Mine is the root of all my evil. Yours is too, probably.
Consider the following familiar characters: the boss who berates you when you (rightfully) point out their mistake, the employee who becomes defensive and blames others when you (rightfully) question their lack of progress, the friend who gossips maliciously about mutual acquaintances, the date who lists all their (many) past conquests without you having asked, the stranger who brags egregiously about their idyllic lifestyle or virtuous pursuits…
I have seen many examples of the above behaviours and, to my eternal shame, have behaved in some such ways myself. The common cause to such manifestations is insecurity.
We allow ‘others’ to judge our value because we haven’t developed our own metrics for it.
Insecurity is what happens when we fail to know ourselves and, therefore, fear discovering terrible things within. Instead of looking inwards and facing all that we are, for better or worse, and securing the connection between our mind and our sense of self, we look outwards; we allow ‘others’ to judge our value because we haven’t developed our own metrics for it. But ‘others’ can never be reliable judges of our worth for the following reasons:
1) ‘Others’ are various people with differing values and expectations of their own. There can be no coherence or consistency between what they think of you. If you rely on ‘others’, you will be striving to be ‘all things to all people’ — a sure way to failure and misery.
2) ‘Others’ are an inconsistent, fleeting presence in your life. By becoming over-reliant on the opinions of ‘others’, you will never be satisfied and always be waiting for a new ‘other’ to tell you that you’re beautiful/successful/liked. ‘Others’ are a flaky foundation on which to base your opinion of yourself.
3) ‘Others’ have their own motives and may not be as honest and unbiased as you might think. When we play the role of ‘others’, even in close friends’ lives, we too find it difficult to tell hard truths. We are unreliable ‘others’ to our friends, so why do we assume our ‘others’ to be reliable to us?
4) We know ourselves better than anyone else does. We know, albeit deep down, when we have messed up, let ourselves go, or let ourselves down. Insecurity arises when we feel too ashamed to confront that truth.
5) The only person who must live with you your whole life, is you.
Without an honest sense of self, we are vulnerable to external influence. When you do not know the extents and limitations of your virtues, you are easily flattered. The flattery may be legitimate, or it may be excessive, but you will not be able to discern between the two. Insecure people might therefore either find it difficult to accept a genuine compliment, believing it to be insincere, (often to the irritation of the compliment-giver), or they naively internalise sycophantic flattery in a futile attempt to fill a void where their self-esteem should be, and that no compliment can fill. This leads to incessant validation-seeking and bitter disappointment if it is not forthcoming. This, in turn, leads to vanity — a highly unattractive trait, by all accounts.
Equally, those ignorant of their own shortcomings are easily offended, even by fair criticism. They resent that someone else has identified a genuine flaw in them before they themselves have had a chance to process it. Inevitably, they become defensive and deflect blame, because the mere idea of being perceived as ‘less than’ is overwhelming. By the same measure, they fail to recognise unfounded or unreasonable insults, fearing unnecessarily that there may be truth to them, so they become offended instead of simply ignoring and dismissing the slur. These can evolve into arrogance, obnoxiousness or low self-esteem.
Insecure people naively accept sycophantic flattery in a futile attempt to fill a void where their self-esteem should be.
The most toxic traits of humanity have their roots in insecurity. Practically all malicious behaviour is derived, to some extent, from the perpetrator failing to find peace within themselves, and therefore coercing others, verbally or physically, to validate them. When your own sense of accomplishment is not enough, you will wish for others to uphold it. When you live in denial of your flaws, you will lash out at anyone who dares show you them. Consider some of the most belligerent, opinionated or self-absorbed public figures; almost all their traits can be traced back to insecurity.
So, how do we secure these frayed connections between our true selves and our conscience, lest we follow this dangerous path? Perhaps the first step is to realise that there is nothing so awful we might find that cannot be fixed, improved or, at the very least, managed. Alfred Hitchcock, renown film director of tense thrillers, said “there is no terror in the bang, but in the anticipation of it.” An apt metaphor that well explains our own terror at the possibility of finding a devil within us when, once exposed, the devil is never as frightening in the flesh. The very purpose of our existence must surely be, at least to some extent, striving towards self-improvement. Confronting our vices marks a starting point on a meaningful journey of betterment. By denying yourself this truth, you are denying yourself your humanity.
Accepting your flaws should not be a punitive process. Berating yourself defeats the purpose of this journey and only leads down the alternative, yet equally toxic, path of self-hatred. The same applies with accepting all that is good within you. Some, perhaps most, people may find this even harder. We often struggle to celebrate our achievements for fear of becoming arrogant or having someone take them away with a swift, brutal comment (as anyone suffering from ‘imposter syndrome’ will know). But what you know to be true can never be taken away.
Once you start work on this long and complex journey (a life-long one, to be precise), you start seeing the difference. When someone makes an acerbic comment, you cheerily dismiss it or casually disarm it, recognising that the other person is merely projecting their own insecurity unto you. Or, in response to excessive flattery, you politely say “that’s very kind, and hopefully I truly earn your compliment soon.” Most importantly, perhaps, you will recognise and accept legitimate critique with grace. In all circumstances, you remain both dignified, and your own most powerful judge and advocate. Being offended, as well as pious, become practically impossible.
The path to losing your insecurity is simple, but not easy. The benefits however will be felt in every relationship and encounter you experience, whether by diminishing any vitriol, or enhancing any bonhomie. You may still come across the sorts of people outlined in the opening paragraph, but you may well avoid becoming one yourself….again.