Insecurities: We’ve all got a few. They’re those intrusive thoughts people have about mistakes they might have made, flaws they might have, and negative opinions that others might have about them. Insecurities can be frustratingly persistent, and they can really interfere with close relationships (“You looked at that girl, I saw you looking!”). It’s not realistic to expect people to simply ignore these insecurities. So the question becomes: What is the healthiest way to deal with these nagging thoughts and feelings?
One seemingly obvious solution might be to reveal your insecurities to someone you’re close to — such as a friend or a romantic partner — so that this person could help you to feel better. However, recent research has revealed a way that this approach can sometimes fail to work, and can even backfire.
Revealing insecurities to other people has the potential to generate a whole new kind of insecurity: the concern that these individuals perceive you to be an insecure person. For example, say I’m worried that I gave a boring lecture for my relationships class, and so I decide to disclose this to my good friend and fellow relationships researcher Bonnie Le. Being the responsive friend she is, Bonnie would of course respond by saying reassuring things. But after doing this a few times, I might start to think, Wow, I’ve been acting pretty insecure around Bonnie lately. She probably thinks I’m an emotionally fragile individual who desperately needs approval and can’t handle criticism or rejection. Unfortunately, those concerns are going to make me doubt every nice thing Bonnie says to me from then on. I’ll think that she’s just walking on eggshells around me, trying to spare my ego, and not telling me what she really feels. Her encouraging words will be less likely to make me feel good about myself because I’ll dismiss them as being insincere. So, paradoxically, showing my friend that I feel insecure has just made the problem worse.
In a 2008 paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Edward Lemay and Margaret Clark of Yale University propose that this pattern of insecurity could happen to anyone. Even if you’re generally a secure person, feeling temporarily insecure could trigger this chain of events. By expressing your insecurities to a close friend or a romantic partner, you may subsequently worry that this person thinks of you as an insecure person, which could then lead you to doubt the nice things they tell you.
The researchers tested this across six studies. Altogether, they found strong support for each component of the model. For example, in one study, the researchers asked people to think of someone important to them — either a romantic partner or a close friend. Participants rated how often they expressed vulnerabilities to this person (e.g., “I often ask this person how he/she truly feels about me,” “I have frequently expressed hurt or angry feelings toward this person”), as well as how much they believed this person viewed them as insecure (e.g., “This person views me as vulnerable and easily hurt”). Finally, participants rated how much they doubted the authenticity of their partner’s kind words and reassurances (e.g., “This person censors his/her thoughts and feelings in order to avoid hurting my feelings”; “This person often says things he/she doesn’t mean in order to make me feel good”). Results showed that when people believed that they expressed a lot of insecurities to their partner, they tended to also believe that their partner viewed them as vulnerable and insecure, which in turn led them to doubt their partner’s authenticity.
In another study, participants again rated how much they doubted the authenticity of their partner’s reassurances (e.g., “This person often says things he/she doesn’t mean in order to make me feel good”), as well as how negatively they thought their partners viewed them (e.g., “This person thinks I have a number of significant flaws”). The more that participants believed their partners “walked on eggshells” around them, the more rejected they felt by their partners.
Most impressive, the researchers conducted a longitudinal study with dyads (pairs of people) to see what happens to people’s perceptions over time, and to see how they stack up to reality. In this study, 38 dyads — mostly pairs of platonic friends, but also a few romantic couples — completed the measures described above, twice, five months apart. For example, if Bonnie and I were participating in this study, I would rate how many vulnerabilities I express to Bonnie, how much I think Bonnie sees me as an insecure person, and how much I doubt Bonnie’s authenticity when she says nice things to me. I would also rate my care and regard for Bonnie, and perceptions of how much Bonnie cares about me, Bonnie would rate the same measures about me. Then, five months later, we would both complete these same measures a second time.
By surveying both members of each pair, the researchers were able to examine how accurate people’s perceptions actually were about how their friends or partners viewed them. Furthermore, by surveying each pair of individuals twice over a five-month period, the researchers were better able to examine causal direction: What leads to changes in what? Again, the researchers found strong support for their model: People who expressed more vulnerabilities to their friend/partner tended to believe that this person saw them as insecure, which in turn led them to doubt that person’s authenticity, which in turn led them to believe that this person viewed them more negatively.
Over time, this belief that the person viewed them more negatively led the person to express even more vulnerabilities, and thus the whole cycle would continue to worsen over time. Furthermore, these effects occurred independently from the friends’ partners’ views. According to these results, if I express my insecurities to Bonnie, I am likely to subsequently believe that Bonnie perceives me to be insecure regardless of her actual perceptions of me. Similarly, my belief that Bonnie perceives me as insecure will lead me to doubt Bonnie’s authenticity regardless of how authentic she actually is. And, in all of the studies, these effects emerged above and beyond self-esteem, suggesting that all of this occurs relatively independently from chronic insecurities.
Overall, this paper presents a useful explanation for how feelings of insecurity can be perpetuated over time, especially in the context of close relationships. Revealing your insecurities to a person you care about — for example, by seeking reassurance from them, or by taking the insecurities out on them — may lead you to doubt the reassurance that the person provides, thus making the insecurities worse. That said, suppressing insecurities may not be very healthy, either, as the researchers discuss at the end of the paper. So how do you go about dealing with insecurities in a healthy way?
Maybe, rather than trying to change how we express our insecurities to close others, we should instead try to change our perceptions of how those close others are reacting to our insecurities. If you believe that someone sees you as insecure or that they’re walking on eggshells around you, those beliefs are more likely a projection of your own feelings than they are an accurate assessment of how the person feels. You are far more aware of your own insecurities than anyone else is. In fact, research shows that it’s precisely when you’re feeling the most insecure that you’re most likely to underestimate how much the close people in your life care about you and how positively they feel about you. The next time a close friend or a romantic partner tells you something complimentary, try taking it at face value. In all likelihood, they do mean it, or they wouldn’t be saying it.
Finally, another strategy would be to take the less positive things close others say and do as evidence of their authenticity. Think about it: If your friend is highly concerned about tiptoeing around your feelings, why would they ever say or do anything inconsiderate? So the next time your friend forgets to call you back, or your partner acts grouchy around you, take it as a sign that you really are seeing the real them, warts and all. Because if you’re willing to accept that your close others’ slip-ups are authentic, then you should be willing to accept that their love, their compliments, and their all-around positive feelings toward you are authentic as well.
A version of this post first appeared on Science of Relationships.