If you grew up with persistent insecurities, you know what an absolute pain they can be to overcome. I think of my insecurities (and there are many) as stones in my brain, while all of the things that make me who I am - my identity, my personality, my passions - are like roots growing around them. At some point, the stones get so tangled in the roots, shaping and defining them, that they feel too deeply embedded to ever be removed.
As frustrating as they are, insecurities are a natural part of being human, and it's normal to feel that they're more powerful and important than our positive qualities. "Our brains are naturally wired to pay more attention to the negative than the positive," psychotherapist Liz Kelly, LICSW, says. It's evolutionary: for early humans, "it was more important to know if a man-eating tiger was around the corner, rather than delighting in a rainbow or a butterfly," Kelly says. But in the modern world, "paying too much attention to our negative thoughts can get in the way of our happiness, productivity, and ability to connect to others," she says.
Our negative thoughts are often about ourselves: how we feel about our lives, our identities, and our accomplishments. When we compare ourselves to others, we're likely to find ourselves lacking, which creates feelings of insecurity. Social media, of course, fuels these insecurities, some of which can be traced back to childhood. Perfectionists can be particularly vulnerable, therapist Hazel Navarro, LICSW, says: "They may be naturally gifted in some areas, yet expect to be amazing in all areas. Their self-esteem takes a plunge when they realize they aren't amazing at everything."
Many of us have lived with our insecurities for so long that they feel like a part of us. But as deep as these insecurities seem to go, as powerful as they can feel, there are ways to overcome them and live more openly and confidently.
How to Overcome Your Insecurities and Low Self-Esteem
"Insecurity is ultimately a feeling of not being good enough," psychotherapist Whitney Goodman, LMFT, says. "It causes us to feel like we won't be accepted by others and won't achieve our goals." It's true that insecurities are sometimes rooted in truth and require some amount of acceptance, Goodman says - if you're insecure about your height, for example, there's probably no use fighting that reality your entire life. The tough part is separating the facts ("I'm short") from the fiction your brain is spinning from them ("I'm short, which means people will never take me seriously at work or in relationships"). It comes down to seeing your insecurities more clearly and lessening their power via self-compassion and acceptance.
Overcoming deep-seated insecurities isn't an overnight process, but there are some things you can do to improve your self-esteem. Here's where to start, according to therapists.
Take a few deep breaths if you're in a negativity spiral. "When you catch yourself spiraling down into self-criticisms, stop and breathe," Navarro says. Try inhaling for five seconds, holding for five seconds, then exhaling for five seconds. This will break your negative-thinking pattern while calming your body and anxiety, she explains.
Approach your insecurity with curiosity. Once you feel calm, ask yourself what triggered your insecurity. "Allow yourself to notice the specific emotions that are arising and what might have been the catalyst for them," creative-mindfulness coach Katy Oberle, IMFT, says. Maybe you were scrolling through social media, saw a photo of someone looking "perfect," felt that you weren't good enough, and became sad or anxious. "In that moment, you can remind yourself that you are unique and worthy, and that perhaps social media isn't serving you well in that moment," Oberle says. You can then make the choice to exit the app and put down your phone. You might also consider muting accounts that make you feel insecure or limiting time on apps that make you feel less confident.
Address your inner critic directly. You can try externalizing your insecurity by pretending your critical voice is a person you can speak to directly. "Use positive self-talk to say things like 'I am doing the best I can,' 'I am enough,' or 'My worth is not dependent on my productivity,'" Kelly says. "I often advise my clients to give their inner critic a funny name to help them realize that thoughts are not facts."
Distance yourself from negative thoughts. "Our brains can think all kinds of things, but it doesn't mean all those things are true," Stephani Bradford, LCSW, says. She offers a simple trick to remind yourself that a thought is just a thought - no more powerful or true than any other. Simply say, "I am having the thought that . . ." before the negative thing you're thinking. Compare the original thought ("I am a failure") to the new phrase ("I'm having the thought that I'm a failure"), and notice how differently you react to each. "It may feel like the thought is more distant or muffled and not as intense," Bradford says.
Identify some of your favorite things about yourself and cultivate self-compassion. "Practicing self-compassion, using positive self-affirmations, and recognizing the value of the things they are insecure about can help increase one's self-worth and help them feel better about themselves and what they have to offer others," Holly Schiff, PsyD, says. It's worth noting, too, that self-compassion "is neither self-pity nor self-indulgence," psychologist Houyuan Luo, PhD, says. "Instead, it is about having kindness and understanding for yourself."
Journal about your insecurities. It can be helpful to talk to others about your insecurities, but doing so might understandably be scary. It can feel safer to start by writing about them in a journal, therapist Rhonda Boyd, LPC, says: "By doing this, my clients can better understand their feelings and work through them on their own time without feeling like someone else is judging them or telling them what to do."
Try therapy. If you're still struggling with persistent insecurities or feel that your insecurities are getting in the way of your daily life, consider reaching out to a therapist for support, therapist Kailey Hockridge, LPCC, says. "In therapy, you have an opportunity to develop skills to help you cope with your emotions, explore your history, and engage in your relationships in ways that feel good for you."