Most people think of emotional insecurity as a personality trait—something you’re born with that dooms you to a life of chronic anxiety and low self-esteem.
And while it can certainly feel that way to people who have been insecure most of their lives, the real reason we feel chronically insecure is often more subtle:
Whatever caused your insecurity initially, it’s your habits that keep you feeling insecure.
In my work as a psychologist, I’ve found that the best way to finally escape the cycle of insecurity is to identify the habits that are maintaining your insecurity now.
We all have complicated lives and histories, but if you want to feel less insecure and more confident, working on even one or two of these habits will make a big difference.
1. Criticizing Others
The capacity to be critical is not always a bad thing.
After all, to navigate life successfully we have to be able to discriminate and analyze the people, problems, and situations in our lives so that we can make good decisions. For example: A good way to end up in an unhappy marriage is to not think critically about the person you’re about to marry.
But here’s the thing: while the ability to be critical is an important skill, like anything it can be taken too far…
Insecure people often use criticism of others as a way to feel better about themselves.
See, people who are insecure consistently feel bad about themselves. And often, they don’t know how to feel better in a healthy or productive way. So they often resort to criticizing others.
But how does criticizing other people help us feel better about ourselves?
Well, that’s the thing: in the long-run, it doesn’t. Being overly critical of other people will end up making you feel guilty and worse about yourself in the long run, only adding to your insecurity.
But in the very short-term, being critical of others makes us feel better by comparison.
- When you think to yourself how dumb someone’s comment during a meeting was, what you’re implying is that you are smart. And that feels good.
- When you criticize your spouse for always forgetting to take out the trash, what you are implying is that you are conscientious. And that feels good.
- When you laugh in your head at how bad your friend’s outfit looks, what you’re really telling yourself is how stylish and sophisticated you are. And that feels good.
Helpful criticism is about making the world a better place. Unhelpful criticism is about making yourself feel better.
If you want to be less insecure, stop using criticism to artificially inflate your sense of self. Because it will only backfire in the end.
2. Worrying about the future
A lot of people convince themselves that their chronic worry is inevitable or even necessary because, well, somebody has to think about negatives in the future, right?
Absolutely. But here’s the mistake:
Worry is fundamentally different than effective planning and problem-solving.
By definition, worry is unhelpful thinking about negatives in the future. Planning and problem-solving can be difficult because they’re negative, but they lead to results—they’re productive and generative.
The only thing worry leads to is stress and anxiety in the moment and low self-confidence and insecurity in the long-term. Which makes sense if you think about it: How much trust are you engendering in your mind if you’re constantly worrying about every possible negative outcome in the future?
So why do we do it? Why worry so much if it only makes us anxious and kills our self-trust without actually getting anything done?
We worry because it does do something for us…
Worry gives us the illusion of control.
Life is full of sad, disappointing, and frustrating things. And our ability to actually change most of those things is far more limited than we like to believe.
But confronting our limitations and helplessness is profoundly scary. So we worry because it makes us feel like we have control and can do something.
But ultimately it’s a trap: You can’t control nearly as much as you would like.
Better to face up to that reality than continue to live in chronic worry and all the insecurity it produces.
3. Never Saying No
One of the biggest reasons insecure people stay that way is because they are afraid to say no to people.
- Your mother-in-law asks you if she can drop by and hang out with the kids. You’re having a rough day and really don’t need the added stress of hosting her. But because you’re afraid she’ll think badly of you, you say yes anyway.
- You’ve been burnt-out and stressed at work because of too many projects. Your manager stops by your office and asks if you can take on a new account. Because you’re afraid to lose your status as “The guy who gets stuff done,” you say yes and your stress only gets worse.
The problem with never saying no is that you end up living other people’s lives instead of your own.
And if you go for months, years, or decades, not living your own life, how could you hope to feel confident and secure in yourself?
Each time you say yes to someone else at the expense of yourself, you’re telling your mind that what you want isn’t that important. If this becomes a habit, it shouldn’t be surprising when your mind doesn’t value itself!
If you want to feel more secure, you must learn to stand up for yourself and your own wants and needs.
Always remember that your wants and needs are just as valid as anyone else’s.
4. Asking for Reassurance
Reassurance-seeking is one of the worst offenders when it comes to habits that make us feel insecure.
When you habitually ask for reassurance, you’re really telling yourself you can’t handle things on your own. Tell yourself that often enough, and you’re going to feel like you can’t handle anything.
Obviously, getting reassurance feels good in the moment:
- When you feel anxious and indecisive, outsourcing your decision to someone else relieves you of the anxiety.
- When you feel afraid of being judged for choosing one thing over another, asking for reassurance relieves your fear of being judged.
- When you’re worried about how you look, asking someone else makes you feel a little less anxious and a little more confident.
The real problem with chronic reassurance-seeking is what it does to your confidence in the long-term:
If you’re always using other people to feel better, you’re never learning how to help yourself feel better.
And if you believe, deep down, that you’re not capable of helping yourself deal with emotional pain and difficulty, you’re going to feel very insecure.
If you want to feel more secure and self-confident, train yourself to tolerate short-term anxiety.
5. Passive-aggressive communication
Passive-aggressive communication is when you want something but are too afraid of conflict to ask for it directly. So you try to make people give it to you through subtle manipulation tactics instead.
This is the worst form of communication because it combines passivity and the fear of asking for what you want with aggression and the attempt to control other people.
Passive-aggressive people disguise their aggression so they don’t have to take responsibility for it.
For example, routinely showing up late to things is often a form of passive-aggressiveness because you’re trying to get what you want (more time for yourself) without taking responsibility for it and avoiding criticism (“the traffic was awful!”).
But like so many of the habits in this article, being passive-aggressive only “works” in the short-term. Sure you may end up getting what you want from people now, but eventually, people get tired of it and stop playing your game altogether:
- You never get the bonus at work you’re expecting.
- You stop getting invited to events and social gatherings.
- Your relationships never seem to last or stick.
Passive-aggressive people usually end up lonely and resentful.
And while they may blame other people, deep down, they’re really resentful of themselves for not having the courage to be honest and direct with people.
Combine loneliness and self-resentment and insecurity is sure to follow.
The good news is, you can learn to be less passive-aggressive by practicing assertive communication. It’s a highly trainable skill, especially if you start small and work your way up slowly.
6. Excessive positivity
This probably sounds like a strange one, but being excessively positive will quickly lead to a lot of emotional insecurity.
And the reason is straightforward:
Excessive positivity is just denial in fancy clothes.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with striving to be cheerful and optimistic. In fact, I think both of those are pretty healthy things.
But excessive positivity is different: It means using positivity as a way to distract yourself from something that is truly bad, negative, or painful.
Your best friend calls you up to chat and asks how things are going. Even though you just had a horrible fight with your partner and are feeling awful and worried about the relationship, you summon as much cheerfulness as you can and say, “Yeah, things are good!” And go on to talk about something happy in your life.
The problem here is that there really is a problem in your life—and by insisting on being positive all the time, you’re procrastinating on dealing with it. In this case, avoiding some genuine social support and compassion because you’re too embarrassed.
Of course, just because you’re feeling bad and there’s a problem, doesn’t mean you must talk about it. But it’s very easy to get into the habit of always avoiding negative things and insisting on putting up a facade of positivity all the time.
In addition to distracting you from dealing with the very real problems in your life—including not being good at managing your own painful emotions—there’s another major downside:
Excessive positivity is just a mask. And it’s awfully hard to trust and be intimate with people who wear masks all the time.
When you’re constantly playing roles and wearing masks, eventually the important people in your life will catch on to this disingenuousness and realize you’re not a relationship they want to invest much in anymore.
So, if you want to feel less insecure, experiment in small ways with being willing to express some negativity sometimes. You might just find that you feel better for it in the end.
All You Need to Know
Insecurity isn’t a life sentence. And no matter what caused your insecurity in the first place, it’s often the case that subtle habits are maintaining it now.
If you can work to identify and eliminate these habits, confidence and self-worth will follow:
Never saying no
Asking for reassurance