Mike, a 25-year-old in L.A., was self-conscious about being overweight throughout high school. It wasn’t until he went off to college, where he had access to a gym for the first time, that he decided to do something about it. He got involved in weightlifting, learned more about nutrition and noticed his life improving in multiple ways. “I got more attention from girls, strangers treated me with more respect and I had a regular supply of dopamine from exercising,” he says. “All of this boosted my confidence to levels I’d never experienced before.”
Today, Mike attributes this change not to the exercise itself, but to his original insecurities — those feelings of self-doubt he’d been conditioned to keep private but decided to act upon. “Insecurities never go away. They stay with you your entire life until you decide to do something about them,” he says.
Mike might be onto something. Although no one wants to be defined by their self-doubts, insecurity can have plenty of benefits. “There are many scenarios in which insecurity can be adaptive and preferable to unbridled confidence,” psychotherapist John Mathews confirms. For example, if you were joining a pick-up basketball game and realized the other players’ abilities were beyond your own, “insecurity may be natural and even helpful — it could help you to adjust your expectations about your role and your physical capabilities,” he says.
Whether it’s on the basketball court, in the workplace or in the bedroom, “the human mind is always thinking about ways we can survive, both physically and emotionally,” clinical and forensic neuropsychologist Judy Ho tells me. On a micro level, our insecurities may serve as a reminder to over-prepare for a presentation or help us thoughtfully plan for a first date, and on a macro level, they can signal what matters to us and what our values are. “It helps you become a more actualized and better person overall if there are times where you second-guess yourself,” she says.
So how did insecurities get such a bad reputation in the first place?
Unlike low self-esteem, which refers to a negative view of oneself overall, insecurity is more of a passing feeling that everyone experiences to some extent. While someone with low-self esteem usually has insecurities, having insecurities doesn’t always mean you have low self-esteem. And while low self-esteem has been linked to depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other issues, our negative view of emotional insecurities may be more cultural than scientific.
“In American culture, we really value this idea of people who are super confident, and that means we should trust them,” Ho tells me. These values are especially emphasized for men, who are conditioned to equate masculinity with a level of certainty about themselves. “Men see presentations of insecurity as weakness or a traditionally feminine quality,” she says. Ironically, though, many men are bothered by insecurity in others “because it holds up a mirror to what they don’t like about themselves.”
The thing is, since insecurities are an instinct meant to help keep us alive, self-doubt is deeply embedded in our neurobiology. So when we push those feelings down or bottle them up, we’re fighting against our own nature. “That cognitive dissonance of acting one way but feeling a different way can be disturbing to our emotional and mental health, because as human beings, we want consistency,” Ho explains. And just like with sadness or grief, those insecurities don’t disappear — “they just come back stronger.”
Side-stepping insecurity can also lead to numbing with drugs and alcohol, as well as other compulsive behaviors like gambling and overeating. Plus, it can cause men to “overcompensate with bravado or puffery,” Mathews says. Additional research suggests that men who are insecure about their masculinity yet subscribe to traditional gender norms (e.g., seeing insecurities as weak or feminine) may be more prone to aggressive and violent behaviors.
In less extreme instances, people who don’t pay attention to their insecurities are more prone to making bad decisions because they aren’t following important internal cues. When that happens, “you’re going to have a lot of major blind spots and maybe make some grave mistakes that could cost you opportunities, social connections and important relationships,” Ho says. “Good decision-making requires that you listen to those inner voices.”
For many of us, of course, those voices can get pretty noisy, and it is possible to experience too much insecurity. The clearest warning sign is if feelings of insecurity “stop you from doing things that are important to you,” Ho tells me. If you’re too anxious to pursue a job, a relationship or anything else you care about, that’s an indicator that you may want to talk to a mental-health professional about managing your feelings. But for someone who is insecure occasionally, “that’s a normal thing that 100 percent of humans experience whether they want to admit it or not,” Ho says.
As for Mike, after he had success with addressing his insecurity around his weight head-on, he tried to look at his other insecurities similarly. What he discovered was that there’s really two options: you either learn to make peace with them or “make a real, strategic effort to improve what you can.”
Whatever you choose, it’s normal to second-guess that decision, too.