Normalizing the Abnormal: Making Excuses for Toxic People

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Why do we associate with people who aren’t good for us? Why do we stick with them? Here are a few of the reasons:

  • FAMILIARITY: If you were raised in a dysfunctional family, you are used to acquaintances who injure others. Their behavior is routine. To some degree you become habituated to it.
  • THE DIFFICULTY OF LEAVING: The end of relationships can be complicated and painful. Should you wish to avoid conflict or are afraid the toxic individual will lash out, all the more reason to endure the situation.
  • INSECURITY AND FEAR OF LOSS: A person with low self-esteem and few friends might accept a poor relationship despite its limitations. He does not believe he will be better off without it or capable of finding a new buddy.
  • OPPORTUNISM: Alliances can be a simple matter of taking advantage of a situation and serving your own interest. Senator Marco Rubio is being encouraged to run again for the Senate by senior Republican Party (GOP) members. Thus, he has decided to make friends with an enemy, Donald Trump, the presumed Republican nominee for President. A former supporter of Rubio, Cecilia Durgin in the conservative National Review, states: “Rubio hadn’t just disagreed with Trump on policy but had labeled him a ‘con artist’ who threatened the GOP and was too dangerous to be entrusted with the nuclear codes. Now Rubio has gone from reluctantly upholding his pledge to support the nominee, to saying he’d attend the (Republican National) convention and would be ‘honored’ to help Trump.” Durgin finds Rubio’s shift opportunistic.
  • FEAR OF THOSE UPON WHOM YOU DEPEND: A child who perceives the potential for repetitive angry and hurtful responses from a parent can learn to bury his feelings and blame himself for generating the parental danger. He has little choice. Retaliation will only bring on more injury. Unfortunately, he may accept the parent’s verdict as just. By diminishing himself, he unconsciously attempts to make his situation more acceptable. Moreover, his life then becomes less hopeless: he comes to believe that if only he can change himself, the parent will show him love. Without eventual escape from the elder and processing his own misfortune, he is liable to accept mistreatment throughout his life.
  • RATIONALIZATION: The process of growing up is disillusioning. We discover mom and dad aren’t perfect and no one is morally pure. That includes ourselves, at least if we are honest (a contradiction in terms, I know). Many of us are not and excuse the gradual erosion and transformation of our sense of right and wrong. Thus, we might note no problem in those whose misbehavior isn’t much different from our own. People salve their conscience by thinking they will be heroic and principled when faced with a major moral crisis, no matter their small indiscretions in more routine situations. Without being tested, however, you don’t know. In my experience, morality is lost by inches. Those who are not careful gradually become something they would have rejected at an earlier time of life. When the big moral test arrives, they have long since given up whatever idealism they once had.
  • BECOMING POLLYANNA: By nature or experience, it is possible to be optimistic about individuals and look at the bright side of life. This can be a good strategy for a routine sense of happiness, despite the mistakes of judgment it leads to. If you see only the best in people then it doesn’t matter too much with whom you spend your time or, within limits, how they treat you.
  • HISTORY AND INERTIA: Relationships of long-standing are hard to give up. You share a history and a body of memories with someone special. A recent friend doesn’t replace that shared experience. A new person who appears toxic will be avoided much sooner than an old buddy or family member.
  • GUILT: Society reinforces loyalty. You risk not only admonishment if you end a relationship, but violating your own internalized sense of what is proper.
  • MISGUIDED HOPE OF GETTING THE LOVE YOU WANT: When your beloved or best friend reminds you of a parent who did not love you enough, you may endure his mistreatment in the hope he will change. You are still chasing the dream of getting the kind of affection you hoped for from the parent. This is a case of unconscious mistaken identity or — as therapists call it when they are taken for someone else (metaphorically speaking) — transference. One can almost never persuade a parent or parent’s doppelgänger to be who you want. We can only work through the transference, grieve our failure to obtain the desired love, and find healthier affections.
  • NECESSITY: In a down economy one stays in jobs with abusive bosses far longer than one otherwise would. Financial dependence on a spouse (or the inability to work) creates the same constraints. Escape becomes difficult; though, over time and with preparation, effort, and courage, a toxin-free situation is possible.
  • HOPELESSNESS: Some of us are so bruised by human contact as to assume we might as well stay put, since no one better is thought to exist. It is a false, but powerful belief and likely to be associated with depression. Treat the mood disorder. Hope (and a more objective view of the future) may then return.

One key to a good life is adapting, learning from experience, and knowing how to start over. There are millions of new people you might get to know who would enrich you. Unhappy relationships need not be maintained. We are often freer than we think.

The top Caltrans Sign is the work of Mliu92 and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

On the Need for Reassurance: What Do You Do After Therapy?


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When we go to the doctor our expectation is to receive a cure: something to finish off the illness. We might expect a similar result from a therapist. He will apply the magic ointment to make our hurt go away. Typically, however, we are not offered a fix with a lifetime guarantee, but guidance in developing a method — a way of living “differently:” a “practice” designed to enable a more satisfying and manageable life.

Perhaps our desire for someone to “make it better” goes back to childhood. Indeed, depending on people is, for many, an endless and desperate project. We look for them to put things right, whether to captain our team, lead our country, or reassure us everything will be OK. Unfortunately, however, there are no magicians, only experts. They cannot be with us forever and, even if they could, our excess dependence would transform them into the human equivalent of a security blanket.

If life is to be lived with adequate confidence we need a method to practice regularly, not another human as our permanent rabbit’s foot or talisman. Not a replacement for an inadequate parent. Not excess dependency, but self-reliance coming from the development of a new “groove:” a repeatedly rehearsed approach to the challenges particular to our life.

How can we carve out such a path?

This is a big question. Usually, however, other questions take precedence. Will I wear out my therapist? Will he leave me? Will he ever say he cares about me in a convincing way?

The unstated belief is that the mental health professional is essential for my well-being; and the hope he will be there as long as I need him. In effect, he possesses the magic, I don’t. You hear this in the lament of the lonely, as well: I cannot do this by myself and my life can only be better when I find “the one.”

Therapists, at least with most of their clients, recognize they need to be transitional objects. A portion of what they do is to enable the patient to develop a method of living designed to make him (the doctor) unnecessary. Put differently, the client learns to master his problems most of the time.

Many patients resist the notion to the point of hoping to become the friend (or lover) of the counselor after treatment ends. Just as we look to our aged parents for wisdom or reassurance, we want not only the therapist’s attachment, approval, and security, but his guidance, as if he can never be replaced, least of all by relying on ourselves.

The idea of “a practice” is not always mentioned by counselors. Oh, the clinician will assign homework, but he might never say homework must continue when treatment ends. Leaving the therapist’s office upon termination is not enough. Rather, the client must continue to do work on himself, climb even higher, take on different versions of the same challenges, and bounce back when thrown to the floor. He needs to remind himself of his strengths, his successes, and what he must do now. This is a practice: “repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it,” according to the Google online dictionary.

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Your program might involve regular, organized self-reflection; journaling, mindfulness enhancement, recitation of those people and things for which you are grateful, time set aside to challenge negative self-talk, a plan for increasing your compassion, writing down all those difficult moments you’ve overcome; and a step-wise, graduated list of challenges you want to take on and a chart of your progress.

You may already engage in other such practices. Daily meditation would be one. Daily reading of passages from a religious text is another. Professional athletes and body builders maintain a regular workout routine, even in the off-season. The goal is to solidify your thought and action, create a habit, improve your focus, rely on yourself, and beat back whatever might encroach on past gains.

One of the best examples of this idea is found in Plato’s Phaedo, the story of Socrates’s last day. Knowing that he will shortly drink hemlock to fulfill the state’s death sentence, it is perhaps unsurprising that Socrates speaks with two younger philosophers (Simmias and Cebes) on the subject of mortality and whether an afterlife for the soul can be foreseen. Despite his attempt at philosophical “proofs” of the likely existence of an eternity, they acknowledge the extent to which they (and we) are like children in search of a magician for reassurance. They despair that once Socrates is gone, no such person will be able to provide his kind of logical, well-reasoned, persuasive confidence in the possibility of a life after death.

Socrates gives Cebes the following advice, as applicable to therapy as to facing one’s mortality in a philosophical way, in both cases to dispatch fear:

What you should do, said Socrates, is to say a magic spell over him (the scared child in each of us) every day until you have charmed his fears away.

Cebes persists, believing only Socrates, soon to be dead, has the necessary sorcery.

Greece is a large country, Cebes, he replied, which must have good men in it, and there are many foreign races too. You must ransack all of them in your search for this magician, without sparing money or trouble, because you could not spend your money more opportunely on any other object. And you must search also by your own united efforts, because it is probable that you would not easily find anyone better fitted for the task.

Thus, Socrates has advised these well-trained philosophers to repeat their own magic spell over the child within them: to seek the wizard in themselves to calm their anxieties by way of what he has taught them and whatever further ideas they can reason out on their own. In effect, to develop a practice maintaining or enhancing proficiency in dealing with this challenge of life.

The proper approach for the therapy patient might be said to take whatever he has learned in treatment and make it a practice. Yes, this is lots of work, but what is the alternative? Life will not hesitate to provide you with more challenges. We stop growing at our own peril, just as the athlete risks getting out of shape by abandoning his practice routine. Concern for your psyche is not like a diet, to be ignored and replaced with poor nutritional habits once the target weight is achieved.

Whether you maintain a practice or not, your counselor will still be there in most cases. But don’t you think you would be more secure by taking your life in your own hands once he passes the baton?

Your therapist does.

The top sculpture is The Thinker by Auguste Rodin, sourced from Hiart at Wikimedia Commons. The second photo is of Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller.

Are You Being Used? When Your Social Life is Like Social Work

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The world is divided into “givers and takers” or so we are told. Conventional wisdom advises that being a “giver” is the preferred choice, the moral high ground. Most of us don’t want to be thought of as selfish and non-reciprocal — self-involved. A giver is labeled “good,” an adjective we enjoy applying to ourselves.

Can you be too good? Can you be too giving — to the point of self-harm, to the point of allowing others to “use” you routinely? Is too much emotional generosity the equivalent of effacing your needs? Might it be like standing in a lunch line, affording deference and preference for latecomers to go first, and reaching the front too late for a meal?

If the answer is yes, how might you know whether you are giving too much?

Here are some signs your social life amounts to social work without salary, caring for others to the point of encouraging their misuse of you:

  1. Are you the “one” who listens to problems, the first person your acquaintances contact when upset? By itself, this might simply indicate you are kind and empathic. But disappointment follows when others don’t offer time or compassion for your worries.
  2. Do friends and acquaintances impose on you unreasonably? Do they regularly ask you to drop what you are doing to help them? Do they call late at night over small upsets without regard for your need to get up early the next morning?
  3. Beyond words of thanks, do your friends express gratitude in concrete ways, like sending you a greeting card, flowers, candy, or picking up the check at dinner?
  4. Do you recognize that reciprocity depends on respect? Those who become another’s servant do not command honor. Were fulfilling a master’s requests a guarantee of good treatment, slaves would be the best cared for class in the world.
  5. Do you find yourself disappointed too often when “friends” contact you only in need, not with social invitations once they bounce back from their troubles?
  6. Do you believe your singular value is what you can do for others? Do you doubt your worth beyond the ability to aid or console?
  7. Do too many relationships begin with the other’s effusive gratitude for your kindness, but move to a point where your generosity is taken for granted almost as an entitlement?
  8. Are you exhausted by the demands and requests of those closest to you?
  9. Can you say no when a favor is asked, be it your time, money, or a ready ear?
  10. Do you fear being dumped should you become less available when needed?
  11. Do you find yourself worrying about hurting people when you imagine what might happen if you say no?
  12. Do you hesitate to express strong opinions to your buddies? Are you afraid of rejection or criticism if you disagree?
  13. Are too many of your friends “troubled souls?” Do you associate with an unstable crowd, making it easy to take on the counselor, helper, or social work role?
  14. Do you believe saying no is selfish? Were you told you were selfish growing up?
  15. When feeling unappreciated, do you think perhaps you didn’t do enough to please your friend?
  16. Do you make excuses for the other when you are dismissed or taken for granted? Do you live in the hope he will change?

If you answer yes to a number of these questions, you might lack self-confidence and self-assertion. Another term often used in these types of relationships is dependency. Sometimes “co-dependent” is used instead.

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Too many of the earth’s inhabitants see fellow humans as objects, like a wrench or hammer: helpful when needed, but requiring no gratitude or careful treatment when the job is done. The error is allowing yourself to be used as if you were picked from a tool chest, submitting to the role of instrumental object, imagining you must do whatever friends require, twisted or tossed aside as they wish. You have discounted your worth and given them control along with the discretion to grade you by how much you satisfy their wants. Worse yet, you accept the grade assigned. The thought of standing up and setting limits collapses for fear of abandonment.

Nor are you advised to think of yourself as an altruist or akin to a religious martyr in your pursuit of the good. Religious martyrs are put to death against their will by their enemies — on one occasion only, of course. Those who offer themselves up as a less drastic sacrifice for their faux “friends” do so voluntarily and far too often. Sainthood should not be expected to follow.

This habit of relating to people doesn’t vanish by itself. You make a mistake hoping those you love will change instead of realizing you are the one who must do so. If you see yourself here, consider going into psychotherapy. Life is more fulfilling when relationships work both ways. The sooner you address this problem, the more likely your satisfaction will increase. Moreover, you will discover a truth of great import: those who leave (and some do exit when you change) aren’t worthy of your goodness. The cliché is true: you are better off without them.

The top image is called Twilight by Karin Bar. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The bottom image is a t-shirt available at http://www.philosophersguild.com/

Insecurity and Our Preoccupation with Appearances

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We try so hard to make a good impression, don’t we? No one enjoys a disapproving audience. We dress well, hide our inner turmoil, and smile. We comb our hair, clean our clothes, and wash pretty often. Why do we care so much about the opinion of onlookers?

The simple answer: because it was historically dangerous to be unattractive, unsuccessful, and unliked; dangerous to survival and damaging to our chances of finding a mate. Most importantly, those historical facts continue to influence how we live today. They have major implications for the type of person we seek in a partner; why we compete in business and games; why loneliness feels so terrible and why personal insecurities are widespread. Let me explain.

Evolutionary psychologists think about us in terms of the qualities that enabled our survival through thousands of years. Of course, our long process of descent from prehistoric ancestors required them to complete two missions: staying alive until sexual maturity and making babies who lived beyond them. Whatever innate preoccupations and skills enabled early humans to meet these two criteria were passed down in their genes as part of the never-ending chain of life, like a relay race in which the baton has now been given to us. The inborn talents or defects of those who didn’t survive didn’t get handed off. Those folks aren’t our ancestors.

Now, you may be saying, OK, but I’m pretty smart and I make my own decisions. I don’t need to be like people who lived in caves and wore animal skins.

Not so fast. Think about anger. It helped our forefathers defend against attack by enemies and hungry carnivores. You live with their capacity to defend yourself. And some of us blow-up at those we love, commit murder, and make war.

Or let’s say you are a guy. Remember back to your childhood when girls were yucky? Then one day you had an erection. I doubt this was a well-reasoned and much-desired gift you put on your Christmas list — unless your parents were more liberal than mine, that is. Not everything you do is a matter of thoughtful choice, unmotivated by Mother Nature.

We are wired to survive and to mate with a member of the opposite sex who is capable of producing and supporting a new life. So whom do we choose? A woman at the dawn of human existence had to be especially concerned with finding a man who could defend her and provide for her when she was pregnant and vulnerable. Evolutionary researchers believe several qualities signaled such ability: physical strength, intelligence, stamina, the capacity to work in groups, leadership, etc. Thus, when a woman is in the market for a man rather than a fling, she is influenced by her ancestors’ inherited tendency to find one who can make a living and create a safe residence. Yes, I know women are no longer uniformly dependent on men, but the ladies’ genes didn’t receive the memo.

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What about physical appearance? Women notice handsome men as much as men recognize the beauty of the fair sex. Unlike men, however, who place physical appearance at the top of their wish list, attractiveness is further down her tally of desired attributes in a permanent sexual partner. Why? Again, because of the historic vulnerability of women carrying and bearing their children. A female can only afford to be picky about noble features and hot bodies if she has a choice among men who first can accomplish the things she and her future children will need. Thus, a lady cannot allow the luxury of opting for surface qualities over those more essential to her safety and her child’s well-being.

Men are more likely to be motivated by just one thing: a healthy and fertile appearance (which is correlated with youth and beauty). Nature permits them to indulge themselves because the physical cost of producing a child will be borne by their partner. As the famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow said, “There is no such thing as justice — in or out of court.”

Of course, few of us think about these things when we are on the prowl. Remember, too, I am simplifying the story for the sake of brevity.

Now, on to the origins of insecurity. Competition is built into the system. Should you want the most attractive female (the best potential mom in evolutionary terms or the hottest mama in your feverish dreams) you must stand out from the crowd of other men in some way suggestive of your superior ability to be a provider. Thus, men have historically tried to make lots of money (even more than necessary to live), achieve high status, display their excellence in the performance of an activity (business or sports) and impress with their intellect and cleverness. Men size up the competition to get the best of them. Insecurity — the preoccupation with where you stand in the pecking order — necessarily follows.

Females compete for males as well. The cosmetics and fashion industries thrive on the genetically fixed desire to catch the eye of a husband. Again, however, when out shopping you aren’t likely to think, “those jeans will improve my chances of getting my genes into the next generation.” Instead, you say to yourself, “Wow, those jeans look good on me.” Only people like me think of genes, not jeans. And, if you repeat similar questions often enough — what looks good on me, what doesn’t, how do I compare with the others — the insecure background of one’s thought becomes the norm.

Earlier I said it has been historically dangerous to be unattractive, unsuccessful, and unliked. If humans of antique times couldn’t find a sufficiently enterprising and healthy sex partner, that person’s genetic line would end. Those who didn’t make friends found their chances of survival on their own were poor. Thus, whether looking for a mate or a group affiliation to increase their odds (against other tribes, animals, and nature) they needed sensitivity to any word, expression, element of body language, or deed signaling another person’s disinterest, dislike, or disaffection from them; in addition to those indicators communicating they were welcome or pleasing to the crowd. Unfortunately, the ability to determine how they were coming across to others required a preoccupation with other people’s opinions: a recipe for insecurity and self-consciousness. Those who didn’t care how they were being received didn’t hand down their genes successfully.

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How does loneliness fit in? A soul contented in his isolation didn’t mate. Women and men satisfied just with the company of their sexual partner reduced their chances of survival compared to couples who had alliances with others. Individuals who were happy when alone, therefore, didn’t pitch their genes forward into the next generation. Men and women discontented when by themselves, however, would have wanted to join up with other creatures. Since group participation increased the chance of surviving, procreating, and raising a child, their unhappiness when separated from humans is a quality we now have: it motivated them to take an action useful to staying alive.

There are other factors beyond evolution influencing you today. Your upbringing, your own life experiences, and the individual set of incidental personality traits nature handed to you. But, back there somewhere is the long reach of the instincts that survived the evolutionary relay race. The ways in which we react, think, and act are more determined by the successful tendencies of our ancestors than (I suspect) most of us consider or believe.

In short, having a mind drawn to thoughts of both friends and strangers comes naturally. Our preoccupation with status and money, even though it can create misery, is a quality that long ago began to improve the chance of survival and is still in us. We operate according to a program written by nature on the men and women who lived here an eternity before we jumped out of mom’s womb.

The aim of evolution was never to make us happy. We can only challenge ourselves to deal with the insecurities and preoccupations it deposited in our genes. Those instincts don’t always work well in a world that, for the most part, is much different and safer than the natural state of man’s life, described by Thomas Hobbes as “nasty, brutish, and short.”

In our search for satisfaction we must grapple with a biology that often makes us discontented and wary, replicating what our ancestors did to live. Understanding this gives us a better chance of remaking ourselves the best we can to suit not their time — but ours.

The top image is Toilette der Venus by Peter Paul Rubens. The second painting is The Persistent Suitor by Frederico Andreotti. The cartoon was created by Welleman and is called Lonely Guy, Shadow as Friend. All come from Wikimedia Commons.

Passive or Active? Choosing Your Life

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Simple words are not so simple. Rather, we forget their meaning. We forget how much they should provoke a reevaluation of our lives. Consider the words “take” and “make.” I’ll try to “make” something of their importance in describing the lives we choose.

Here is a common sentence: “I must make a decision.” It sounds more passive than it is. I have heard the same phrase from non-native English-speakers, slightly altered: “I must take a decision.” As in grab or capture. Even in “making” a decision, at least in its most active form, we “build” or “construct.”

Take stock. Take over. Take responsibility. Make a choice. Make something of yourself.

Do you see where I’m taking you? What kind of life do you want? One you take or one left over because you did not capture a place in line?

We all know not choosing is a choice. If you don’t make a decision someone else will; or, perhaps the opportunity to intervene on your own behalf will pass. Many times an active decision is right even when wrong. You grab hold of the wheel of your life and try to steer. Value resides in ownership of yourself: self possession.

Many of the newer therapeutic models are not as contemplative, reflective, and retrospective as Freudian therapy, but add conceptual, emotional, and behavioral change — action — in the present. True, Freud warned about making personal decisions early in the treatment process, when still burdened by unresolved issues. There is recklessness in acting without thought, but finally one must roll the dice of life or stay on the sidelines, part of the audience. Indeed, one persuasive therapy model goes by the name of ACT (the word, not the initials): Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT leads you to a point of decision about what is important to you, commitment to those revealed values, and an eventual behavioral enactment of your commitment.

You have doubtless noticed women whose companions are men of action, whether thespians, builders, or “makers and shakers.” Indeed, a man pursuing a woman is described as “being on the make.” Some of those “gentlemen” are less than uniformly admirable, but their grasp of initiative is. Many other males (and females) lead lives of “quiet desperation.”

Please don’t misunderstand me. You needn’t be a leader to take charge of your life. Each of us has problems. Our inner life can be like a room filled with shelves of challenges we avoid. One must clear the shelves. We either sweep them clean or avert our eyes and lock the room wherein they reside. We then avoid any part of life reminding us of the courage we lack. Our failure might even be rationalized as good judgment — as an avoidance of danger.

How many people can’t eat out alone, try to make a new friend, or phone a stranger (choosing email instead)? How many of us can’t speak in a group or attend a class out of fear? How many adults can’t say no, ask for things, or look someone in the eye while uttering a necessary truth? If you are 16 and you don’t tackle such challenges, OK. At 56, if you still can’t, what then?

A graduating high school senior tells a younger, awe-struck young man why she couldn’t be with him:

“Charlie, I told you not to think of me that way nine months ago because of what I’m saying now. Not because of Craig (her then boyfriend). Not because I didn’t think you were great. It’s just that I didn’t want to be somebody’s crush. If somebody likes me, I want them to like the real me, not what they think I am. And I don’t want them to carry it around inside. I want them to show me, so I can feel it, too. I want them to be able to do whatever they want around me. And if they do something I don’t like, I’ll tell them.”*

Life in a fetal position is not a life in full. Trying always to please others is a life given away to people who won’t value you because you set your price tag too low. Such an existence is the opposite of “being a man,” a phrase that applies to any mature, confident adult, regardless of gender. Some of us persuade ourselves that the things we don’t do (because we don’t try) aren’t important. A kind of self-delusion. Others live in regret, consumed by “what might have been,” shadowed by the effort they did not “make.”

Regret is the only six-letter word equivalent of a four-letter swear. Unless you do an irreparable injury to another, perpetual regret is like a judge you have assigned the job of looking down on you, pointing an accusing finger eternally.

We all must stretch ourselves to our limit, especially in the first half of life, and learn to hold our head high always. Ironically, in the act of lengthening the spine by standing upright we feel better, and tend to overcome whatever sense of shame lives inside. Few of us, after all, wish to appear spineless.

Passivity isn’t the opposite of activity as much as it is the adversary of “living.”

Make the best of your life. You will die whether you do or not, so you might as well die trying.

*Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: Pocket Books, 1999: 201.

The painting of The Archangel Michael Tramples Satan by Guido Reni is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

On being Insecure and Alone

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We are small creatures trying to be large. Or perhaps we are incomplete beings trying to be whole. Do those words sum up the human condition? How do we deal with our essential loneliness and insecurity? I’ll get to that.

Man begins incomplete, both in the womb and out. Your newborn is unable to tell the difference between himself and you. The trouble starts when he figures out that he can’t live without you. No wonder he cries.

Insecurity is in the nature of life. Indeed, if I met an entirely secure person I’d ponder how he managed to miss so much about the “simple difficulty” of living. A contradiction in terms, I know.

From the infant’s first tear begins a lifetime journey to complete himself, to escape solitary confinement. Most of us don’t want to be alone — a vulnerable and separate existence. The punishments in the Bible begin with being “cast out.” First, Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden. Then Cain was exiled for the murder of his brother. “You are on your own” is not a friendly statement. In truth, we are all on our own, in our own skin, unique in the vista we observe from the elevated wrapper we call the head.

What to do? Let’s start with what some of us do most of the time and all of us do some of the time. We attempt to incorporate other people into our lives. Intercourse achieves this physically. No wonder sex is bliss.

Next best is to embrace — get physically close, but still outside. Neither an embrace nor copulation last long. The problem of separateness resists a resolution.

Social — not physical — affiliation is a pleasing substitute. Where intimate friendships are absent, group connections take their place. Team membership has its satisfactions and avoids the “left out” experience of children’s games. The “we’re number one” sports fans gravitate to a similar, but vicarious category of connection and solace.

We put up with a lot to be with our fellow humans, part of a group. We try to “play nice,” even when not treated well. It’s better to be in the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in, as the crude saying goes.

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In the absence of human contact, some ingest food. Sustenance substitutes for love, lacking only the touch of another. Too much nourishment and the grub “joins” with you — becomes a larger and larger part of your body. The meal is now a permanent addition inside.

Humans make an effort at self-display, all the better to draw others to them. We want to be like magnets so that passers-by will “stick.” Clothes, hair style, makeup, and hair pieces are “attractive,” designed to “pull” the stranger close and prevent a solitary state. Sometimes external charm leads to the physical joining discussed earlier.

The “selfie-stick” generation takes this tack a step further. Not only do their public picture portraits cry out for crowds of onlookers, they offer the photographer, like Narcissus, a fascination and merger with his own creation: the glorified image of himself. Who needs intimacy when you can fall in love with yourself?

The computerized world provides an incomplete union with others, lacking the satisfaction of flesh. The fusion we seek is not electronic. You cannot crawl into the iPhone or laptop. A community of Facebook “friends” or a large blog following has its pleasures. Recognize, though, what social media alone can never be.

Some people acquire external objects, creating a kind of imagined fusion with a thing instead of a person. In effect, the buyer takes the material creation from the outside of himself to change his emotions inside. Goods define some people and become a point of pride, something “incorporated” within the identity.

Status and wealth, similarly, can be internalized to diminish a sense of naked, solo vulnerability. Those of a more academic bent might choose to pour knowledge into the brain, hoping for the same result.

Religion also reduces life’s insecurity — its essential isolation. Here the goal is to lose oneself in a complete identification and contemplation of God, at least in a hoped-for, heavenly afterlife.

In this world, however, none of the solutions I’ve discussed does the job fully. Sex acts are temporary, embraces are momentary, and the emotional benefits of eating and drinking are short-lived. Clothes and other objects make you feel complete for 10 minutes or 10 days. Knowledge acquisition is a treadmill marathon you can never finish. High status only lasts as long as the next TV season or term of office. To frustrate us even more, there are all those celebrities — owners of dazzle and accomplishment — we compare ourselves to. Their presence on earth is a kill-joy. We cannot merge with them. Instead we fantasize about them, creating an amalgamation in our dreams.

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All this points to some common, but flawed notions of how to complete ourselves and have a more satisfying life:

  • The pursuit of stardom is a fool’s errand. No, not because you are unlikely to reach the heavens.  Rather, aiming for glory for its own sake ignores the work it will take. “Look at me!” is the selfie-stick generation’s solution to an existential crisis: like a drowning man who ignores a lifeboat, he instead reaches for a plastic comb floating on the water.
  • All the material “stuff” ballyhooed constantly by advertising will only make you whole temporarily. We are leaky vessels. Commodities plug the holes too briefly.
  • Looking for the true, perfect love — your soul mate — can be sensational if you find her, but still leaves you in your own skin, dealing with your own demons. Relationships are wonderful, but don’t cure you of the human condition. Love is not medication. Not so sure? Go to the pharmacist and request “One soul mate, please. A 30-day supply.”
  • Moving to California is the “I need a change” solution. Yes, we do need to change, but traveling across the country “looking for yourself” reveals only one thing: you are the same guy who began the trip.
  • The more time you spend in front of an electronically lit screen (computer, phone, TV, or movie) the less time you have for satisfying intimacy with someone nearby. Yes, I’m aware of looking at such a screen right now. Introverts do need more time alone!

So, what is the answer? Well, if I had a perfect one, I’d be famous. That said, I do have ideas:

  • Recognize that real people are better (even if more dangerous) than virtual friends. Even so, they are not enough. You still need a life of purposeful action.
  • Try to get outside of yourself. Things can’t be incorporated inside you and humans tend to resist ties that bind too much.
  • You can’t bring the world within, so meet the globe halfway. Break out of the prison — the solitary confinement — of a repetitive, obsessive look in the mirror.
  • Avoidance is a dead end. No satisfied or satisfying people live there. A life of adventure won’t invade your home and drag you out.
  • Find captivating employment, generous and interesting people, and stimulating things to learn. Not to build your image and draw others to you, but because they are worthwhile in themselves.
  • Recognize that you can’t have everything in life, but life can be delightful if you are lucky and wise. Stop multi-tasking and focus on the small number of things you believe have real value. Get off the treadmill of routine.
  • Don’t run yourself ragged. Don’t be a human doing, always in a frenzy. You are a human being.
  • The path to a portion of happiness might include meditation, intensely noticing the everyday world around you, and being sufficiently active to lose yourself in it. Think less and live more in the joyful instant. A baseball player trying to catch a long drive is not wondering about his acne.
  • Accept the planet for what it is, which is a pretty messy place, but the only one we’ve got. Change the world if you have the energy and talent. If you don’t, accept what can’t be altered, at least by you.
  • Know yourself. Everyone thinks he knows himself, but few approximate full self-knowledge. Figure out what you can do: those activities you might excel at with some practice, guidance, and effort. And recognize the tasks you should never even try. If you are a 5′ 4” male, don’t pin your hopes on playing professional basketball. If you are introverted, don’t become a political candidate. Value yourself for the best in you and make better what is amenable to alteration.
  • Learning, however essential, will not always be fun and will often be painful. Sorry, I didn’t make the rule.
  • Think for yourself. Received wisdom is frequently a worthless commodity. Live by a moral code you take a hand in fashioning, not something handed to you. This will require you to think and study. Most people will not or cannot make the effort, they just assume they are good.
  • We create history, but mustn’t ignore the history we’ve already lived. Some amount of knowing where you’ve been is required, lest you revisit pitfalls and repeat mistakes.
  • Having a personal mantra of “life is unfair to me” will not get you far. Better to adopt this paraphrase of the motto of the fine blogger, What It Takes To Be Me: life wasn’t meant to be easy; it was meant to be worth it. It will only be thus if you make it so despite the obstacles.
  • Even if you accomplish all this, your life still won’t be perfect. You will continue to be in your own skin. Insecurity won’t have completely vanished. Yeah, a bummer. Get over it.
  • Once you figure out who you are, wipe the blackboard clean. As my friend, Phil, likes to say, “I try to reinvent myself every day.”

Phil, by the way, is a smart guy. Listen to him.

The top photo is called Meall Ghaordaidh Behind Bars, sourced from Richard Webb’s transfer to Wikimedia Commons. The University of Chicago t-shirt comes from http://www.zazzle.com/

When Your Identity Depends Too Much On A Relationship

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There are people who define themselves by who they are with. Lots of them. Perhaps a few more females than males.

The effect is to give someone else the ability to determine your value and your happiness. You become hostage to the opinion of another. That is never a good spot for anybody.

Man or woman, one’s basic value is communicated early, from parent to child. Home is the place where identity begins — and begins to be established by the relationship(s) you are in. As time passes we experience life outside. We compete on the playground and in school. With the proper parents and enough applause our sense of being valuable is internalized. Without either, most of us keep searching for a way to increase the market for our presence in both companionship and work.

Those who monitor the applause meter too much are in trouble. You must value yourself from the inside, not from the fickle world’s viewpoint. Yes, you can be today’s hero, but you will eventually be yesterday’s darling, and tomorrow’s has-been. Yet you are the same man or woman. If you don’t know your worth you are like a tightrope walker on a windy day.

One sees the dilemma of insecurity within romantic relationships. Too much desperation, neediness, and fear of abandonment.

To avoid a sense of emptiness, some people must be in love — ecstatically so. Love of a more workaday kind is not enough. They are yearning for the fervid, moment-to-moment drama that carries one away, but cannot be sustained for long. Anything else — the rest of life — pales in significance. Too many seek a permanent level of spousal intensity requiring the partner to give up his day job and plug himself into the wall outlet for some extra energy. Anyone desiring this type of relationship believes only such a connection can make life complete.

You are in trouble when you expect and hope for someone to fill you up; when you are the human equivalent of a leaking gas/petrol tank always needing to be topped off.

You are even more out to sea if:

  • You buy into the notion of Hollywood happiness (as in the movies).
  • You view life as simple. You believe once you find “your soul mate,” you will be happy forever after.
  • You feel incomplete except in those moments when someone else is actively showing you attention.
  • You believe the “head over heels” dazzle and the dog-in-heat randiness of the honeymoon period will never stop. (A while back I heard a middle-aged woman interviewed on the radio following a mild earthquake. “The earth moved,” she said. “I’ve been married 25 years. It’s been a while since the earth moved. I kind of liked it).”

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You remain adrift if:

  • You can’t define yourself by your career, your intellect, your integrity, your hobbies, your passions and compassions, but only by the windblown opinion of someone else.
  • You believe a failure to find love is a verdict on your value. (I know many people of great worth who are without a romantic companion).
  • You think happiness resides outside of us, not inside of us, but in another person.

The day the love of your life arrives, even after you remove the bubble wrap, you will still possess the same insecurities as before you placed your order for him with Amazon. You will own all the same strengths and weaknesses yet to be improved, tested or avoided, as you choose.

You assume the soul mate is the key to everything good. That doesn’t make you more secure, but less. You are worthless without him and emotionally dependent.

Moreover, you still need other things: to succeed at something, make tough phone calls, look people in the eye, bounce back from losses, say no, and climb the twisting rope of life.

My advice? Work on accepting what you are, who you are, and learn to be adequate as you are. Not perfect, but good. And if not yet good, on the road to making yourself good. Challenges will still occur even within the relationship. Your bliss cannot be freeze-dried into permanence. No 24-hour dose of love potion is available to keep you walking on air.

Please understand. Love is wonderful. I am a satisfied customer, prepared to give a notarized testimonial and the highest praise to my wife and children.

A good relationship is supportive, warm, high-spirited, passionate, fun-filled, secure, and allows you a springboard to deal with life’s challenges. Love provides a safety net when you stumble. Successful coupling opens you to a possibility of which you were doubtful: your command of a top price on the world’s relationship market.

Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, believed our happiness is not within our total control; and therefore certainly not dependent upon a choice of the right mate. Kant emphasized, however, the greater importance of something beyond happiness: to make oneself worthy of it by dint of moral courage and principle. To him, the highest accomplishment to which any of us can aspire is to be the best we can be; not in terms of success, but as measured by our basic humanity. You will then be someone who can be counted on, capable of taking a risk; a person who stands for something more than his own personal advantage. “A Mensch,” as such a one is called in Yiddish.

Becoming that is entirely in our power.

Should you achieve such a lofty human estate, I’m willing to bet two things:

  • Your chances of finding love will increase.
  • You won’t be dependent on love to know your real worth.

The first image: Русский: Нелли Жиганшина и Александр Гажи (Германия) на чемпионате мира по фигурному катанию 2012. The second photo is called Kissing the War Goodbye, a Times Square, New York photo taken on VJ Day (August 15, 1945), the end of World War II. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What are You Trying to Prove? Show-offs on Stage and Off

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We called them show-offs, the kids who did anything to capture your gaze. One such, eight years old, turned his eyelid inside-out on the playground. Girls gasped, screamed, and stampeded away. A tough guy (me) kept watching with the other boys, wondering what would come next. Act Two involved the young showman’s zippered trousers. You can imagine the rest.

This youthful exhibitionism seemed akin to those playmates who displayed “real” talent, who enjoyed doing difficult tasks requiring skill as well as brazenness. I’m talking about the sort of boy who walked the edge of a high fence without falling off; whose sense of balance was superb. “I can do something hard (or scary) and you can’t,” he seemed to say, and he was right.

Does this have anything to do with adults? How about the performing arts? Both.

I’d suggest we divide stunts into two categories: those not requiring any special ability and those that do. Thus, I’d place the eyelid-turner or a man who bit off the head of a bat (rocker, Ozzy Osbourne) in the first group. I’m classifying Ozzy as a bat-biter, not a musician. The kid who walked the fence belongs in category two, as does Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist. Both daredevils draw a crowd, but the first requires only shamelessness and “chutzpah,” the Yiddish word for nervy audacity.

Stewart Goodyear fits in the second group. He has, more than once, played all 32 of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas in a single day. Ten hours’ worth. This is not simply an athletic feat, but an artistic one. His recordings of these pieces demonstrate more than endurance. One still might ask, “Why?”

In 2013, David Patrick Stearns of the Philadelphia Inquirer, did:

You’ll inevitably ask what he’s trying to prove.

“Nothing,” is his first answer. “Well, maybe a little at the beginning,” he recently conceded in Philadelphia, where the Toronto-born pianist now lives.

The artist elaborated in an interview with Elijah Ho in the same year:

There is an inner glory, a kind of salvation when one plays Beethoven. My goal in presenting the complete Beethoven sonatas was to bring the audience into the world of Beethoven so that they could experience a retrospective of his art, from his early 20’s to his 50’s.

I felt I was being taken on a journey as I was performing each one. There is the kind of connotation that the day was all about stamina. For me, it was a baptism and one of the deepest performing experiences of my life, and I actually felt myself getting stronger as the day progressed. Beethoven’s music was my bread and water, so to speak, and the reception was very, very warm.

Well, Mr. Goodyear is a young man and perhaps it is proper for a young man to “feel his oats.” Better Beethoven than going to war.

What might make an older man, however, do something similar? In 2009 the Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra played all nine numbered Mahler Symphonies and more, in the space of 12 days at Carnegie Hall. Two conductors presided. Or take Valery Gergiev’s 2013 tour concerts of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring. The evening lasted over two-and-a-half hours inclusive of two intermissions. Twice, the late Lorin Maazel conducted all nine Beethoven Symphonies in a single day. Like Goodyear’s “long day’s journey into night,” the architects of these feats gave similar lofty rationales: an “immersion” experience, an opportunity to learn more about the development of the composer’s thought, etc.

I witnessed the Gergiev concert in Chicago and a few of the Mahler evenings in New York. The “immersions” left me worse for the wear. And wondering.

First, my hat is off to the performers. Regardless of age, they demonstrated an exceptional level of stamina and concentration. But, to paraphrase Toscanini, I put my hat back on when it comes to the ill-conception of these alleged “artistic” projects. If you want to be as fascinating as Harry Houdini, get yourself straitjacketed, chained, and dumped in a tank of water. You will have your audience enthralled and be done in a few minutes. For me, all the performers accomplished was my “immersion” in an ocean of sound. Even without being straitjacketed, I was sunk.

That said, the events required extraordinary musical and physical preparation. Goodyear told Colin Eatock this in 2010:

Physically, I trained like an athlete, building up stamina and strength so I could play all 32 in one day. I learned them so thoroughly I could play them in my sleep. It’s like the Method acting made famous by Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Sydney Poitier: learning the words so thoroughly that you become the character.

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Analogies are useful to give a sense of things. I will offer two in order to explain the possible motivation of these daredevils:

  • #1: A famous man I interviewed, but never before met, whipped out his cell-phone during a break in our conversation. This gentleman, on the dark side of 60, showed me a photo of his new wife, a beauty half his age. What he did not say was, “See, I can still do this,” meaning attract a hot young babe.
  • #2: A couple came to marital therapy.
    • Exhibit A: a movie-star-handsome husband, around age 50.
    • Exhibit B: a traffic-stopping wife, somewhat younger, either well-preserved, cosmetically enhanced, or both. I asked what first attracted him to her: “She shows well,” he answered. He might have described a show horse. Amazingly, the woman did not leave the room, pull out a weapon, or strangle him.

These two examples offer us a few inferred human characteristics. Inflated-egos, boasting that is just short of locker-room tales of sexual heroics, and talent. Both were ladies’ men. Not every man is the alpha dog and these two well-understood their place in the pecking order.

The musicians might be characterized in the same way, with a narcissistic display proclaiming, “Look at me.” Not just big egos, but perhaps some underlying insecurity requiring a public affirmation of their fearlessness to do something no one dared before.

I suppose I was to blame for my disappointing concert experiences with Barenboim and Boulez conducting Mahler, and Gergiev leading Stravinsky. If Goodyear or I thought enough about his marathon in advance, we might have realized that the entire audience needed physical training for these events. The stunts were beyond the crowd’s endurance and perhaps their pocket books. I didn’t have the “Sitzfleisch” (patience to sit still) for Gergiev’s two-and-a-half hours, let alone Goodyear’s Beethoven day. Wisely, I chose not to spend the better part of 12 days listening to concert after Mahler concert, hearing only the first three installments.

I’m left with several questions, not only how an audience might endure these undertakings without a post-concert visit to an undertaker.

  • Is serving the composer the genuine goal when listeners are worn to a nub? How many ticket-holders made the complete “journey” through the composer’s thought? Even sales figures wouldn’t provide proof of souls who thrived and survived. Tickets can be exchanged, shared, sold, or go unused; and people are free to leave before a concert’s end.
  • Where is the line between a serious endeavor and a stunt? Some amount of attention-seeking is both human and essential to performance. Where is the line marked, TOO MUCH?
  • Might well-known composers be better honored by setting their music aside for a year or more? (An impossible feat to enforce, I know). Perhaps we’d emerge refreshed. It would be like a fast that leaves one with a renewed appreciation of food.
  • What did the majority of people think about the use of their money and time? How many heads were nodding off among those who heard an entire marathon? Am I too critical of these “complete works” projects? No one was forced to attend.
  • Is the audience to blame? Are we, like the ancient Romans, easily swayed by “bread and circuses,” a preoccupation with food and spectacle?

Perhaps it comes to this, in P.T. Barnum’s words:

The show business has all phases and grades of dignity, from the exhibition of a monkey to the exposition of that highest art in music or the drama which secures for the gifted artists a world-wide fame princes well might envy.

The Barnums of the world would know.

The top photo is Harry Houdini in 1899. It was sourced from Wikipedia.

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.

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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.

The Causes of Insecurity

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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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.