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What’s the Source of our Insecurities?

A friend of mine read an article I recently wrote regarding self-confidence. As a comment he asked about the flip side of self-confidence, asking “What is the source of our insecurities?”

I think that’s an excellent question, and one the majority of us avoid because of how difficult it is to ask ourselves. It’s difficult because it acknowledges insecurities, which by default also acknowledges weakness. Yet, if we don’t face who we truly are, it’s impossible to fulfill our potential. Looking into a self-reflective mirror and observing what we see with no excuses, bias or prejudice is not easy; especially, if we spend little time conscientiously working on cultivating and improving our character.

In order to understand the source of our insecurities, we have to have a basic understanding of neurology and how the brain works.

Unlike other species, humans are born with very little hardwiring. For instance, there are a number of animals that walk within days or even upon birth, whereas humans take several months before we take our first unaided steps. While a lack of hardwiring may appear detrimental, it’s actually advantageous. It affords us the ability to adapt, learn and grow. We have this ability thanks to brain plasticity.

Brain plasticity allows us to rewire our brains to adapt to environments around us. As an example, between 4th and 7th grade I lived in New Hampshire, where the winters are extremely cold. Near the end of my 7th grade year we moved to the Bay Area in California. For the first couple of years there I always wore shorts in the winter. My body was acclimated to the harsh, cold conditions of the New Hampshire winters, and winters in California felt more like spring. Years later I moved to Texas with my wife and 4 children. We’ve been here for nearly 5 years and I now find anything below 70 degrees cold (quite the difference from my childhood days in NH). Additionally, unless it’s an extremely humid day, the humidity doesn’t bother me at all. However, whenever my family from Utah visits, they feel like they’re swimming in water (Utah has a very dry climate). Brain plasticity allows us to adapt, and with those adaptations come biochemical changes that manifests themselves physically.

The examples I just gave relate to external environments and the weather. Internal environments however, also play a large role in brain plasticity. By internal environments, I’m speaking about our thoughts, and the stories we tell ourselves about the world around us. How we interpret the information we see, hear, touch, smell and taste can change or be reaffirmed within the brain’s network of information. The basic unit of these networks is a specialized cell known as a neuron. Our brain is made up of billions of neurons, each of which has the ability to store information. Every experience we have in life – whether through the empirical world or our own thinking – is saved via neurons, with each neuron having the capacity to save approximately 20,000 files.

These neurons, and the individual files they store don’t mean much on their own, but when a particular file in a neuron is associated with a separate file in different neuron, the power of the mind manifests itself.

For example, a neuron can store information on hot cocoa regarding its taste; another neuron can save information regarding the importance of drinking hot drinks slowly; and another neuron may have a file regarding my mom making hot cocoa on cold days in New Hampshire. These neurons, along with hundreds of others, create a network that summarizes my feelings, thoughts and emotions as it relates to hot chocolate. Because each of those associations are good – I like the taste of hot cocoa; I’ve never seriously burned myself with hot cocoa; and I love my mom – positive emotions and biochemicals are released into my blood, reinforcing my desire to drink hot cocoa during the winter season. As a father, I now share those experiences with my children – whom I deeply love and care for – further strengthening this neural network, and the overall good feelings and emotions I have drinking hot cocoa with my family.

Insecurities begin in a similar manner. Everything starts with a single experience. A single experience however, isn’t enough. That experience must be reinforced through our thoughts. As we repeat thoughts that feed our insecurities, new neurons are recruited, and integrated as part of that circuitry. In other words, neural connections are strengthened by the stories we tell ourselves regarding that experience.

What begins as a simple thought turns into an insecurity as neural connections and circuitries are significantly reinforced to the point where the thought is now manifested as an emotion. Emotions are filed in a separate part of the brain and not initiated so much by what others tell us or what we actually experience with our five senses, but through the stories we tell ourselves regarding that experience. This emotion is a chemical response our body has due to the flow of stress hormones that are released through corrosive and negative thinking. For reasons that neurobiology is currently unable to explain, the brain recognizes these thoughts as unhealthy.

How often have we found ourselves overanalyzing experiences, only to come away with negative conclusions? If we don’t like the way our supervisor at work looks at us, then all of a sudden we begin wondering – does he or she like me? Is something wrong with my work? Am I not capable? Next thing we know we’re constantly assessing and analyzing everything our supervisor says. We even ask our colleagues if they have ever said anything about us. That is insecurity.

Or we have a great opportunity come our way, and maybe someone we like or respect makes a comment that causes us to question our capability. All of a sudden we feel deflated and wonder whether we have the ability or skills perform. We justify this thinking by recalling any memories where we’ve fallen short. That is insecurity.

Maybe our son or daughter needs help with their math homework, a subject with which we struggled in our youth. Instead of taking the time to review the material, all we can think about is how much we didn’t like math or how bad our teacher was. That is insecurity.

The emotion associated with insecurity, just like any other negative emotion, is a message and call to action that our body is sending us that change is required in the way we think or behave. Thankfully due to the plasticity of the brain, we can rewire the way we think and bring healing to our minds and bodies. It’s very important that we attend to this emotional condition. Otherwise, it silently affects many parts of our lives, including the relationships we have with our spouse, kids and in the workplace; not to mention the way it impacts how we view finances and money. Every aspect of our lives is affected by insecurities in a way that is extremely subtle, but very real.

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