Author’s Note: This is the first part of a four-part series in a new stretch of blog posts I’m calling “The Hard Things.” There are so many things in humanity that are difficult to discuss for various reasons. You name something hard to talk about, and there’s usually a one-word answer for why it’s difficult. Sex? Awkward. Politics? Contentious. Mental health? Complicated. Religion? Personal.
I’m calling the first series of posts “Insecure.” I’m really excited about this one because I think insecurity a topic most if not all of us can relate to and, at least I think, doesn’t get as much attention as a topic, particularly in the Christian atmosphere. So let’s go. – ZH
The other night, I sat at our kitchen table, head down, moisture on my forehead. My anxiety had peaked.
“Everything OK?” my wife asked kindly.
“Eh, not really,” I said. “I feel off.”
After a couple minutes of hemming and hawing, I was able to get it out — I was feeling really insecure. I had no reason to, no real reason at least. In my head, anyway.
“I’ve always been this way,” I said. “Ever since I was younger.”
Insecurity has plagued me for most of my life, and while it’s taken a lot of days off in my adulthood, it still comes roaring back every now and then. And I’d wager that I’m not alone. After all, we’re surrounded by things and people that can flick that insecurity switch in our brains.
Insecurity, if you’ve somehow never heard the term before, is the feeling of not being comfortable with yourself. If security means comfort and contentment, confidence and constancy, insecurity is the opposite.
Actual quantification of humanity’s insecurity is hard to come by. In a blog post on the website of The Scientific American, clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen says the best two figures that could describe insecurity are these: the 13 percent of Americans that experience social anxiety disorder and the 40 percent that identify as shy. Both social anxiety and shyness relate, she argues, to the fact that we’re not comfortable with ourselves.
But why do we end up this way? Why do we define ourselves with this term? How do we get there? I think there’s at least three main reasons at the root of most of our insecurity — whether that feeling pertains only to certain areas of our lives or exists as a constant companion — and they all have to do with how we feel.
We feel insufficient, not doing enough.
I’m not somebody who’s looking to fill my calendar with things. I like having free time and space to do whatever it is I want to do during my day. But even with this free time, intentional or not, I often feel like I’m not doing enough, like I’m not carrying my load as part of society, or not measuring up to what is expected of me.
For something to be incomplete, it has to be started but not finished, begun but not ended. It can refer to a piece of art we’re creating, a business transaction we’re facilitating or a book we’re reading. There’s something done, but it’s not fully complete or finished. Simply by existing in that state, the project or book or artwork stands on the precipice of completion. It’s like standing on a fence post. You can go back to where you started or on to the other side with a gust of wind or a little burst of energy, either positive or negative, internal or external.
We can feel insecure when we haven’t yet done what we feel what we need to do, especially when compared to someone else who has accomplished much more than we have at our age or even younger.
Every so often, I’ll have a conversation with someone about another person who is my age or younger, and one of us will remark, “What were we doing when we were their age?” Most of the time, it’s something relatively less remarkable or profitable, at least on the surface.
For many of us, our comparative insecurities in the productivity field don’t come from comparisons to celebrities or athletes, but those around us — the ones who seem more spiritual, who got that raise and promotion before us, whose marriage looks more sparkling and golden than ours.
We feel incompetent, not skilled or smart enough.
The scenario I described in the opening of this piece revolved around incompetence, or at least feeling that way. I had discussed things with someone who was objectively much smarter and, at least on the surface, much more self-assured that I, and it made me feel incompetent.
Whether it’s in on a work project, some home repair effort or simply in conversation with a friend, we can often feel like we don’t measure up to another person or some sort of standard we’ve established in our mind. This comparison is the basis of many insecurities, I think. Much has been written and said about how negatively comparison affects a person, how much comparing yourself to someone else can actually hinder growth.
Insecurity can arise in this arena, especially around insecurity itself. You look at someone who’s clearly self-assured and confident in who they are and wonder why you can’t be that way. What have they got that I don’t? What do they know that I don’t?
While females most assuredly struggle with this, I believe males maybe have a much harder time with this kind of insecurity. It starts when you’re young on the playground, when races take place to see who’s the fastest to go across the monkey bars. As you get older, it becomes sports: who makes more baskets, who runs the fastest, who throws the ball better. If (or when) you learn you can’t be a professional athlete, it’s about money and success: who has the better job, who has the nicer car.
Really, it comes down to this: who are we?
We feel inadequate, not enough.
For the insecure, “who we are not” is the comparison. Ultimately, it goes beyond what other people are like and what they have accomplished to a version of ourselves that we dream to be one day. We conjure up this picture of who we are not yet, maybe even who we should be right now, and when we find ourselves less than, we fall into insecurity.
Whether it’s from religion, music, movies, art or social media, we are bombarded by ideas and about who we could be if only we did this or paid for that or took this time or effort. If we are unable to make that effort — withheld by finances, talent or some other unmovable barrier — we feel we have failed, and thus, we are failures. And even if we are able to make that effort, but still fail, the feeling remains.
Religion has a certain way of, in my experience at least, enabling this insecurity. Religious practices and institutions are, on their face, all about making yourself more into the image of something, more like an ideal or a standard. And while that is not necessarily bad, and those ideals can even be good aspirations, improper teaching about those standards can lead to heavy shame and guilt and immense insecurity. We feel like we won’t be a true fill-in-the-religion-here until we meet all the standards and goals set before us by some religious teacher or moral behemoth.
These feelings get at the very heart of who we are, our identify, our selves. What we do and what we are skilled or talented in can change and vary with the season. We may be in a job that we are good at or have completed a particularly difficult task, so we feel good about those parts. But who we are permeates everything.
Thus, this insecurity is the most damaging and crippling. If we can’t be confident and comfortable in who we are, the most basic and fundamental thing about us, what can we be secure in?
Part 2 coming soon.