What to Do (and Not Do) When You Feel Insecure
Whatever you call it—self-doubt, insecurity, inadequacy—it's a universal phenomenon. We can all relate to feeling as insecure as a newly-launched cryptocurrency. Luckily, there is lots we can do.
Is your confidence the consistency of Jell-O? Do you feel like a dandelion in a sea of orchids? Do you walk through the world with an existential trombone accompaniment of wah-wah-wahhhhhhh?
The good news: you are not alone. Insecurity is universal. We all doubt ourselves from time to time (or even all the time). We can all relate to feeling as insecure as a newly-launched cryptocurrency.
Insecurity even causes a unique form of amnesia: when we’re stuck in the throes of insecurity, it’s hard to remember ever feeling confident. Our memory becomes selective, and any sense of ourselves as strong, self-assured, or capable disappears faster than freshly baked cookies.
How to salvage our confidence? Luckily, there are lots of things we can do. This week, we’ll walk through three things to try when you’re feeling insecure, plus we’ll address two common go-tos that actually backfire.
Let’s start with what NOT to do.
#1: Don’t attempt to psych yourself up with generic praise.
“I’m gonna be great!” “I can do it!” “I’m amazing.” All the generic phrases we mutter to ourselves to try to psych ourselves up end up psyching us out. Why? Because they feel like a lie. This will sound remarkably nerdy (because it is), but think of it in quantitative terms. If you don’t believe your self-affirmation at least 75%, it’s not going to work. Even worse, according to a study out of the University of Minnesota, if self-affirmation is followed by not-so-affirming performance, the letdown can deflate your motivation and cause you to give up on your goals.
#2: Don’t compare yourself to others.
By now, we all know that social media leads to comparing, which in turn makes us feel lousy. The unfiltered ups and downs of our own existence—clipping coupons, waiting for the bus, picking up dog poo from the yard—don’t stand a chance when compared to the filtered, curated highlight reel of celebrities’ (or even our friends’) posts of accomplishments, exotic vacations, and clean, well-behaved children.
But sometimes we forget that off social media, the same thing happens in real life. We get intimidated by our beautiful, put-together co-worker at the office, or feel resentful when our neighbor parks a brand-new Land Rover in the driveway.
But just like we know that social media is a highlight reel, so is real life (or at least what parts of it others let us see). Behind the scenes, everyone has issues. Your co-worker may keep her body image problems to herself. Your neighbor doesn’t park his lousy marriage in the driveway. You may not know what issues someone has, but rest assured, they have them.
The take home? Don’t bother comparing. We don’t have all the information on other people’s lives, so it’s impossible to compare apples to apples.
Need another reason to avoid comparisons? Here’s food for thought: comparisons have been linked to narcissism. It makes sense: trying to figure out where you stand in a pecking order implies that you believe in a pecking order—that some people are better than others and, by identifying certain signifiers, we can determine who belongs where.
Next, if you decide that you don’t measure up, comparisons not only make you feel hopelessly inadequate, but can also poison your relationships with resentment and envy. Even if you come out ahead in the comparison, the conclusion that you’re somehow better, or that you “win,” simply isn’t very nice. Plus the bump in self-esteem you might get by winning the comparison is temporary and gets undermined whenever good things happen to people in your life.
The take home? Comparisons are tempting but ultimately unhealthy. So just as you try to keep junk food out of your diet, try to keep comparisons out of your head.
Okay, if comparing ourselves to others and trying to reassure ourselves that we’re amazing doesn’t work, what does? What can we do when we’re feeling as insecure as a retirement account invested in a Ponzi scheme? We’ve covered the don’ts; now let’s move on to some do’s.
#3: Do affirm your values.
Remind yourself of who you are and what is important to you. For example, “My family and the support they give me is something I know is real.” “My faith is the foundation of my life.” Or, “A sense of humor is what grounds me and connects me to other people.”
Importantly, affirming your values is really different than self-promotion. Rather than creating a powerful or important persona, affirming your values is about taking a step back and reminding yourself of who you are and what’s important to you.
To be clear, we’re not talking about performance, we’re talking about values. An example of performance is “I’m a good student,” whereas an example of affirming your values is “I strive for continual and lifelong learning.”
In short, affirming your values affirms your whole self, not just one domain of your life. And that places challenges into a bigger context, which makes them seem smaller by comparison.
#4: Do remember yourself at your best.
Another “do” is to bring to mind a memory of your best self. Think of a time you stood by a friend when no one else did. Remember when you did a good deed with no expectation of reward. Think of when you told the truth even when it was tempting to lie. When you already feel insecure, you tend to see the world as if it’s working against you. Little threats and dangers pop out from behind every corner. But remembering yourself at your best makes you see the world more accurately.
Instead of focusing on living up to a perceived standard, focus on creating your own standard.
To illustrate, a creative study in the journal Emotion found that study participants who brought to mind a time they failed or betrayed someone close to them estimated that a live (but securely caged) tarantula in the room was closer than it actually was. On the other hand, those who remembered a time they helped someone close to them estimated the distance of the tarantula more accurately. What’s more, the greater self-worth the participants experienced, the farther away the tarantula appeared. Remembering themselves at their best didn’t make the creepy threat disappear, but they were able to literally put it in its place.
#5: Do focus on being uniquely you.
I know that sounds hopelessly cliche, but hear me out. Too often, when we’re feeling insecure, we try to copy someone else. We emulate a hero or model our performance on someone we think has it all together.
But by definition, when we imitate, we’re a mere copy of the original. So instead of focusing on living up to a perceived standard, focus on creating your own standard. For example, say you’re feeling insecure when hanging out with your friends. You might be tempted to model your behavior after the friend who seems the most confident or put-together. But rather than simply trying to follow their trail, focus on blazing your own. It doesn’t have to be a big spectacle—it can be very subtle. Simply stay attuned to what you’re curious about. What do you find compelling? What do you have to say? Stay true to you and you’ll feel more secure than a supervillian’s secret lair.
To sum it all up, even Fort Knox has cracks in the foundation. Insecurity is inevitable. No place—and no one—is completely secure, from a supermax prison to Cheyenne Mountain to that guy in your office with perfect teeth and CEO hair. But you can minimize it by anchoring yourself in your deepest values, your moments of integrity, and your unique self. Your insecurities will seem as far away as that tarantula.
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