Ever since I was a kid, I heard expressions referring to insecurity such as, “He’s so insecure.” I never did quite know what it meant. It seemed to describe many people. Basically, anyone with anxiety about anything was described as insecure.
Now that I am a psychologist, I use the term myself, but I do so in a much more limited sense. I use it to describe people who become excessively anxious in relationships, especially when in love.
The fear of losing the love, or of being rejected or abandoned, is a central issue for many clients. It is also one of the most debilitating, affecting almost all types of relationships (although the problems are much worse when there is a lot at stake).
Those who seem most affected are people who have lived through serious loss or abandonment at a critical time in their lives (just my own non-scientific observations, but the ages 6 to 16 seem the most critical). Being shipped from foster home to foster home is probably the worst experience. Any attachment is lost with each move. The kids in these situations are taught to fend for themselves and never get to feel secure. There are other types of loss or neglect that can have similar impact (e.g., a parent’s suicide or unexplained departure, sexual abuse by a parent or close relative, etc.). The usual result is that people do not feel safe when in love. This can make them hypervigilant, or self-protective to the extreme. This makes it difficult for them to trust others and often makes loss and rejection more likely (a self-fulfilling prophesy).
An example of one woman’s experience was discussed in a column called “Protection? What protection?”. A related column is “One more try”, which discusses the tendency that some people have to go back and forth in relationships. A person with a sense of security usually accepts the bad with the good, and stays in the relationship,or is prepared to give up the good because of the bad, and ends the relationship.
In thinking about the origins of such a sense of security (or lack of same), I wrote a column that was published today on the role that a stable family environment when growing up plays in the development of this fundamental need.
The greatest gift (source: Journal Métro, February 12, 2008)
It is something that most of us take for granted. We rarely appreciate its value unless we happen to be among those less fortunate ones that have to live without it. I’m talking about a sense of security.
Growing up, I was a pretty good kid most of the time but I did get into occasional trouble. My parents were quite strict and I was often terrified of their reaction when I was bad. There were many times when I “hated” them. We sometimes had major disagreements that went on for many days or weeks. Yet it seemed that no matter what, they still took care of me. Over the years, the occasional rough stretches gave way to an overall sense that they loved me.
What this means today is that I have a sense of security in a loving relationship. I know, for instance, that even if I have an argument with my wife or my children, nothing fundamental will change. I am secure in the knowledge that we all love each other and I know that any disagreement will not change that basic fact. That is what security is.
Not all relationships are stable. Certainly many good ones can turn out badly over time, but even good relationships have to face the occasional challenge. How we face those challenges makes all the difference. A secure person will tend to be patient, knowing that the underlying love hasn’t suddenly disappeared. They will not add to the problem by overreacting or making accusations, and this normally fosters a resolution of differences.
The people that are most unhappy are those without this sense of safety and security in relationships; people such as those who were raised in multiple foster homes, those who were sexually or physically abused, those used as pawns in bitter separations, or those who were neglected or criticized incessantly. They grow up with a fear of loss, pain, or abandonment that permeates all relationships. They can never really feel safe.
Not having lived in such conditions myself, I grew up never noticing the gift I was given. Many parents worry about the job they are doing. After all, parenthood happens with no formal training. Yet the most important key to doing it well is also the simplest one. By giving children a sense of security, by teaching them that you love them unconditionally through thick and thin, chances are they will go through life as relatively happy individuals. It may sound simple but trust me, those who live with insecurity would give anything to have been given that same gift.
12 Feb 2008