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.
Why am I so insecure? What causes insecurity?
There is an internal dialogue that accompanies our feelings of insecurity. This is called the “critical inner voice.” Dr. Lisa Firestone, who co-authored the book Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice wrote, “The critical inner voice is formed out of painful early life experiences in which we witnessed or experienced hurtful attitudes toward us or those close to us. As we grow up, we unconsciously adopt and integrate this pattern of destructive thoughts toward ourselves and others.”
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’re not like other people.
- You’re a failure.
- You never get anything right.
- No one will ever love you.
- You’re fat.
- You’re such a loser.
- You’ll never make friends.
- 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. To learn about Voice Therapy in more depth click here.
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.
Join Dr. Lisa Firestone for a Webinar on Overcoming Insecurity
As you sweat through this tough but very worthy transition, it is important to practice self-compassion. Research by Dr. Kristin Neff found self-compassion to be far more psychologically beneficial than self-esteem. Self-esteem still focuses on evaluation and performance, where self-compassion encourages an attitude of kindness and patience. Self-esteem can increase our levels of insecurity, where self-compassion asks us to slow down and assign ourselves value simply for being human. Once we realize our own strength and importance, once we see the ways we’ve been hurt and can feel for ourselves on a deep level, we can actually start to break free of the chains that hold us back. We can shed the insecurities of our past and become the people we want to be.