On Insecurity

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A fair number of my clients — managers and executives — at some point in our work together express insecurity. This takes many different forms, from wondering about their value as leaders to worrying they are imposters to a clear avoidance of tough topics or evident conflicts in their relationships. It comes through as a spot or stain not quite hidden, but not quite out in the open, either. When we can talk about it, the conversation feels especially useful and alive.

Of course, as a human being, I have my own insecurity, as well, and there is always a temptation to try to cover it up, too. After all, how can I be offering support and wisdom if I, too, am imperfect? I may privately wonder, “Will I actually be of help? Will I be able to make a difference in someone’s work or life? Do I have something meaningful to offer today?”

Insecurity is an interactive element of any serious relationship. You have it, and I have it, too. We bounce up against it in others, but also inevitably in ourselves. As leaders, it’s imperative that we are honest with ourselves about this. Pretending just keeps things superficial and we never actually meet one another.

The thing about our personal insecurity is that it comes with rules that are based on past conditioning. By rules I mean that insecurity is triggered in some situations but not in others and it has a particular voice. A client says, for example, that she feels particularly insecure when she must make a decision to break a deadlock in the team of managers who reports to her. If the group doesn’t reach consensus and she must make the call in an exposed way, a sense of risk begins to intrude, a queasiness, an anxiety. She goes home and feels alone, as if she is the only one who cares and is responsible. It’s all on her shoulders and she’s hit with frustration and resentment. “Why should I have to be the one to decide? They’re all leaders, too! Why is it always me?”

She can track these feelings backwards into her experiences in her family of origin where there was significant discord and she learned to play the middle ground, trying to make everyone happy. There’s a deep consistency between then and now. She doesn’t feel somehow that she’s “doing it right,” meaning not leading right, as if there were one right way. The rules of her insecurity keep her riding a merry-go-round, passing the same places again and again. We talk about things she might say to herself and to the team.

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Insecurity is the personal limit, the sideboard of what you or I can do. At least that is how it feels, and it is easy to imagine that the answer is in some form of confidence. Yet, I wonder if confidence — or what we call confidence — is actually the opposite of insecurity. At times it seems that confidence is too easily confused with arrogance or self-ignorance. When we oppose insecurity and confidence, it may be that we are creating the wrong dimension to explore.

I cannot help but feel that there are as many answers to the dilemmas of insecurity as there are different realities into which we might step as individual leaders. I don’t believe there is just one reality, this common physical one, that we traverse. It is more like a thousand page book or a ten thousand page book, some of whose pages we choose to believe in a lot more than others. Ah, yes, page 96 and 1,154, those are my pages, me — the ones I can’t seem to detach from, the things I’ve decided are true. But, inevitably, things both are and aren’t as we imagine them to be and it is always possible to flip to a random page and find something of differing value, some new idea or way of looking at things. And sometimes, not so unexpectedly, we discover a page with an old memory or an almost forgotten story from the past, and we are looking at the strange movie of who we seem to be from a new angle. Suddenly, we may appreciate the passages we have been through a little more intensely, the difficult moments with others, the mistakes like holes in our lives that we had to crawl out of and keep going. Flipping through the book from page to page to page our realities merge into what turns out to be our own kind of spiritual life.

You know then that we don’t escape our insecurity. It will be with us our whole lives in one way or another. The question is how much power it retains and how much we can learn from it and how to let it go, turning the page once again. We are more than it is, and it has also made us exactly who we are until now.

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