Signs of Insecurity: Behavior That Reveals a Lack of Confidence

Here is a post many people have found useful. This version has been updated since its publication in 2010:

Dr. Gerald Stein

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Insecure people often reveal their self-doubt without being aware of it. Indeed, a wise observer can “read” another individual. For example, members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have told me they can tell whether a new conductor is competent and talented within 10 minutes of the beginning of their first rehearsal with him.

What follows is a short list of behaviors that suggest insecurity:

  • 1. Are you able to give a compliment? Even more important, can you graciously accept one? The latter behavior tends to be difficult for someone who is unsure of himself. He might blush or become flustered. Alternatively, he is prone to dismiss the validity of the praise, instead telling you why it isn’t true. What should one do if complimented? Smile and say “Thank you.” Nothing more.
  • 2. An inability to maintain eye contact is hard for many individuals who lack confidence. They will turn away…

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The Most Remarkable Person I Ever Met

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You probably wouldn’t notice her if you passed her on the street.

It’s not that she isn’t attractive, but it is an attractive middle-age — no competition for her younger, “knock-out” self.

But if you did happen to look closely, the thing that you’d see would be the kindness in her face: a most uncommon capacity for affection, forgiveness, and grace.

She is perhaps the most extraordinary person I’ve ever met; someone with terrible luck, especially early on, but an emotional generosity that would cause even a sceptic to believe that humanity just might come out on the side of the angels, after all.

Her mother was, of all things, a social worker. But whatever mom knew about social work, she forgot as soon as she came home. Her youngest — my patient (let’s call her Maggie) — was an active, pretty little girl.

Could mom have been jealous?

Mother favored Maggie’s older brother, (let’s call him Tom) a beefy, muscular giant of a young man who was his high school’s resident athlete and hero early, turned bully and trouble maker late. By 14 he was a drug addict, which only fueled an already unbridled, violent streak. That quality initially made him a boxing and wrestling powerhouse, before it made him an ungovernable monster.

But he was clever, only beating on his sister when his folks were at work or away, usually careful not to leave marks that couldn’t be passed off as his sister’s clumsiness. When Maggie complained to mom, mom sided with her male child. And when teachers saw this young girl looking distracted and downcast, unable to concentrate and lost in daydreams, they just thought about how unruly her older brother was, and assumed that his sister practiced a less overt form of disobedience and disrespect.

What about dad? He was a decent, but weak man. While he sympathized with his daughter and believed her stories about Tom (in part because he once — just barely — prevented Maggie’s death by strangulation), dad’s own alcoholism made him an inadequate advocate and defender. Moreover, his job took him out-of-town for days at a time. And when he wasn’t there, Maggie was an easier target for her mother’s verbal abuse, mom’s claims that she lied about Tom, and brother’s use of Maggie as a punching bag.

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The family was divided into opposing camps. Mother held the metaphorical whip-hand, angry at her husband for his weakness and addiction, angry at her daughter for her beauty and closeness to dad. Tom became almost a substitute marital partner for Maggie’s mom, without the sex. He was the one she admired and did things for. He was the one she protected. He was the one she believed, no matter how preposterous his stories were.

Maggie lived in fear of her own death at the hands of a drug-crazed brother, terrified of standing up to people and voicing opinions that might be criticized, and desperate for affection and safety. She learned to follow orders.

Not surprisingly, as she got older she drifted into her own alcohol abuse and escape from reality; and into relationships with men who initially looked to be protective, but inevitably turned out to be unkind at best, abusive and selfish at worst.

Her therapy process was a long one. She needed to grieve the events of her childhood: the weakness and death of her father, rage and weep over the abuse she suffered, grapple with a mother who was no mother, and a brother who was a criminal and her tormentor. Maggie had to learn how to value herself more highly and stand-up for herself more routinely.

Meanwhile, Tom’s life of antisocial behavior eventually became impossible for even Maggie’s mother to deny. He spent time in prison when he wasn’t ripping-off friends and associates, selling drugs, and abusing his own wife and children. The children came to hate him. And in middle-age, the combination of 40 years of drug abuse and diabetes began to show. Increasingly isolated and alone, he reached out to the sister who had finally gotten him out of her life.

By now Maggie and her mother were closer, the same mother who all but trained her son to go after Maggie like an attack dog. To some extent mom apologized. And when the mother became infirm, Maggie cared for her.

Now Maggie confronted Tom. No longer the bully, he had become a man in a more dependent position. Tom had almost no friends, lived alone in poverty, and received subsidies from the state to pay for his medical needs, groceries, and rent.

His diet ignored the encroaching diabetes and its increasing claim of his lower extremities, to the point of becoming wheel chair-bound. Much of his money still went to drugs. Every day meant another chance — a requirement, a necessity — to score. His government check came at the beginning of the month so that by month’s end, having purchased drugs to remain high for as much time as possible as soon as possible, he had little to pay for food.

Maggie confronted her brother with his physical abuse. He told her that he had no recollection of it, but didn’t say that he disbelieved her. Indeed, Tom said that he knew she wasn’t lying, but blamed the drugs for his lack of memory. Was he lying? Was Tom in denial himself? Or had the drug-induced haze of his teens given way to a drug-generated brain damage that genuinely robbed him of his ability to recall those events that she remembered so painfully?

With the mother’s death, Maggie’s brother was the only surviving close family member. And, in his distress, the most extraordinary thing happened. Maggie was kind to him, affectionate, and tried her best to help him make his life less miserable, a life that represented the just deserts for his misanthropy and criminality.

For the most part, Maggie no longer put-up with her brother’s crap. She challenged his lies, sometimes going as much as a year without talking to him because of his persistent abuse of his own body and reluctance to put himself in treatment for his addiction.

But, when they did have contact, she was able to laugh with him and worry about him and feel sorry for him. Not because he had earned any of this, but simply because her basic human decency and loving nature could not do otherwise. When he had surgeries, she always came to his bedside, even though she lived in another state.

Inexplicably, whatever lingering anger Maggie had for her sibling vanished. She had come to see him as someone who was in the grip of an addiction that was costing him his life, but no longer capable of doing anything to free himself.

At the end, when Tom’s organs started to fail, he called her and let her know that the doctors said he would be dead in a matter of days. She traveled again to the in-hospital death vigil. Even Tom’s children wanted no part of him by this time. And, for two weeks, Maggie (nearly bankrupt herself) lived in a motel near the medical facility and spent each day and evening at Tom’s bedside, ministering to the brother who had tormented her and crushed her; holding his hand and soothing him in whatever way she could.

Near the time of his death, nurses and staff came up to Maggie individually and made a simple request: “May I hug you?” Maggie embraced each of them as they told her that they had never before seen the kind of devotion and cheerful tenderness that they’d witnessed in those two weeks of Maggie’s shining presence at Tom’s mattress-grave.

“We see so many families that can’t seem to be bothered, that call and ask whether the relative is still alive, that just can’t bear it or don’t take the time.”

The hospital staff saw Maggie as extraordinary. And they didn’t even know her history of abuse or that the man who lay dying was Maggie’s abuser.

And when her brother died, Maggie wept for him.

You may be asking, how can all this be explained?

I know that I would not have behaved as admirably as Maggie did.

In trying to understand it for myself, here is the best I’ve been able to do.

First, I must eliminate two explanations. Maggie’s behavior was not a function of some deep-seated and thoroughly-considered study of moral philosophy. She was not an abstract thinker, steeped in the world of ancient wisdom and people like Socrates, Epictetus, and Kant; but lived instead in the real world of practicality and daily challenges.

Nor was this woman very religious. Thus, her actions didn’t spring from reliance on holy text, a profoundly held belief in God, or even something as simple as church attendance, which she had long since given up.

No, the best I can do is to say that some few people like Maggie are just “good.” Not the kind of good that is relatively convenient. Not the kind that gives money to charity or volunteers at the soup kitchen, as “good” as those actions are. They are good at a level that confounds understanding — so good “by nature” and by choice that they don’t seem bound by man-made rules, expectations, or necessities.

They are the kind of people who put their lives at risk to save strangers and then think nothing of it and never say a word about it. It is as if their brains and their hearts don’t work as they do for all the rest of us.

In a funny way, they are alien — as if from another world.

Certainly a better world, if such a place exists.

When I tell you that being a therapist is privilege, in part, it is because it has allowed me to know just a few people like this.

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The top photo, Caring Hands, is described as follows: “An Iraqi girl from the Janabi Village waits in line with her dad to be examined by an Iraqi doctor, Yusufiyah, Iraq, March 02, 2008. The Medical Operation was conducted by U.S. Soldiers from Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division and the Sons of Iraq (Abna al-Iraq).” The U.S. Army photo was taken by Spc. Luke Thornberry.

The next photo, also from 2008, is called A Caring Mom, taken by  A Frank Wouters.

The final image is Helping the Homeless by Ed Yourdan. The author writes:

This was taken about halfway up the block on the east side of Broadway, between 79th and 80th Street (in New York City). It’s at the north end of the “Filene’s Basement” store on the corner, and it’s a place where I’ve often seen homeless people holding up a sign that asks for assistance…

With very rare exceptions, I haven’t photographed these homeless people; it seems to me that they’re in a very defensive situation, and I don’t want to take advantage of their situation. But something unusual was happening here: the two women (who were actually cooperating, and acting in tandem, despite the rather negative demeanor of the woman on the left) were giving several parcels of food to the young homeless man on the right.

I don’t know if the women were bringing food from their own kitchen, or whether they had brought it from a nearby restaurant. But it was obviously a conscious, deliberate activity, and one they had thought about for some time…

What was particularly interesting was that they didn’t dwell, didn’t try to have a conversation with the young man; they gave him the food they had brought, and promptly walked away. As they left, I noticed the young man peering into his bag (the one you see on the ground beside him in this picture) to get a better sense of the delicious meal these two kind women had brought him…

All three images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

“Hurt-People” Hurt People*

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People who are in pain, can cause others to have pain.

They don’t wish to; it is not intentional.

Rather, it’s sometimes hard for them to do otherwise.

This will sound insensitive, I know, but beware of starting a new serious relationship with someone who is hurting.

Bear with me here, and perhaps you will think better of me and this advice once you read on.

Let us start with the image of a drowning man. If you swim out to save him, you are likely to find that, in his flailing, panicked, and desperate attempt to stay above water, he grabs on to you and pulls you under.

Life guards know this. Since it is their job to save the drowning, they approach them with caution. They have been well-trained to constrain the movements of the struggling swimmer so that he can be saved and his threat to the rescuer is minimized.

Moving back to dry land in our discussion, how might someone who is hurting do harm to a new best friend or lover?

For one thing, the neediness of the suffering individual can establish an unhealthy basis for the relationship from the start. In effect, the unwritten “contract” between the two parties will require that one does the helping and the other receives the comfort, with little reciprocal responsibility. This inequity risks eventual “burn out” in the caretaker and possible frustration that the damaged friend is not improving fast enough.

Some who are in the role of a “friend/helper” find that their own needs are perpetually postponed and that their efforts to provide solace will be seen as an entitlement and therefore unappreciated. Indeed, even if the altruistic partner receives gratitude early in the relationship, such appreciation often fades.

Sometimes, in fact, the connection between the two people morphs into a “hostile dependency,” where the person receiving the assistance resents the fact that he cannot function without his comrade.

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Once the injured person recovers, the helper might also discover that he is no longer needed. Healed from his injury, the formerly damaged partner now might be less interested in spending time together. Just as a bird with an injured wing will fly away when he becomes healthy, so too might your friend take off to do other things with other people. Rebound romances are notorious for this sort of thing.

Unfortunately, the caretaker group of this world is overpopulated with people who believe that they have substantial personal inadequacies: that they aren’t bright enough, handsome enough, interesting enough, confident enough, pretty enough, or successful enough to win the interest of another person who is emotionally stable and successful.

Insecure people tend to believe that no psychologically healthy human would want to go near them. They seek those damaged and hurting souls who might, they reason, find someone with limitations tolerable simply because of the quasi-therapeutic assistance he provides.

To the dismay of the self-doubting persons I’ve just described, I’m here to report that this “solution” to reducing the chance of rejection is potentially disastrous.

Choosing a partner who is damaged because you believe that he will display perpetual gratitude is a recipe for being used and disappointed. Indeed, the accumulation of rejections from those to whom one shows devotion only reduces one’s sense of self and cements the tendency to choose others who are damaged, in the belief that one cannot successfully appeal to anybody else.

Better to “get better” and become more confident, than to select a lover or a group of friends in various stages of dysfunction because you think no one else will have you. Just because someone you know is unhappy or needy, however genuine his need is, doesn’t necessarily make him a good person or someone who is right for you.

In considering whether what I’ve written has any application to your own life, you might ask yourself whether you know very many relatively well-adjusted folks and whether your relationships commonly involve large amounts of hand-holding and quasi-therapeutic devotion. If most of your close social contacts take a good deal more than they give, you just might be choosing the wrong close friends and lovers.

Are you able to predict who will be a reciprocal friend, returning to you close to as much as you give to him? Don’t assume that everyone in the world is badly damaged in psychological terms. It may simply be that everyone you know is functioning with difficulty and that you are forever putting yourself out for the wrong people, effacing your own needs.

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Yes, there will be many times in a relationship when generosity and a helping hand are healthy, considerate, and essential. Indeed, that kind of concern and responsiveness to our fellow-man is part of what is best in the human species and is valued by almost every professional therapist at a personal level.

Charity is a good thing, but surrounding yourself with friends who regularly require your charity is a different thing.

Most relationships should not demand perpetual self-sacrifice, especially at the beginning. Remember that therapists are paid for their services even if this is not the only or most important reason that they choose a helping profession.

Even counselors recognize that they cannot assist everyone and that they have emotional limitations to their capacity to provide help to others.

At night, after the work day is done, the therapist goes home (we hope) to family and friends who do not consistently suck the life out of him. Nor does he allow his patients to do this because, if he does, he will not be able to do good work or do it for very long.

Bottom line: leave therapy to the professionals.

If your social life is social work, you have a problem.

Hurt-people, hurt people.

One of the latter could be you.*

*For those who find this essay too harsh, please read the first comment below and my response to it.

The top image above is Oakie Family by Dorothea Lange.

The second image is described as Mediterranean Sea (Sept. 14, 2010): “Lt. j.g. Daniel Cooper and search and rescue (SAR) swimmer Seaman Apprentice Ryan Owens take turns rescuing an injured swimmer during SAR training aboard the amphibious transport dock ship USS Ponce (LPD 15)… (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathanael Miller/Released).” The picture was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The final image, Migrant Mother, (also by Dorothea Lange) is of Florence Thompson with some of her children. The Library of Congress caption reads: “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California”

The Wikimedia website states that “in the 1930s, the FSA employed several photographers to document the effects of the Great Depression on the population of America. Many of the photographs can also be seen as propaganda images to support the U.S. government’s policy of distributing support to the worst affected, poorer areas of the country…”

Signs of Insecurity: Behavior That Reveals a Lack of Confidence

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Insecure people often reveal their self-doubt without being aware of it. Indeed, a wise observer can “read” another individual. For example, members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have told me they can tell whether a new conductor is competent and talented within 10 minutes of the beginning of their first rehearsal with him. What follows is a short list of behaviors that suggest insecurity:

  • 1. Are you able to give a compliment? Even more important, can you graciously accept one? The latter behavior tends to be difficult for someone who is unsure of himself. He might blush or become flustered. Alternatively, he is prone to dismiss the validity of the praise, instead telling you why it isn’t true. What should one do if complimented? Smile and say “Thank you.” Nothing more.
  • 2. The ability to maintain eye contact is hard for many individuals who lack confidence. They will turn away or look down, but rarely hold the gaze of the other by looking into his or her eyes.
  • 3. The self-doubting person tends to apologize when no apology is necessary. It is as if she expects to be reproached or is afraid to give offense; so, she prophylactically tries to excuse any possible mistake to avoid such a response.
  • 4. Answering a question with an upward inflection of the voice has been done by everyone. The person being questioned doesn’t have certainty about his answer, so he replies with a tone betraying his insecurity. Since I originally wrote this piece, a name has been given to the practice: upspeak.
  • 5. Men and women who are uncomfortable with sharing personal information for fear of being judged will oft-times turn the conversation to a different topic, away from anything that might make them vulnerable or reveal too much. This is also called “changing the subject.”
  • 6. One way of inoculating yourself against criticism is to joke at your own expense. Do this often and others may conclude you believe you are flawed.
  • 7. Do you have trouble making a decision? The comedy team “Cheech and Chong” (I’m not sure which one) said: “Taking responsibility is a lot of responsibility.” If you automatically let others choose the restaurant, movie, and other activity, you are either easy-going and good-natured or don’t want to be held accountable for making the wrong choice.
  • 8. Do you state strong opinions? Those who avoid doing so might maintain the peace — often a good thing — but some fear drawing fire and unwanted attention.

Before I give you nine more signs of insecurity, I’ll say what might cause the condition. Many possibilities. Critical or neglectful parents, poor academic skills, frequent moves making you “the new kid” (especially if you are introverted by nature), learning disabilities and ADHD, being “different” in some fashion (size, shape, color, religion), thinking of yourself as the “poor” kid in a community of the affluent, sensing you are the average child in a school filled with bright youngsters, feeling ashamed of your parents or residence, frequent rejections, getting fired (whether deserved or not), clumsiness, a history of abuse or bullying; physical unattractiveness, deformity, or injury, etc. For a more thorough discussion of these causes, click here: The Causes of Insecurity. Now back to the list of signs of insecurity:

  • 9. Do you laugh nervously in social situations? It is another behavior betraying self-consciousness.
  • 10. People will appraise you harshly if they see you bite your nails or they appear bitten.
  • 11. Are you self-effacing, placing yourself at a disadvantage — letting others go first, speak first — reluctant to raise your hand? Do you hesitate to take your turn? Do you sacrifice your interests as a matter of course? Insecurity can make you wait until the opportunity before you is lost. Excessive deference displays little regard for yourself, even if some amount can be a sign of good breeding and consideration.
  • 12. Are you nervous eating in front of others? Do you fear dropping something, displaying poor table manners, or making a mess? You probably won’t, at least not more than the rest of us.
  • 13. Can you make phone calls without trepidation; especially those in which you need to introduce yourself, correct a problem, or speak to an authority? Too much discomfort in anticipation of these actions can reveal your sense of uncertainty.
  • 14. Might you make too many excuses? Those who are unsure give explanations where none are required. Imagine you order an entrée at an elegant restaurant and the waiter asks whether you want an appetizer to start. You explain why you don’t. Some folks offer multiple excuses for what they do, anticipating criticism. If you must give a reason, limit yourself to one. The more you give, the more uncertain (or dishonest) you sound. For  example, “I can’t come to the party because I have a stomach ache and my car broke and I need to study.” One reason will be more convincing. You needn’t explain yourself as often as you think.
  • 15. Insecurity can be suggested by hesitation to ask for a favor or an inability to say “no.” Anticipation of rejection or disapproval is the motivator for both of these problems with self-assertion. By contrast, a self-assured person will not believe the relationship (or his own value) is dependent upon going along with someone else’s wishes or fulfilling the desires of others as a matter of routine.
  • 16. Do you make frequent requests for reassurance? A few examples: “Does that make sense?” “What do you think?” “What would you do?” “Do you think that is a good idea?” “Do I look OK?” Must you have sex to prove your partner remains interested in you? If you are self-assured, you won’t implore your lover to calm your doubts and remind you, over and over, in words and deeds, of your desirability or intelligence.
  • 17. Last one. Here insecurity takes a different form. This person wants the spotlight at all times, the better to be told “You are the fairest of them all!” She or he pushes for recognition, strutting about the stage we call life; checking to see where he stands and what others think of him. Bragging and display become a full-time job. Perhaps he was the class clown in grade school, but now he drops names to prove his importance and get your attention. His inner emptiness must be filled and refilled, like a bucket with a hole in it. Such people are plagued by narcissism as well as insecurity, a troublesome combination. There is hell to pay for those who expose the pretender’s flaws: lacerating attacks against any critics. If you are this variety of insecure person, I doubt you will admit it even to yourself. If you meet such an individual, run!

I suspect you get the idea. Please add an item if you like. You can use the list in one of two ways: to consider whether you are insecure or evaluate the confidence of those around you. Of course, you are the only one whose self-confidence you can change.

You may find the following related post of interest: Signs of Self Consciousness: When the Mirror Isn’t Your Friend. Also, you might want to read  The Upside of Insecurity or, this very recent post: Insecurity and Our Preoccupation with Appearances/

The image above is Insecurity by Lacey Lewis: http://www.lacey-lewis.com/ With permission.