source of risk or danger and, if possible, do something to secure ourselves and/or other people and the situation.

But if we feel insecure out of context, when there is no real threat and our feelings really stem from our own history of being rejected, cheated on, or feeling abandoned, then the insecurity itself can become the problem.

When the solution becomes the problem

Let’s be absolutely clear about this. Feelings of insecurity are natural and useful when we are in a genuinely insecure situation.

If I am climbing a rock and my climbing rope snaps then, as I cling on precariously, I am going to feel insecure because in that situation I really am insecure. This feeling of insecurity should drive me to action and, hopefully, a real solution. I will call for help, or if possible, climb carefully down.

So feeling insecure should serve two purposes. It should

  • let you know that something real is very wrong and needs addressing

  • drive you to fix the problem so that you can stop feeling insecure.

But imagine I’m on a climbing expedition with a perfectly good secure rope, over an easily negotiable bit of rock, with plenty of experienced people around me, and I still feel incredibly insecure.

I might worry so much that I can’t ‘think straight’. I might really annoy the people around me by constantly seeking reassurance that I will be okay, rather than just focusing on climbing. I might imagine things have gone wrong when they haven’t (“Was that sound the rope beginning to weaken!!!?”). I might spend far too much time worrying about and imagining what might be about to go wrong, when really I should be just enjoying the climb and getting the most out of the adventure.

Of course, I’m much more likely to feel insecure if

  • I am relatively new to climbing or

  • I have previously had a genuinely bad climbing experience.

Ironically, my insecurity would actually itself make my present (relatively safe) situation on that rock more insecure – because my worries would make me overly emotional. And when we become too emotional, we stop thinking clearly and often cannot even see what is right in front of our eyes (not a good thing when you’re rock climbing...)

Bear this climbing analogy in mind and think about relationships.

Emotional insecurity

When we describe ourselves, or someone else, as ‘insecure’ we’re really talking about how their emotions tend to get in their own way when they’re dealing with other people.

At the heart of this kind of insecurity is fear of rejection. And no wonder! Research has found that when we are (and feel) socially rejected, the same parts of the brain that are activated during physical pain are also activated. When we say ‘rejection hurts’, this is literally true. 

When people feel insecure they tend to be overly ‘needy’. We all seek reassurance sometimes, of course. We want to know that people haven’t forgotten us, that we are still ‘relevant’ and perhaps that people like us or love us. This is all natural to some degree.

But the trouble with feeling insecure generally is that:

  • reassurance doesn’t help because we can’t believe it (like low self esteem

    makes you disbelieve compliments)

  • relationships are too painful so we avoid them (it’s easier to isolate yourself than risk rejection)

  • our insecurity drives people away (and thus becomes a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’)

A major security problem

When we feel any strong emotion – whether that’s anger, sadness, happiness or anxiety – that emotion drives us to seek ‘evidence’ from the environment to back it up.

That’s why angry people can get angry about stuff that wouldn’t bother other people at all. That’s why depressed people can feel hopeless or anxious about things that, if they weren’t depressed, wouldn’t disturb them so much.

Strong emotion drives us to seek ‘supporting evidence’. And if we can’t find anything obvious, we will take whatever is to hand and make it fit the bill. It’s the same with the anxiety caused by emotional insecurity.

When we feel insecure, anything can make us feel more insecure. A look someone gives you, an unreturned text, a turn of phrase, a tone of voice. Everything is mulled over and questioned. This causes problems not just for the person doing all the worrying, but also for the other people whose words, actions and motivations are being subjected to this constant questioning.

One way to stop doing this is to get better at relaxing with uncertainty.

Sometimes we have to know we just don’t know

When we feel deeply insecure around others (perhaps because we ‘never knew where we were’ with a parent or other significant people in our past), it can feel terribly important to ‘be sure’ what other people are feeling, thinking and meaning when they speak to or about us.

This is a lot of certainty to want.

But the truth is, most of the time, we don’t and can’t know exactly how other people are feeling. Sometimes – often, even – they themselves don’t fully know exactly what they really feel. Similarly, we can’t be sure what someone’s exact intentions are, orexactly what they are thinking.

Exercise • Thought calming

Worries about being rejected, or about things going wrong somehow, cause you such a lot of distress because they go round and round in your head, feeding off each other. So they get stronger and stronger and you feel worse and worse.

You can start to calm these kinds of thoughts by pinning them down, rather than letting them circle ceaselessly.

Give yourself a 5 or 10 minute ‘worry time’ each day. (No more!)

Write down the anxious thoughts you are having. After each one, acknowledge your fear, and write

down how/why you can cope. For example:

Anxious thoughtShe’s being rather cool today. I think she’s going off me.

Calming thoughtEven though I’m worried she’s stopped caring for me, I can wait and see how things go over the next few days.

Anxious thoughtHe hasn’t answered my text. I must have said something wrong, and upset him.

Calming thoughtEven though I’m worried not to have heard back, I know there could be lots of reasons why he hasn’t responded yet.

The simple practice of putting these thoughts and a calm response in writing (even if you don’t believe it yet), will start to bring down the emotional arousal caused by insecurity.

Emotionally secure people aren’t emotionally secure because they can mind read, or because they always know just what other people are thinking about them.

They feel more secure because they have the capacity to relax with uncertainty. This is a massively important point when overcoming personal insecurity.

Think about this: True personal security is being able to let go of always wanting to know exactly what others are feeling or thinking.

Emotional insecurity focuses on what is most important to us. So it’s no wonder that the area of romantic relationships so often coincides with the greatest level of insecure feelings.

Insecurity in relationships

Mellissa said to her hypnotherapist that she had never felt ‘good enough’ for any of her boyfriends:

Even the ones who I can see, looking back, treated me badly, I felt like they were just ‘tolerating’ me. When I was a teenager, I thought that boys only wanted sex from me and that was all I had to ‘offer’. I couldn’t imagine any of them would like to be with me because they liked me, as a person. So even though I had lots of boyfriends, it would often be me who would end things, so I wouldn’t have to go through feeling cast off and rejected by them...

Mellissa was in a relationship (with someone who sounded to me like rather a lovely man) when she went for therapy, but she was desperately worried.

She was sure that it was all was very fragile and might ‘break’ at any moment. She felt that, even though Tom, her partner, was relaxed, ‘laid back’, caring and loving, one little ‘mistake’ from her could (or actually would – in her mind it was only a matter of time) bring the whole relationship crashing down. If he didn’t respond immediately to her texts, calls, or emails, she would get in a panic. She constantly worried that she had said or done the ‘wrong thing’. She loved him, but couldn’t honestly say, for much of the time, that she was enjoying her relationship.

She worked with her hypnotherapist to help her be able to

  • relax more around the relationship

  • stop feeling so exclusively responsible for its success, and

  • see the bigger picture.

Once she had begun to feel more secure, and was able to adopt the stance that “I love this man, and we’re both doing our best, but whatever happens, I’ll be able to deal with it”, the relationship began to work much better for them both, because, let’s face it, insecurity can be extremely hard for other people to deal with.

The dangers of wanting too much

Sometimes working at something effectively means knowing when not to work too hard.

This might sound strange, but consider this: if you are rowing a boat, you need to know when to put in lots of effort and ‘really go for it’, and when to rest and ‘go with the flow’ and conserve your energy.

Professional rowers know when and how to conserve their energy, to make the most of their rowing. If you just ‘attack’ your rowing in a frenzy of effort, you can end up going round in circles, and you certainly won’t be able to enjoy the beauties of the river bank as you pass by.

When people feel insecure, they often put in all kinds of strenuous efforts to ‘make it work’ in their relationships and friendships. But all things in life have a natural ebb and flow, times when you put more in, times when you relax more and let the relationship ‘breathe’ a little, without trying to push too much.

The important thing to understand is that it is natural to feel insecure if you are used to being in difficult life circumstances. It’s as if you have to ‘catch up’ and fully internalise the reality that ‘circumstances have now changed for the better’.

Think about this: Whatever happens between you and others, it’s bound to be better when you feel calmer around your relationships. When you can more easily control your emotions, your relationships will naturally improve. You will feel less ‘burdened’ by them, and be less prone to imagining the worst.

Progress indicators

  • ideas like ‘relationships always end badly’ or that ‘everyone abandons me in the end!’ or that ‘I always ruin relationships! ’lose their grip on you

  • you feel more relaxed around people who matter to you

  • you no longer automatically assume that other people’s moods or silences are something to do with you

  • you feel more confident that you can deal with whatever happens

  • you enjoy your relationships more

This has been a really important step. When you have absorbed everything we have covered here, and begun to make these ideas part of your own natural mindset, you will notice yourself feeling very differently about yourself and your life.

In Step 8 we’ll be looking at letting go of shame, embarrassment and guilt, and reaching a stage of truly accepting yourself for who you are – and who you can be.

Until next week


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