The Upside of Insecurity

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How can something bad be something good? The answer: in moderate doses. We all benefit from a bit of insecurity — a measure of self-doubt — even though too much is disabling.

A Google search of “insecurity” produces lots of articles, including some of my own. Signs of Insecurity: Behavior that Reveals a Lack of Confidence and The Causes of Insecurity are among them. Books give detailed instruction on getting over this subject’s close associates: worry and anxiety.

You will find fewer words, however, on how necessary this quality can be, along with the hesitation and uncertainty attached to it. Most writers focus on the trouble of too much insecurity, rather than its usefulness.

One thing is for sure: insecurity is a widespread concern. According to Google, based on research from 1800 to the present, the use of this term peaked around 1950 and remains near the apex. No wonder W.H. Auden wrote a 1947 poem called The Age of Anxiety.

Freelancer_Lenna_-_FF_V_(2)_**_Explored**

Today I’ll list several reasons why insecurity is essential and useful; indeed, why our species wouldn’t survive in its absence:

  •  Childhood. Youth equals inexperience and having lots to learn. You are dependent. Others must do for you, but something inside drives the desire to do for yourself. Little ones want to discover the world. Their uncertainty about how things work fuels their effort to meet challenges and grow. Were children secure in their state of dependency, they’d remain “little” no matter how big they grew.
  • Safety. Uncertainty improves your chance of survival. The insecure person scans the environment for signs of danger. Anticipation of a precarious future contributes to caution. We want to avoid accident and injury. Even if the odds of being struck by lightning are microscopic, you would be foolhardy to walk in an open field during a thunderstorm twirling a metal golf club overhead.
  • Evolution. Darwinians tell us we need people who are insecure. Were some degree of insecurity a serious obstacle to our survival, natural selection would have reduced or eliminated the trait’s presence. When an overconfident driver is about to send us over a cliff, we best yell, “Wait a minute” or “Slow down.” When a national leader is about to take us into a misbegotten war, the same shouts should be heard from the citizenry. Those with doubts will be alert to danger signs, while the supremely self-assured at the helm believe in themselves and their ideas too much.
  • Swindle Protection. The insecure tend to be short on trust in other people. That hesitation can make them question the motives of those who are in a position to take advantage of them. A handful of suspicion is not a bad thing when it stays your hand from signing an unfair contract.
  • The Human Condition. Few are indifferent to the brevity of life. If “the end” doesn’t make you a bit insecure, you aren’t attending to the plants and animals in nature. Tulips, trees, and tigers don’t foresee what is coming, but we do. The advantage provided by that knowledge can forestall the inevitable and remind us to use our time well.
  • The Cost of Overconfidence.  The world is a scary place: war, disease, poverty and more. Insecurity’s association with worry and anxiety comes at a cost, but so does the peace of mind of the cocky. Whether untroubled by their nature or by self-delusion, their sense of superiority leads to several incorrect beliefs. Those who place themselves above their fellow-man are foolish. Invincibility and immortality are not our birthright. Insufficient concern about the future and the importance of preparing for it is built into The Three Little Pigs children’s story. The tale instructs us to take precautions and demonstrates the danger of ignoring that lesson. Full of ourselves, our simple solutions make us simpletons.
  • Humility and Empathy. Insecurity encourages us to be humble, grateful, and to value the gift of life. Empathy is impossible unless you recognize personal vulnerabilities and identify your likeness to those less fortunate. Thinking ourselves life-sized rather than gigantic and self-important permits awe of the natural world. Oversized egos are drawn to the mirror’s reflection of themselves and their trophies. Some insecurity is needed to kneel down before nature or God or anything bigger than the face in the looking-glass.
  • Life is a Moving Target. Whatever status we attain and however talented one might be, no certificate of permanence comes with the prize. Athletes are the most obvious examples, because their skills erode first. Physical beauty and brain power also degrade at different rates. There will always be someone better, unless you are Lincoln, Churchill, Beethoven, or Shakespeare. Sports records are made to be broken. The moderately insecure are more likely to understand this and prepare for changing circumstances.
  • No One is Perfect. While perfection is unattainable and its pursuit can be a cause of misery, the uncertain are certain they still have things to learn; the know-it-alls are sure they have no such need. The incentive to grow and change is worthwhile. At its best, insecurity opens your mind.
  • Relationships. An over-confident individual expects the world to fall at his feet in admiration. The self-deluded believe they are wonderful just as they are, but risk alienating others and feeling entitled. They make poor team players. Insecurity reminds us that our romantic partners and friends need our attention, affection, and consideration. If we value those to whom we are close, we would best consider they might not put up with our crap forever; and if they do, they’ll probably own some smoldering resentment. Should one think himself irreplaceable, potential shock awaits when a loved one finds another who is more pleasant and thoughtful.
  • Business and Work. Self-doubt keeps you looking for an edge over the competition whether you are a CEO or the company janitor. Other businesses are trying to innovate, not sell the same product in the same way. You can get fired, your market share can decline, skills are overtaken by computers and robots. The work force confronts not only the local competition of the preindustrial world, but competition in the world’s every corner.

A last word on insecurity. The emotional distress accompanying insecurity cannot be ignored. Insecure or not, however, people are poor at “affective forecasting.” Psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson coupled those words to describe an individual’s ability to predict his emotional state. Their research tells us that the typical bride and groom are overly optimistic in their estimation of lasting marital bliss, while the worried and anxious see a more disastrous future than reality will deliver.

There is good news here even for those with severe insecurity. Hold on to some of what you’ve got. You don’t have to reduce your anxiety and worry to zero. You will be better off, however, if you can lower it to a level aligned with most others.

Life satisfaction and happiness depend more on your genetically inherited temperament than anything else, according to Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner. The contented among us view the partly cloudy day as partly sunny. Happiness relies on what we are thinking about and how we think about it, as the Buddhists knew long ago. Clearly, too much insecurity-driven worry and anxiety do not make for a happy life. Still, a moderate amount is an advantage. As perilous as the world is now, we humans wouldn’t have survived this long without the help of some insecurity.

The top photo comes from the U.S. Department of Defense. It shows a local contractor detailing “some of his concerns about requirements during a contractor’s conference, Feb. 7, 2009, at Gardez City, Afghanistan, near Forward Operating Base Gardez. Some are hesitant to enter the more dangerous areas to take on the projects.” This kind of insecurity is among the qualities that reasonable people need to have. The second image is called Freelancer Lenna, about which the author, greyloch, states “I was a little hesitant to upload this pic — at first — as she had such a vulnerable expression and body-language in this shot.” The picture therefore illustrates both the uncertainty of the photographer and of his subject.

He Who Hesitates is (Sometimes) Lost

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Fear and hesitation go hand in hand. They hold you back, creating a slow motion to your progress (see above) and sometimes no progress at all. The trick is to separate the two, to recognize that you needn’t wait until you are free of fear in order to act. Indeed, if that were the case, most of the people whom we consider brave would still be waiting for the moment of bold action that earned them the appellation “hero.”

Years ago I heard a panel discussion on the subject of Wagner’s opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung that actually touched on the issue of courage and decisive action. The experts focused on the character Siegfried, who is described as someone who has never known an instant of fear in his life. Should we therefore consider Siegfried’s fearless behavior to be indicative of heroism and bravery? The panel in question concluded it did not. After all, they reasoned, how can one be a hero without fear to overcome? Only a fool would rush to action without being aware of the attendant dangers. But a brave and courageous man would know the perils facing him and choose to act in any case.

Most of us won’t face dragons or fire, of course, but we still will all have numerous chances to act decisively or to hold back. Here is a trivial, but instructive example from my own life. In college, I was fulfilling a PE requirement by taking fencing. Now, I wasn’t a very good fencer, despite being a reasonably good athlete. And, my heavy academic course load didn’t permit me the luxury of spending time outside of class to practice fencing. Thus, in the first seven matches I had against my classmates, I won only three, a pretty mediocre showing.

Nonetheless, I was competitive enough to want to win more often, so I reasoned that there just might be a way that wouldn’t take time away from my other studies. I realized that I was a relatively tentative fencer, and so I decided to become more aggressive. I set myself the task of getting in the first “touch” as soon as each new match began. The strategy worked. Of the next 17 matches, I won 14. I was almost always able to get a 1 to 0 lead within a few seconds of the start of the competition by catching my adversaries off-guard. Yet, despite my new found success, I was really no better at fencing than I’d been when my record was three wins and four losses. I was simply less hesitant, more aggressive.

I once had a biology professor named Hudson who conducted the “Quiz” portion of his classes in a way to encourage behavior similar to my fencing experience. You were graded on the number of questions you answered correctly and lost points if you answered the interrogatories wrong. Hudson asked the questions aloud and it was a race to get your hand up first and have him call on you to answer. Naturally, you had to make a quick decision as to whether you had the right answer. Very fast indeed. Those who hesitated were, as the saying goes, “lost.”

But how does this all apply to daily life, the life outside of the university. You might say that “normal” life is less competitive than my examples suggest, but is it? To answer that question, ask yourself how often you hesitate to do things, take chances, give public voice to concerns that might engender disapproval, avoid tasks that are difficult or challenging? Do you ask out the beautiful woman, or do you wait until you feel “ready,” only to watch someone else beat your time in getting her attention? Do you, at least sometimes, see a crisis as an opportunity? Or do you hold back, put things off, wait and hope that another or better time for action will come? Sometimes it will, but sometimes it won’t.

If your “default” strategy, your habitual tendency, is to wait, you have a similar problem to those whose standard operating procedure is to act impulsively, without thinking. It may be the case that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” but it is also true that you are an equal fool if you forever hold back, hesitate, and watch the moment pass or see someone else “seize the day (carpe diem).”

What I am talking about is fear and the uncertainty that fuels it. When we are fearful and decide not to take action, most of us feel an immediate sense of relief. That relief reinforces our hesitation, while simultaneously depriving us of the opportunity to succeed in the endeavor. Soon enough the relief will pass, but not the self-doubt and lack of personal esteem and confidence that might have been won by an effective action.

The danger in allowing too many chances to pass by is a life of “quiet desperation,” a life on the sidelines, watching others play the game, but not playing it ourselves. And, at the end of life, regret for the opportunities passed and the chances not taken is more likely to be troubling than the failed efforts made. Beware the heartache of the words “what if?” True, acting boldly often fails; but, it also sometimes succeeds.

No wonder, then, that musicians spend relatively little time passively listening to music. They are too busy making it.

Make music of your life, then. Let the trumpet announce (or remind) the world of your presence. Sing your song. And if you cannot, find a therapist who will give you the tools to beat back your fear and help encourage you.

The above image is an Animation of Newton’s Cradle created on August 8, 2006 by Demon Deluxe and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.