Insecurity — in all its painfully needy ways — can be strength

March 16, 2007 Barbara Moses, Ph.D

Globe & Mail

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

Globe & Mail

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

According to stereotype, people who exude self-confidence would be expected to succeed in life and career — while the nervous Nellies among us are relegated to back-row status and dead-end jobs.

But here’s a competing thought: When it comes to a career, insecurity can be a good thing. Indeed, given a choice between working with someone who is self-satisfied and smug and someone who needs a lot more handholding, for me, the needy person wins hands down.

Surprised? You wouldn’t be if you really thought about what insecure people bring to the table.

Neediness is often associated with creativity; many of the most talented people, from Picasso to Plath, would be described as demanding or high maintenance — euphemisms for insecurity.

Many of the ways that needy people act can work to their advantage. For instance, those who are less certain of their abilities and their place in the world are more likely to work harder to demonstrate their competence. People who have failed often become softer and more interesting. After they’ve lost a job, say, they tend to develop a kind of tentativeness that makes them more nuanced in their dealings with others.

Ironically, people who are less sure of themselves tend to be better team players, for they are likelier to work more collaboratively and be more open to other people’s ideas. They are also likelier to give more thought to things before jumping to action or a conclusion. By contrast, people who are too sure of themselves may not be so open to the ideas of others, may be tough to get to change their minds — and may be wrong and unwilling to recognize it.

Because they are so desperate for approval, the insecure probably will try harder to read signals about what others are thinking and feeling about them, and change their behaviour to win them over. That’s a good thing: The ability to modify your behaviour in light of social cues is one of the definitions of social competence.

Insecurity can stem from a variety of factors, ranging from discomfort with our status in society or in a job to a lack of ease with our peers to doubts about our abilities. That feeling of not fitting in at high school is one you never seem to cast off. And all of this can contribute to a need to prove ourselves worthy.

There are different kinds of insecurity. For some it’s situational: For example, some people who are secure in their personal relationships are needy at work. For others it’s global, colouring all their interactions: Their insecurity is at their core. Witness the number of painters and writers with an endless appetite for admiration by both the opposite sex and critics.

Unhappiness in your personal life, especially if coupled with a feeling of failure, can also spill over into your professional life, leading to an insatiable desire for approval. For example, a divorced single-mother client of mine who once lamented her inability to find a life partner was described by her staff as “the high-maintenance boss from hell.” “I wouldn’t be so demanding of my staff or need to always know that they and my boss and colleagues love me if I weren’t so lonely in my personal life,” she once told me.

Going through a new life stage and the demands that brings can also make us question our competence, and create insecurities. Parents returning to work after a career break often say they feel inadequate compared with their colleagues, worrying that they’ve lost their edge or are so out of the loop.

Older workers often worry about being seen as compromised goods against their younger colleagues in youth-valuing organizations.

Whatever the reason for insecurity, it can pay off, for the roots of striving for achievement are often grounded in self-doubt. An ambitious and highly competent friend of mine, a European immigrant, attributes much of her success to her underlying insecurities. By contrast, she worries that her 11-year-old son is too confident and secure — and will have no hunger in his belly to achieve.

So why does neediness get such a bad rap? For one thing, we live in a society that worships self-esteem — indeed, accusing someone of having any of the qualities of insecurity is probably one of the quickest ways to discredit them, especially at work.

Gender biases may also be at play. Because men and women tend to express their insecurities differently — with women tending to be more hesitant and use more qualifiers — neediness is more often attributed to a woman than a man. This may also be why insecurity is considered suspect and why women are often coached to try to sound more confident, more certain — more like a man.

But insecurity is a dying trait, especially among this generation of twentysomethings who, compared with their parents at the same age, are strikingly lacking in self-doubt. Indeed, a study out of San Diego State University that measured narcissism among 16,000 U.S. university students over a 24-year period found that 30 per cent more of them showed elevated levels of narcissism in 2006 than in 1982.

No wonder. As the product of parents who promoted their self-esteem and school systems that made these kids feel like the masters of their universe, they feel so deserving and entitled that it is hard to find insecurity among them. One wonders what the impact of their self-assuredness will be on their desire to achieve.

Of course, there is a downside to insecurity — it can send off the wrong signals. When people sound more tentative and less confident about their conclusions, they run the risk of undermining how they’re seen.
Insecure people may be too quick to abandon their own points of view, be too easily influenced by others and too easily willing to give up their own authentic voice. At the extreme, they can come across as too eager to please, too insincere and too fatuous.

So how can you manage insecurity to your advantage? Well, just because you’re feeling it doesn’t mean the whole world needs to know. So, be strategic in determining how much you are going to share about what you’re feeling, and with whom.

And knowing that many people will see an expression of insecurity as a sign of weakness, you may, sometimes, have to act with greater confidence than you are actually feeling. This will mean, for example, adopting a less tentative linguistic style, reducing the number of qualifiers you use, being more forceful in your voice tone and making eye contact.

Practice self-talk. If you find yourself making negative statements about yourself, monitor them, write them down and reframe them in a positive way.
And try to avoid overinterpreting or making a catastrophe out of things. If your boss has some critical comments about your last report, it doesn’t mean that he or she considers all of your work bad, that you’ll never write another good report or that you’re going to be fired.

If you have too great a need for approval, learn to deal with a lack of it so that it doesn’t cut you to the quick.

So if you’re insecure about being insecure, relax — but not too much. Let your insecurity give you the edge.

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