Having Insecurities vs. Being Insecure

black and white picture of a man holding his head in his hands, feeling distraught

We all have insecurities. Some of us may worry that we’re not where we’d like to be personally or professionally, others may worry that our appearances lack a certain quality we find in others. Perhaps we criticize ourselves for not being able to meet some standard that we’ve set for ourselves based on what we believe others expect of us. In any case, insecurities arise when we feel as though we aren’t achieving something we desire. Such feelings are especially common after certain social interactions in which we feel as though these disparities are magnified either for ourselves or, we perceive, in the eyes of others. For example, if we come into contact with someone who possesses the things we feel that we lack but desire to have, we might feel insecure as a result of our status compared to theirs. After all, insecurities result from scrutiny which can arise when we compare ourselves with others whom we believe possess what we want but ultimately don’t have.

Insecurities: “A Personal Purgatory of Self-Doubt”

Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, explains that it’s “easy to get thrown into a personal purgatory of self-doubt in these situations. Whether it’s a social contact or a business interaction,  people who want everyone to know how big they are can make the rest of us feel pretty small.” At times like these, it might be tempting to think of  how much better we’d feel if we could just brush these situations away and go on about our lives and business without doubting ourselves or our lives.

Luckily, however, Dr. Whitbourne believes that when armed with a simple set of detection tools we can accomplish just that. Moreover, we can learn to not only help ourselves feel better but to recognize the weaknesses in the facade of those whom we incorrectly assume are practically perfect.

Inferiority Complexes: A Gateway to Narcissism?

The psychology behind this process stems from the theory of the inferiority complex, a term coined by Viennese psychoanalyst Alfred Adler. According to Dr. Whitbourne, Adler believed that people who feel inferior “go about their days overcompensating through what he called ‘striving for superiority.’ The only way these inwardly uncertain people can feel happy is by making others decidedly unhappy.” To Adler, “this striving for superiority lies at the core of neurosis.” While previously associated solely with the idea of an inferiority complex, we now have come to associate this striving for superiority as a characterizing feature of narcissistic personality disorder. This disorder is best defined as a deviation in normal development which causes the individual to constantly search for ways to boost their self-esteem. Unfortunately, this can often include compromising the self-esteem of others. As Dr. Whitbourne states: “when you’re dealing with someone who’s making you feel inferior, there’s a good chance that narcissism is the culprit.”

Insecurities vs. Insecure People

While narcissism doesn’t always manifest as pathological, the term can be used to describe certain people to some extent. By better understanding what narcissism is and how it is demonstrated, we can better interpret the actions of narcissistic individuals including friends, coworkers, or partners, particularly when we examine their insecurities. After all, there is a difference between having insecurities, as we all do, and being an insecure person. The former implies that we have certain qualities that we are unsatisfied with. The latter, however, refers to someone who not only is dissatisfied with themselves or some aspect of themselves but is willing to go to lengths to enhance their self-esteem even if it means that they are compromising the self-esteem of others or making them feel bad in their place.

To know the difference, it is important to learn the four key traits of insecure people, which can potentially make for toxic relationships:

1. They Try to Make You Feel Insecure

As previously stated, the insecure person is not afraid to make others feel insecure about themselves. A good thing to ask is whether our insecurities are our own or whether or not we only experience them when we are around certain people, particularly those who frequently broadcast their strengths as if to seem superior because of them to others. If you don’t feel insecure in general, but only around certain people, it is likely due to the fact that that person or persons are projecting their insecurities onto you.

2. They Frequently “Humble Brag”

We’re all familiar with the humble brag: the self-derogatory statement which acts as a buffer for what is actually bragging. For example, someone complaining that they have to travel to exotic locations for work or that they have more money than they know what to do with.

3. They Need to Showcase Their Accomplishments

You may not necessarily have to feel insecure around someone to know that a fear of inferiority may be at the heart of their behavior. Dr. Whitbourne explains: “People who are constantly bragging about their great lifestyle, their elite education, or their fantastic children may very well be doing so to convince themselves that they really do have worth.” Showcasing accomplishments may very well be a means of seeking the approval or, at the very least, of impressing others.

4. They Frequently Complain that Things Aren’t Good Enough

People who suffer from high feelings of insecurity often try to cover these feelings by expressing to others that they have high standards. However, even if you sense that it’s just an act, sometimes the act can be so convincing that you may start to believe that perhaps they are actually better than you. This is a toxic mindset and one that is based on false presumptions rather than reality. The fact of the matter is is this proclamation of high standards is actually reflective of the insecure individual’s own rigorous self-assessment criteria and not of any actual superiority they might have over others.

When In Doubt, Take the High Road

When dealing with insecurities and insecure people, Dr. Whitbourne advises that “Being able to detect insecurity in the people around you can help you shake off the self-doubts that some people seem to enjoy fostering in you.” In such cases, it’s better to take the high road, as it were, to not only establish a sense of fulfillment of ourselves but in the insecure individuals we love and care about.