The Causes of Insecurity


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

When Helping Hurts: Therapists Who Need Therapy

I’ve known therapists who slept with their patients. I’ve known therapists who took “down on their luck” patients into their homes. I’ve known therapists who made friendships with their patients and socialized with them outside of the office. And, I’ve known therapists whose sense of their own value depended on their patients’ approval and improvement.

There are problems here and I hope most of them are obvious. But, just in case, I will explain.

A therapeutic relationship involves unequal power. Authority figures, be they bosses, teachers, parents, clergymen, or therapists, usually have a power advantage. Patients assume a therapist has only the patient’s best interests at heart. The patient might never previously have had someone in his or her life who seemed so interested, who listened so patiently, who seemed so caring. Under these circumstances, the patient is vulnerable if the therapist should pursue his own sexual agenda.

For a time, it might feel good to both parties, but it is a fundamental corruption of the therapist-patient relationship and, in the long run, can do extraordinary damage to the patient and add one more life-injury to the long list of hurts the patient has already suffered. This is true even if it is the client who provokes or initiates the sexual contact, as sometimes happens.

Dual roles are generally a problem. Thus, a therapist is well-advised to avoid the complication of being more than a therapist to his patient. Meaning he shouldn’t be a therapist/lover or therapist/friend. To take on more than one role almost inevitably confuses both the therapist and the patient as to which role takes priority. And, it compounds the potential feeling of rejection, if the therapist should say or do something that seems critical or indifferent.

Expectations of friends, therapists, and lovers depend on which role you believe that person occupies in your life.

Even the anticipation of a possible future friendship or sexual relationship after therapy ends can change the therapeutic relationship for the worst if either the client or counselor harbors such hopes. Imagine a therapist who desires a patient who is considering a possible divorce; if he anticipates the possibility of “dating” the newly divorced woman once treatment is over, might he be more likely to encourage her to end her marriage?

It is for reasons like this that the American Psychological Association’s ethical guidelines rule out any such contact between counselor and patient, during or after therapy, in virtually all cases.

None of this is to say doctors do not, sometimes, have feelings of attraction to clients. We treat the beautiful, the charming, and the handsome, as well as the less than beautiful and less than charming. But all counselors should be trained about and reminded of the boundaries concerning therapeutic relationships, boundaries that must never be violated.

Therapists run other risks, as well. Among them, is the need for approval from their patients. Certainly, it is human to want such approval. But the therapist needs enough confidence to be able to withstand his inevitable inability help everyone; and, that in order to help some people, it will be necessary to tell them painful truths that may cause the patient to end the therapy and reject the therapist.

If the counselor is too invested in the patient’s improvement for his own good, he can be laid-low if the patient does not get better. And, ironically, if the therapist is working too hard to help his client, harder (in fact) than the client is working, he is likely to steal the essential initiative of the client so necessary for his or her improvement.

Anyone in a helping-profession faces a problem with respect to how close he should get to his patient. If he is emotionally distant from this person, his ability to help is compromised. Most people, after all, want a doctor who cares. If you think your healer doesn’t care, or is only in it for the money, you are likely (and correctly) guided to go elsewhere for treatment.

On the other hand, however, is the problem of the health-care-professional who cares too much; who feels your pain almost as much as you do; who suffers the ups and downs of your mood as if he is a passenger on the same roller coaster, sitting right beside you. He is in danger of giving too much of himself, to the point burning out. Moreover, when you reach for him in your sadness or confusion, you are not likely to find a “rock” upon whom you can rely, but instead someone who is just as pained or disoriented as you are over the reverses in your life. From that vantage point, no therapist can be of any use.

Therapists need to be solid, emotionally and physically, to take on the complicated emotional and intellectual lives of the people sitting across from them. They need to be involved, but not to the point their own emotional well-being is compromised by the sadness or turmoil of the people who they are treating. They need to know their own limitations and set limits on the extent they provide care, lest they be sucked-dry by the process and unable to be of any use to anyone, including themselves.

It can be useful for therapists to receive their own therapy. But when the counselor’s world is rocked from the outside, or when he is unable to navigate the white-water of human emotion that he is attempting to traverse, sucked into whirlpools beyond his control, he is well-advised not only to seek supervision and treatment, but sometimes, to refer the patient or patients in question to those who do have the equanimity to be able to do good for those same people.

Nearly all therapists mean well. Nonetheless, as the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” If you think your therapist is unstable, too involved, or in some way inappropriate, it is time to consider your options: there are lots of good therapists out there, but there is only one of you; one life to live and set on the best possible course you can.

You may find the following related post of interest: How Therapists Fool Themselves.

The above image is Cropped Photo of 2007 KKC Participant with Self-made Custom-fabricated Crutches by Rich Cosgrove, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.