The Causes of Insecurity


Insecurity is in the nature of being human. It is a commonplace, even if most people make a serious effort to disguise it. Too many things to know, too many to learn, too many rejections — most everyone has had significant experience of the things that undermine confidence. But, what makes for more than the usual amount of insecurity? What contributes to some people becoming “insecure?” Here are a few of its causes:

  • Temperament: Little human personalities can be different from the moment of birth. Just as not all children have the same color eyes or hair, neither do they have the same temperament. Pre-school kids have distinctive and lasting characteristics on such dimensions as being reactive vs. calm, tending to approach or avoid new situations, and being introverted or extroverted. While not guaranteeing fractured confidence as an adult, inborn qualities can make a contribution to it.
  • Overly Critical Parenting: Security can be undermined by parents who are too critical, neglectful, or frankly abusive. Sometimes neglect is unavoidable, as it tends to be in families where there are lots of children or the parents are working long hours outside of the home to put food on the table. But sometimes the insecurity develops because of something more subtle. If you are born to extroverted parents and you are introverted (while your siblings are more like your folks), you may feel like an odd-duck, not quite fitting in. If your dad was hoping for an athlete and you are an artist, the same sense of parental disappointment might be hard to miss.
  • Bullying: Kids can be targeted by the classmates for all sorts of reasons including the way they look, where they live, how they dress; and racial, religious, or ethnic differences. Gender matters too, especially if you are the sole female in a physics class with a wise-guy classmate who makes fun of you and a teacher who hasn’t the capability to stop it, as I witnessed back in high school.
  • Body Image: In a society filled with spectacularly beautiful advertising images, it is difficult to be plain; and worse yet, unattractive in any way. Too tall, too skinny, too fat — God help you. Too much acne, bad hair, a lack of finely-tuned motor coordination, same problem. Some of us continue to see ourselves in terms of that early self and struggle with the sense of insecurity produced back then.
  • Learning Problems: This can take the form of a learning disability, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or even being average in a school filled with high achievers.
  • Multiple Changes of Residence: Being the new kid is not usually fun, especially for introverted young people who struggle with fitting in and finding friends. Insecurity can follow.
  • Parental Overprotection: When parents prevent their children from doing things that are simply a part of growing up, they can communicate to the child that he isn’t up to the task. Moreover, they rob the young one of the chance to grow from experience, learn what he needs to know in the social sphere, and become more confident. He may also be at risk of being seen as “different” by his peers, because he is the kid who “isn’t allowed” to do things most other parents freely permit.


  • Parental Expectations: For some parents, life won’t be complete until their children go to Harvard, become famous, and have a building named after them. Even an objectively accomplished person can be insecure if he feels he has failed to reach that standard, unless he throws off this requirement by dint of self-examination or therapy. In today’s civilized world, we compete with the best brains and ideas on an international scale, quite a change from most of human history, when you could easily feel great being a big fish in a small pond; that is, standing out for athletic or scholarly excellence in your tiny community.
  • Money: If your classmates and their parents have more money, nicer homes, or better clothes than you do, this can cause you to be noticed in an uncomfortable way and make you feel less worthy than the others.
  • Guilt: Do you have a secret? Do you feel guilty about something others don’t know about? Are you adopted or is your father alcoholic or your mother depressed? Such things can make you feel vulnerable, in the belief others would disapprove “if only they knew.” And if they do, the talk behind your back is predictable.
  • Being in Someone’s Shadow: While there are a great many good things about being the child or sibling of a person who is extraordinary, it can create a high bar to any kind of recognition or acceptance of you for your own sake, someone who has his own identity and is worth knowing even if he isn’t an Olympic champion or a captain of industry.
  • Blushing and Sweating: We all get nervous, but some of us do stand out in a visible way. President Richard Nixon was famous for the amount of perspiration he generated during the Kennedy-Nixon Presidential Debates in 1960, so much that most people who saw him on TV thought he lost, but the majority of those who only heard him over the radio thought he won. Whatever insecurity you are prone to can be amplified by knowing your discomfort will sometimes shine like a lighthouse beacon.


  • Isolation: Children whose living conditions offer little opportunity to socialize with same-aged kids are at a disadvantage. The talented and extroverted among them are more likely to have confidence when they enter the social arena, while the introverted may have more difficulty. Living at a distance from other kids your own age or being home-schooled can fuel this problem. The distance also doesn’t afford the opportunities of living in challenging social situations that contribute to a growing sense of competence and mastery. Once behind the curve, whether through the peculiar circumstances of childhood or your own avoidance of challenges as an adult, you might come to feel you are now too lacking in practice and even further behind others in any number of work, social, or sexual situations.
  • Life Failures: The frustrations of life can take their toll. Confidence might be undermined by too many jobs lost, goals unfulfilled, rejections, and relationship failures.
  • The Depredations of Aging: If your self-image depends largely on just one thing, a loss of that thing can make a big difference in your sense of security. Athletic prowess fades, as does beauty. Worse yet, the former prom king and queen can discover their bodies no longer demand positive attention (or perhaps now get the wrong kind of attention). Some feel mocked by the photos of their youth.
  • Instinctive Biological Insecurities: Evolution contributed to our tendency to pick up on the signs revealing disapproval or anger in others. Those pre-historic humans who didn’t notice their compatriots were unhappy with them risked being thrown out of a protective group. Worse still, they failed to detect hostility in their enemies. Only individuals who were sensitive enough to notice passed their genes to us. For more on this, read Insecurity and Our Preoccupation with Appearances/

None of these factors will undermine every person. Many of them interact with one another, making confidence more difficult. But getting over what is past and challenging yourself to master new and difficult situations tends to be productive. Therapy can be helpful in coming to terms with a history anchoring you to the ocean’s bottom, as well as a present that looks too daunting given your internal shakiness. The important thing is moving forward.

Metaphorically speaking, humans are like the Great White Shark, which must swim in order to breathe: either we keep moving forward or we die.

You might also find this of interest: On Being Insecure and Alone/

The top image is called Shamed Man by Victor Bezrukov, The second photo is called Cutest Girl Ever by Lindsay Stark. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

23 thoughts on “The Causes of Insecurity

  1. I am regular visitor, how are you everybody?
    This post posted at this web site is actually good.


    • Thank you.


    • Your assessment is good but how can I help an insecure young single son 28 years old ?who has a master degree ,handsome green eyes but a bit overweight by 15 kgs .Briiliant student but insecure .no girlfriend not many friends .a bit moody at times and angry at life .


      • The first question I’d ask is whether he identifies that he needs help. If so, then he can look for a therapist. If he believes that the problem resides in other people and the way they treat him, however, then it would be unusual for anyone to have much of an influence. Obviously, I can’t comment with any specifics since I’ve never met him. To whatever extent you are troubled by this, you might find support for yourself from friends, clergy, or your own therapist. What I’ve said may not be very satisfying, but it the only broad approach I can provide. Best of luck with this. Your son is still very young, so his intellect and physical assets may yet triumph. You might also wish to look at a post of mine, mostly addressed to women, which may have some application to your son:


  2. Dr. Stein is to be commended. He gets to the bottom line and the “why” of the situation in a succinct and understandable manner. Note a key word used throughout is confidence. For whatever reason that engenders confidence, the more that confidence is lacking, the worse the insecurity.

    Thank you for your help, Dr. Stein.


  3. A very well written article and very understandable for anyone to read. I do feel like there’s something missing in this line-up of causes. From my own experience of what I’ve often seen is that the scholing system (from what I’ve perceived as a teacher in the Netherlands) is a potential cause of insecurity in children. Children are constantly graded and compared to others. Children are taught to level and compare themselves to those that are better or worse than themselves, instead of looking at themselves at what they once knew and now know. I have noticed in my short (and amateuristic) research in two classes that when children were confronted with what they knew before and how much they’ve grown they seemed more willing to do their best on their studies and seemed happier all over when at school. I can not proof this sadly as all I have are my own observations.
    Perhaps this subject can be placed in quite a few of your headings, such as: ‘learning problems’, ‘parental expectations’, ‘being in someone’s shadow’ and ‘life failures’. But I can’t stress the matter on how much schools can have an influence on a childs insecurity or confidence.

    I would very much like your opinion on this subject, if you wish.


    • Many thanks, Liz. I agree. Your suggestion that children be encouraged to focus on their own positive changes is an excellent one. And, no doubt, too many negative comparisons to others can be devastating. As an aside, since we no longer live in a world where one can easily be a “big fish in a small pond,” nearly everyone is in the situation of being compared (or comparing himself) to the most talented people worldwide. Thanks, again for your comment.


    • I was raised by a very poor family in the (US) South. My family was not tight knit at all. School provided a place for me to overcome all this. I did very well in academics and this opened many doors. I am retired now, but look back favorably on my life and what I have accomplished. Why didn’t I end up like most of my relatives (poor and uneducated)? I have spent many hours pondering this.
      Children need to be prepared for a competitive world. Some will not rise to the level they desire. My advice would be to find an environment where you can be successful. Don’t decide arbitrarily on your goals, and then suffer a lifetime of disappointment because you don’t reach them. Better to be a secure ticket-taker than an insecure engineer.


      • I do see merit in what you say. Indeed it is a very competitive world and it is good to learn from an early age on how to cope with it. Thank you for your replies, I’ll make sure to keep it in mind as I continue my teaching career.


  4. My interest in insecurity is to try to understand the liberal mind. Liberals generally believe in big government in order to protect people from the vicissitudes of life. This strikes me as a profound insecurity, but many liberals I know are very capable people, so it is illogical that they, themselves, are insecure (or is it?). Why, then, do they advocate a society where people become dependent on something so arbitrary as government? If it is not insecurity that makes them liberal, what is it? Are ability and insecurity independent (my present suspicion).


    • You raise important questions. You might want to read Jonathan Haidt. He contends that both parties are profoundly influenced by emotions in forming political opinions. Best wishes.


    • I’m not trying to be a know it all here, but you’re talking about Socialists.
      Socialists want a social structure they can govern and control requiring a large government to function. Liberalists want the liberty to make their own decisions without government interference, requiring only a small government.
      But it is indeed a very important question on how both parties could possibly be influenced by their insecurities.


  5. Liz, I also don’t intend to be a know-it-all, either, but couldn’t help but notice you described a libertarian, not a liberal, as the original commenter described. I’ve never heard the term liberalist.


    • Call me confused in that case as I’d always described myself as a liberalist. Perhaps something went wrong in my translation. I’ll look into it.


  6. […] want to read more about the topic I found this blog post that is giving more in-depth information: The Causes of Insecurity by Dr. Gerald […]


    • Thank you, Melanie! By the way, I will be posting in the next few days an essay on “Signs of “Confidence: the Other Side of Insecurity.”


  7. […] explanations for major, enduring self-doubts have already been covered in an article entitled “The Causes of Insecurity.” Although the comprehensive list compiled by its author, Gerald Stein, is, if anything, […]


  8. […] root cause of insecurity how we were raised or what happened to us in our past? Well, according to Dr. Gerald Stein, it can be both (along with a slew of other things!) Sure some of your insecurities can come from […]


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