On Insecurity


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. 


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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