ERP 126: What To Do When You Feel Insecure In Relationship [Transcript]

ERP 126: What To Do When You Feel Insecure In Relationship

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Welcome to The Empowered Relationship Podcast, helping you turn relationship challenges into opportunities and setting you up for relationship success. Your host, Dr. Jessica Higgins, is a licensed psychologist and relationship coach who shares valuable tips, tools and resources for you to dramatically improve your relationship.

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Hi, thank you for joining today’s podcast episode. Today’s episode is 126, What To Do When You Feel Insecure In Relationship. If you will, join me in centering in today’s intention and for the intention for the Empowered Relationship Podcast.

My biggest goal is to help you feel more equipped, better prepared for the landscape of long-lasting intimacy. My hope is that I can bring some positivity, help you gain some information and insight to the complexity of some of the relational dynamics that will at times challenge us, perhaps even threaten us, evoke pain and old wound… And that also invite us to expand in our ability to feel more love, more joy and more happiness; we might be challenged on that end, where it’s more than we’ve ever known before, so the goal there is to integrate and continually expand our capacity for more happiness, more love and more joy.

I also talk a lot about developing a solid foundation, a secure container for the stability and the safety and the consistency of relationship. That is my ultimate goal on this Empowered Relationship podcast – to help you feel better equipped, more prepared in doing relationship skillfully, mindfully, and covering the full spectrum of what’s available within intimate relationship.

Let’s jump right in. Today’s episode is 126, What To Do When You Feel Insecure In Relationship. In today’s episode I’m going to be responding to a listener’s question. I’m also gonna be providing tips, suggestions and recommendations for the experience of feeling insecure that should apply to many more situations and circumstances. So I’m going to be answering the specific listener’s question, but my hope is to be able to provide a wider framework for insecurity.

In last week’s episode I talked about the power of kindness in relationship, and I will be resuming that conversation, as well as offering you a free opportunity to join in the practice of developing kindness, as it can be seen as a muscle – the more you exercise it, the stronger you will feel. I will be resuming with that topic and I wanted to take a short break to answer this listener’s question. She’s been waiting a while for my response, so I wanted to make sure that I gave it time.

Again, the topic of this episode is what to do when you feel insecure in relationship. You can find today’s show notes, as well as all other show notes on my website, which is DrJessicaHiggins.com, click on Podcast and you can find all the episodes there. The most recent episodes show at the top.

The listener’s question – she’d like to remain anonymous, and she writes:

“I have been listening to your podcasts and I find them very helpful for me to understanding how to communicate and work through some of my thoughts and needs in my relationship. I have been having an internal struggle with myself in my relationship that I was wondering if you might be able to help me work through and understand.

I think this might have to deal somewhat with self love and self-esteem but I am not sure how to get better with these subjects. I have this amazing boyfriend who knows I have insecurity issues and is really understanding and I believe I can trust him but I am having a struggle with modern normalities. There are 2 things that are similar but slightly different that I just can’t feel comfortable with. My boyfriend is a TV person and he likes to get into all sorts of shows ranging from standard TV to HBO and Cinemax type shows. He has told me that he doesn’t watch them for the sex scenes and nudity and I believe him but because he is a man I can’t think that he doesn’t enjoy them. This thought of that and how much there is in these shows makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want to make him not watch the shows because it’s not his fault they put those scenes in these shows, but I don’t know how to frame my mind to accept it. I also get uncomfortable about going anywhere where women will be barely wearing clothes like the beach, wondering if he might be enjoying what he sees, even though I know it’s natural to be attracted to other people it still makes me uncomfortable. I have talked to him about it and he has told me he is not a visual person and he doesn’t care about anyone else but I still understand that he is man. I want to be able to do these things with him because they are part of modern day life but I am having a hard time. If you could offer suggestions that would be so very helpful to me.

I also would like to thank you so much for putting together these podcasts for people like me. They help me grow as a person and become a better partner.”

Thank you for reaching out. I acknowledge your experience, the discomfort and struggle around these issues. I know many women have felt challenged by these very topics at some point in their life. I know I have. I also know that men have challenges that are similar in nature, and I understand how painful this can feel, and threatening. I also acknowledge and really appreciate that you’re looking for ways to shift your experience and improve the way you deal with these insecurities.

As I mentioned in the beginning, I’m gonna offer some tips to address your questions, but I’ll also be offering suggestions and recommendations around how to deal with insecurity in general in relationship.

To set some kind of framework, insecurity in relationship is typically when we feel as though we are not good enough, and/or we feel some type of threat. While most of us will have insecure feelings at some point or another, it’s important to pay attention and notice repetitive patterns, as you have done. You’re pointing out two very specific examples that reoccur for you, so that’s great that you’re taking notice of that.

I’m gonna touch briefly on some components that are often at play in insecurity… As I mentioned, inadequacy, anxiety, criticism and comparison.

Inadequacy – when we question our value and self-worth, we tend to put a lot of emphasis on other people’s perceptions of us. We will look for outside validation, affirmation, reassurance to feel good about ourselves. However, the trouble with this approach is we never feel solid and secure, feeling our own goodness and worth, because we’re so reliant on outside validation, so we typically feel that sense of dependency, which can feel really disempowering and always this insatiable lack, because it’s never fully fulfilled.

Getting validation and reassurance rarely leads to that feeling, like I said, of feeling complete, and that it has a lasting chance, or that it’s satiated. At its best, it may be a temporary fix. When we do not believe we are good enough, it’s very difficult to believe someone else’s high opinion on us. We might dismiss someone’s compliment or appreciation of us, so it’s really difficult to fully receive.

We never feel fully trusting, relaxed and at peace with ourselves and our relationship. If we don’t have the belief in our own worthiness, we can feel very preoccupied and anxious about other’s perceptions. Insecurities can push the people we love away, and can almost be self-fulfilling prophecies. Imagine you have a husband that feels insecure, inadequate and needs his wife’s approval and reassurance continuously. And if she’s friendly and outgoing and she makes connections with other people easily, and they’re at a party and he sees her talking to another man, he could feel extremely threatened, but really attempt to control her to feel better, and really try to maybe isolate her… Manage her texts, check in on her all the time, maybe even be tracking her on her phone, and there could be all these control tactics, and really those tactics don’t help her lean into him. Most likely, she’s gonna have a negative experience and wanna push away from him.

Anxiety – relationships will evoke fears, wounds and insecurities. When we love someone deeply, we are also confronted with our attachment insecurities, which are essentially our trust, our confidence and belief that our partner will be there for us. If you’ve experienced any disappointment, loss, pain rejection, abandonment, trauma, neglect in your early years in how your caregivers provided for you, it’s likely you may have some level of attachment insecurity. Now, statistically, a lot of us will have some version of this. I think 60% of people have some level of attachment insecurity, and it might even be higher than that.

If we were to use this listener’s example and apply it to someone who has an attachment insecurity, it’s possible that it might look like “I see nudity on TV or a woman who’s minimally dressed, and I feel threat. I feel uncomfortable, and a little panicky” and perhaps deeper and underlying that is “Will he leave me for someone prettier or more attractive?” Or feeling that sense of tension and “Am I good enough to keep his attention for the long haul?”

Criticism – how do you talk to yourself? What’s your inner dialog, for example when you look in the mirror? Are you kind, or are you pointing out things you don’t like? Are you critical of certain parts of your body? “My thighs are too big. My chest is too small. My love handles – ugh!” Or when you get dressed in the morning, what do you believe about your presentation? “Ugh, I hate my outfit! I’m a hot mess. I need to lose some weight!” When you make  a mistake, what do you say to yourself? “Oh, I’ll do better next time”, or “Ugh, I’m so stupid!”

Sometimes (many times) we are our worst and harshest critics. There’s nothing wrong with striving for greatness, but are we using pain, punishment and shame as forms of motivation?

And the last one here I am talking about is comparison. Now, I am just briefly addressing some of the components that I feel are involved in insecurity, which again, are inadequacy, anxiety, criticism and comparison. And again, this is just to give a little bit of a foundation of today’s conversation.

Okay, so comparison – there’s an article called “The Comparison Trap” by Rebecca Webber, and this is in a recent Psychology Today article… It has two women on the cover and they’re on ladders and they’re looking at each other, and one woman is slightly above the other woman, and it’s basically how a lot of people – and women particularly – do the comparison game. I’m quoting her here… She says:

“Social comparison theory was first put forth in 1954 by psychologist Leon Festinger, who hypothesized that we make comparisons as a way of evaluating ourselves. At its root, the impulse is connected to the instant judgments we make of other people — a key element of the brain’s social-cognition network that can be traced to the evolutionary need to protect oneself and assess threats.”

To the listener that posed this question, I don’t know if you feel that you are comparing yourself to other women at the beach or women on TV, but if you are, I just wanna point out that this is part of the human response. Again, if you’re really attached to your boyfriend and he sounds amazing and wonderful, he’s an asset to you, he’s something that means a lot to you… So if it feels threatening, your desire is to wanna protect.

Now that I briefly talked about four components that I believe are often at play with insecurity, which again, are inadequacy, anxiety, criticism and comparison, where I’d like to spend most of my time in answering this question is on the area of what will not work, and what will work. But before we get into the nitty-gritty of what will not work and what will work, and addressing insecurity in relationship to this listener’s question, I just really wanna take a moment to validate the immense difficulty of what we’re up against in the way of media, and what is often displayed in regards to physicality and sexuality.

Now, I believe that women have had a journey with this, but I believe men are also having their own experience in relationship to these things as well – the pressure of feeling attractive, being sexualized, being objectified… And let me just back up from this for a moment – I feel like I could probably do a whole series on this in and of itself, but I wanna just hold the position, I just wanna be really transparent that my goal in this conversation is to honor the individual, and that as I view individuality and the personhood, I believe every person is sexual; sexuality is part of their health and their vitality and their well-being, and that we each personally have choice around how we express that and who we choose to interact with. The way we dress, and the way we present ourselves is a reflection of many things, but how we wanna be perceived.

Now, I do know that we don’t live in a vacuum, and that there are a lot of influences – culturally, media, history – and this is a complex topic. And I do know that a lot of the advertisement or even shows, and even porn, there’s a design to it; it’s designed to be compelling, it’s designed to be attractive, it’s designed to be even addictive at times, or to sell. They’re playing off of some very natural parts of our being, and they’re concentrating it to bring appeal, to buy, to engage, to purchase… So just to have the mindfulness around that.

Years and years ago in undergrad I took a few women’s studies classes, and one of the professors showed us part of the Killing Us Softly movie. This was essentially taking advertisements of women and looking at what was being presented that we’re often not consciously aware of, and really looking at the cumulative effect. If you take one ad in and of itself, it’s actually not that damaging or doesn’t necessarily have a huge impact, but if we look at how much we are exposed to if you add television, magazines, billboards, all of these things, and the type of imagery that we’re being exposed to… And she’s looking at the messaging, the impact, and really trying to build the consciousness and awareness. It’s pretty illuminating and a little infuriating, but I think men are also experiencing this as well.

Psychologically, one of the tragedies of this messaging is that we can feel reduced. If you imagine a beautiful woman who’s incredibly attractive, she may actually be extremely insecure, feeling the pressure of having to uphold a certain level of look, or even the awareness that there’s so much stock and value in her attractiveness, and that that actually isn’t gonna be sustaining her for her life, that she will age or she will perceived differently at some point… Or that that’s all of who she is, that she’s not recognized for her strength or her intelligence, or that she’s objectified…

And again, I think men are also feeling this as well, but it’s complicated. I think plastic surgery is such a thing that people feel as though their lovability, their worth relies on their physical appearance. My interest lies more in how do we become self-defined? How do we really acknowledge our own worth, our own well-being? And yes, there is being in relationship with others in meaningful ways, but how do we maybe not buy in unconsciously to this insecurity, this anxiety that we won’t be successful, we won’t get married, we won’t have love, we won’t have happiness unless we fit the mold, right? That that becomes a victim stance, that we are defined by something outside of ourselves, versus feeling empowered by our own measure of worthiness, of goodness, and that yes, we are in relationship with media in the way of TV, billboards, magazines, and also culture, like how people are dressing and what is in and stylish.

I do not believe nudity, sexuality or any of this exposure is gonna go away, and so I am much more interested in how to feel empowered, self-defined by our own measures of worth, and being able to take care of ourselves, set limits, set boundaries, know what we wanna engage in and what we don’t wanna engage in, and really navigate relationship to this exposure in a healthy way. We can’t not be in relationship most likely, unless you wanna live in a cave somewhere remote… But likely, that’s not true.

I get that this is complicated and there’s so many aspects to this. I have clients that describe the football season as a point of tension. He likes to watch football, and the cheerleaders come on, and she’s a bit of a feminist and she mutters and comments and has negative things to say, and he talks about some level of shame. She can appreciate beauty in these cheerleading women, and yet he feels this sense of like “It’s not okay.” We’ve explored and worked with that, and it’s just incredibly painful on so many levels.

I don’t wanna reduce this to simple terms, but I do wanna invite engagement with these issues. Again, I don’t think they’re going away, so how to be more empowered, informed and skillful… Because the added complexity to all of this is that in relationship we have to do our inner development to get to that place of empowerment where our boundaries are, and our comfort zone is, what our preferences are… Then we have someone else that has their whole set of preferences and desires, and when those are at odds and there’s a difference, that can feel like conflict. That’s a lot of what I’ve talked about on the Empowered Relationship podcast, is how to do that well. And also, in my Connected Couple program I’m giving you the system and the building blocks and the experientials around how to navigate those conflictual different interactions well.

Let’s turn our attention to what will not work when feeling insecure in relationship, in regards to this specific listener’s question, or just anybody in general, the attempt to control… The attempt to control his environment – the TV shows he watches, where you guys choose to spend your weekend activities… If you’re expanding a tremendous amount of energy controlling to try to feel safe, I can guarantee you for the long haul that is not gonna work.

It creates a negative cycle, because you will not actually build trust in him. If you feel some sense of relief that you didn’t feel the discomfort, you can only give credit to yourself because you managed the situation well… Rather than building trust in him and the relationship.

Also, avoiding tends to create more anxiety and phobia, because we don’t actually develop our own ability to deal — we don’t feel confident in our ability to deal with a lot of women in skimpy bikinis on the beach with our partner. Avoiding just creates more anxiety around “Oh, that situation is uncomfortable, it’s threatening and it’s scary” and if we just avoid it as the means of relieving some of that discomfort. We don’t actually work with it and develop it.

And honestly, the avoidance does tend to create a phobia. If we continue to avoid a certain thing, we build it up, and we can really limit our life by not exposing ourselves to those things at all. One of the things of treating phobias is exposure.

Sometimes people will even use their disapproval, or even getting mad as a form of control. If a guy is looking at an attractive woman and the girlfriend gets mad at him, he learns “She’s not gonna be happy with me. I can’t do that…”, it’s a tactic of trying to control. Now, that being said, part of what I wanna say here is if he is disrespectful towards women or he does have a wandering eye, or he’s not fully faithful, if you let off some of your control, you’ll actually see some of that evidence more quickly, and you will know. This lends to the trust factor, because you’re trying to control the situation is getting in the way of gathering the authentic information. So you wanna give him an opportunity to show up, hopefully so that you can really trust him, and also gather information if there’s something there to work with, or if he’s in fact not trustworthy.

Comparing yourself to every woman on TV or out in public. As I mentioned earlier, the social comparison is something that is part of human nature, and that if we begin to put so much investment in comparing ourselves to others and how we’re measuring our worthiness on a couple of aspects – sexiness, attractiveness – that can be extremely damaging to our sense of worth and value. It’s one of the number one ways to feel crappy about oneself, is to compare ourselves to people that we see as potentially more successful, more attractive, more sexy. We’re not comparing ourselves to people that we might feel somewhat ranking higher than them; that would be an ego boost for some people. And this is just a dangerous game to play no matter what, because again, our power is outside of ourselves; it’s a disempowering game, it can never feel peaceful and relaxed. This is the anxiety of “I’ve always gotta be competing.”

Another strategy that tends to not work is making your partner responsible. When we feel threatened, it’s easy to judge what they’re doing as wrong or bad. An example of this is where one person in the relationship values alone time, autonomy, independence within the relationship, and I have several couples that struggle with this tension. Sometimes it’s the husband who wants some downtime, some personal space, and other times it’s the wife. I’ll use the wife in this instance.

The wife is pulling away, and she’s wanting to focus on some of the things she’s interested in, and the husband feels insecure. He feels threatened and he wonders if she cares. He wonders if his needs matter, if he’s a priority, and he starts to accuse her of what she’s doing is bad. And when he approaches her with this protest and criticism and blame, her response is to defend, and that what she’s doing is valid, healthy and fair. So the strategy is ineffective, because he’s not actually saying to her “I’m scared that I don’t matter; I’m scared that I’m not important, and I would love to spend some time with you, I would love to feel like a priority in your life.” That, she could hear.

When we just make our partner responsible for our needs or our insecurity, most likely they’re gonna push back, seeking continual reassurance. It is natural to seek reassurance from our partner when we feel self-doubt, yet if it’s our only method towards feeling more secure, we can easily feel dependent on our partner’s approval of our worth, and it’s likely that they will not want that responsibility and burden. And it’s a burden because it requires them to only give you positive feedback, which is not realistic or authentic. If we look at a long-term relationship, there are gonna be times where they might be frustrated or annoyed or challenged by you, and we want them to feel that authentic expression so that they can be who they are, that they don’t only have to validate you. Seeking continual reassurance from your partner as the only method of feeling more confident and more self-worth is not effective; it’s not sustainable and it will not work long-term.

I have two more points around what will not work in trying to feel more secure in relationship, and that is getting carried away with negative thoughts, worries and fears. For this particular listener, I would invite you to think about what your worry is. You’re feeling some level of discomfort. You’ve noticed feeling uncomfortable in these situations, so I would invite you to explore that a little bit more. What is your fear? And then to stay with it, almost asking “Well, then what? If that were to happen, then what?” and keep emptying that cup.

It might be “I’m afraid that he will fantasize about another woman…”, and then what? “He will wanna hook up with another woman…”, then what? “He will have an affair, and then he will leave me, or he’ll get sick of me at some point if he’s fantasizing about someone else”, and then what? I don’t know exactly what the fear or worry would be, but that’s an example.

The majority of relationship insecurities are based on irrational thoughts and fears and worries. It reminds me of being a young kid, and I grew up in a small suburb outside of Portland called Lake Oswego. It’s still really safe and family-oriented and a beautiful community, and at that time many years ago it was even safer. I think the parenting norms were really different at the time.

I remember I would walk home from a friend’s house and it would be dark. I had probably eight or nine blocks to walk. I would be walking, and then I might see a shadow and I would start feeling tense and feeling a little like my breath would get shallow. Then maybe I would walk a little further and I’d hear a twig break, and some  rustling in a bush and I would start imagining that there was like a monster or something scary, and I would start freaking out. I’d feel my adrenaline rush and I’d be jumpy and just totally spooked, and at some point I would just peel and run all the way home.

Most of that was my imagination. Most likely it was a cat in the bush, or something… And this is classic – we tend to anticipate and worry, and our fear is much greater than the actual circumstance, the actual event. As I mentioned a moment ago, when we are working with phobias, part of it is exposing ourselves. Because what we imagine is typically way scarier than what’s real.

The last point I wanna make under what will not work in addressing insecurity in relationship is letting anxious feelings rule. When we feel threatened, it’s easy to wanna react to all of the alarms going off. However, when it comes to relationship very little good comes from this reaction from the threatening place. Reacting from anger, panic, fear, anxiety – it can feel like we are out of our minds, which in some respect is true. We’re not in the most highest part of our brain, we’re not operating at the fullest capacity; we’re not in a right place often, and it’s very hard to think rationally when we feel panicked.

I hear so many people say “I don’t know what I was thinking… It’s so not like me” or “I do trust you”, yet when we’re in the heat of the moment, anxious and threatened, panicking, it’s easy to wanna look through somebody’s phone, check their web history, look at their receipts, or do some detective work of some type and really break trust around privacy.

Again, I wanna reiterate that these emotional experiences are real and important, and I think my biggest invitation is to turn inward rather than to turn outward and try to control and act out of fear and blame. These strategies typically do not work and they do not bring connection. It’s more of like “I’m trying to keep safe and I don’t care at what cost.” It’s minimizing the connection in the relationship.

Next I’m gonna be talking about what will work when feeling insecure in relationship. I’m excited about all the things I have to offer you, and I’m gonna be sharing all of that with you in the next episode.

I would love to hear your input, your feedback and your questions. Feel free to comment on the show notes page. Again, that can be found on my website, which is DrJessicaHiggins.com, and click Podcast. Today’s episode, again, is 126, and scroll down to the bottom and you can find the Comments section there.

Until next time, I hope you take great care!

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