Sources of Insecurities

When I was in LA last week, I had breakfast with Nick Grouf. We’ve been friends for 20 years and, while we don’t see each other often, it’s the kind of friendship that immediately lets you talk about deep, interesting things with almost zero foreplay.

At a small Coffee Bean coffee shop in Hollywood, with a music track from our childhood playing over and over again (I’ll spare you the track so it doesn’t get stuck in your head also), we ended up in a discussion about sources of insecurities.

Nick made the assertion that unless you fundamentally don’t feel safe on this planet (e.g. you experienced death of a child or were raped as a kid), there are two primary sources of insecurities.

Either:

  1. You don’t feel lovable or
  2. You feel like a fraud

We then went through a list of people we knew and tried to come up with another primary source of insecurity. Nick was clear that his source of insecurity is that he doesn’t feel lovable. We quickly were able to label a few of our good friends this way. The second – you feel like a fraud – is widely understood and expressed through the startup community as imposter syndrome. We bounced around this for a little while and then went on to the next topic.

But, this stuck with me. While I’ve never struggled with either of these, like all other humans I know, I definitely have some insecurities.

As I pondered this, I came up with the notion that my insecurities are driven by my feeling of being overly responsible for things, especially those I am not responsible for, and cannot impact in any way. This was one of the sources of my first major depression in my 20s and over the years has resulted in multiple situations where I’m completely worn myself out trying to “fix things” that were broken.

At 50, I’ve mostly let go of this. I rarely find myself in a situation where I feel like I’m being overly responsible for something I shouldn’t be, or cannot impact. I also rarely feel insecure anymore, although I attribute that more to me working on the issue, rather than just aging out of the emotion.

There’s a cliche in business that you should always try to surround yourself with people who are smarter and more capable than you are. I’ve never felt like it was a very nuanced cliche, as different people have very different strengths and weaknesses and the “more capable” person is going to be very context specific.

As we were talking about sources of insecurities and this cliche came up, Nick made a different suggestion which I hope is either a cliche or will become one. It’s that when you are in a foxhole in battle, you want the person with the strongest arm to throw out the grenade.

Ponder whether one of these sources of insecurities apply to you. I’d love to hear if you think there are other fundamental sources of insecurities. And, when you are next sitting with your team (regardless of your role), observe whether the person with the strongest arm is throwing the grenade out of the foxhole.

  • Maybe what I’ll share here is a different layer/level, but I think most bad behavior we see in business is the result of more basic, immediate insecurities — financial (do I have enough to provide for my family?); career (will I be promoted or make partner); reputational (will people think i’m smart or successful?), and so on. I agree with you we all have insecurities, and your post goes to a deeper level, but I think what most people see as a “root” are more basic.

  • What if we looked at Maslow and looked for deeper ones. His building blocks are:

    1. Biological and Physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep.

    2. Safety needs – protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear.

    I can see how your first point, feeling unlovable can tie back into all of these. But feeling like a fraud is different.

    Fear is an incredibly complex and powerful emotion. It is core to being human, and hard wired into our fight or flight physical/psychological survival instincts. We see it manifested in so many different ways. I might change the second one to “You Feel Fearful”.

    • “Your Feel Fearful” is a good generalization of imposter syndrome, where you feel like a fraud and are “afraid of being found out for what you really are, or at least think you are.”

  • Drew V

    I recently heard a quote while listening to a podcast on the subject of always having to be right. It went something like “related to wanting to be right all the time is anger, and anger is kind of a costume for fear.”
    I’ve been mulling this over ever since I’ve heard it (about a week ago) because I have found myself in situations where I become a little too passionate about proving that I am “right.” If I had to choose of whether this relates to fraud or being loved, I’d probably side with fraud. But then again, maybe it’s something different.

    • Wow – I love the line “anger is kind of a costume for fear”

      • or shame or…?
        It’s such a great point – reminds us that anger is a secondary emotion – comes from and can cover up many emotions

    • DaveJ

      I heard a similar line a while ago that “anger is fear announced.”

  • Being super reductionist, I think it all comes down to love. Even the imposter case is one where you feel un-deserving of the “love.”

    I’m reading this book by Scott Peck titled “The Road Less Traveled” that is packed with insights around this. Insecurities arise because a child literally feels like his/her parents might leave him/her behind. And, it often arises from statements like “Do this or I won’t love you/I will leave you here” (explicit and implicit).

    So, I think it comes down to not feeling loved either way.

    Such a great post. So glad you’re writing about this, Brad.

    • I read Peck / The Road Less Traveled when I was just out of college. It was profoundly impactful on me. Super amazing book.

    • I think it comes down to loving others, not having those love you. You don’t feel you are undeserving of the love, you feel that you aren’t giving others the love that they deserve.

      Think about this. You find out somebody that worked with you started something similar and went on and had huge success. A part of that was some luck, just getting the right breaks.

      Do you in your heart of hearts have nothing but happiness and love??? Or is there a part deep down that thinks: that should have been me.

      Hey it’s a lot easier after you’ve had success, on a professional basis.

      • I guess, either way, it all comes down to love..

        (Long time no talk, Phil!)

  • You got the big two, but here are a few more.

    the past: where you went to college, your last job

    the future: what are your plans the next five years

    the present: where you live where you work

    Physical strength

    Intellect

    Marital status

    Age

  • I strongly resonated with the insecurity related to feeling overly responsible for things (and people). While I know this is not always productive it is hard to shake – mindfulness study and practice has helped. I also didn’t like when it was pointed out to me (and I eventually was convinced) that there is a fair amount of ego tied up in this sense of responsibility e.g. double checking experts etc.

  • Also, in thinking about Nick’s point I have known people who do not feel “fundamentally safe on the planet” from things that don’t seem as severe as death of child or rape but dramatically affected that person’s sense of security so this could be more the case than one might think.

  • Michael Coetzee

    The assessment of the two primary sources you mentioned were spot on for me, but as I thought about it it seems more like they are one and the same. Rohan already articulated this, but I agree that all of it comes down to love. One doesn’t feel lovable (or as loveable as they desire to be) and so develops a more lovable persona to present to the world. Living in the fear of being “found out” derives from the insecurity that “if people knew the real me, they might be disappointed.”

    I have to say the comment about anger being a kind of costume for fear caught me off guard, because I’m not entirely sure how to reconcile it with my own previous understanding of anger—that being the emotional recognition that a boundary has been violated (whether real or perceived, whether mine or an other’s). I always thought of both anger and fear to be symptomatic of different things altogether. I need to mull this one over for a bit.

    • Pierre Powell

      Michael. I think your two anger definitions are two sides of the same coin.

      If we are coming from a place of insecurity, it is probably fear driven. When we are in fear we want to find safety, and we do that by trying to control circumstances. An emotional response to being out of (our) control can be anger.

      Another response to insecurities is to let go. When we are fearful, we want to control an outcome. When we let go, we become open to the infinite other possibilities that may show up, which I believe is the essence of creativity and innovation. Fear – Control – Anger vs Love – Possibility – Joy.

      Probably didn’t articulate that well…

      • Michael Coetzee

        Pierre. I thought you articulated your point well 🙂

    • Sometimes, anger, is just the response someone has, because they never learned that other types of emotional responses.

      Also, if you combine that with being depressed, anger could just be the predominant reaction to everything that is frustrating or wrong or just because, weather someone crossed a line or not.

      Hard to explain exactly, but sometimes I just feel angry. That anger seeps into being a general reaction to everything, the primary reaction. Initially, it really affected my interaction with others, but as I became more aware of it, I’ve learned to deal with it. Still working to control it, but, at least, the first response is to realize that I’m feeling angry and then ask myself if that is the right response or not, given the situation.

  • “At 50, I’ve mostly let go of this. I rarely find myself in a situation where I feel like I’m being overly responsible for something I shouldn’t be, or cannot impact.”

    If you don’t figure this out as a parent you and your kid(s) are headed for a world of hurt.

    • Indeed. But – I don’t have kids – so I had to learn this without the kid stimuli …

      • Kids are best understood as amplifiers. Any life has ups and downs. With kids your highs are higher and your lows are lower. There is no joy like that of seeing your kid succeed and no pain like watching them fail. This acts as an accelerant to learning 🙂

        • Kids were probably invented because most of us could not achieve great things on our own

  • BD

    Hi, Brad. As a twenty-something, I too struggle with feeling overly responsible for things out of my control. Especially while trying to finish up school and launch into a career, I’d argue that this feeling stems from #2 — or at least it does for me. I often feel as though my “failure” to fix things for which I am “responsible” makes me a fraud. If I’m not doing what I think I’m supposed to be doing, it feels like I’m faking it, lying to people…and I’m a still only in school! Interested to hear what you think.

    • Totally logical. Sit with the feelings – don’t try to avoid them. And dig in deeper to what they really mean and what’s driving them.

  • From what I’ve seen the biggest source of insecurity is thinking life is a zero sum game.

    For entrepreneurs this feeling is less.

    For instance what do I care if you once worked for me and went on to greatly outdistance me in success?? (or flip that but you know what I mean)

    Many people really believe well if I let this other person shine, they are going to go around me.

    • This resonates a lot with me. Also, to your point, I think the opposite of zero sum game (all sums game? =) is a sign of a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem. When a company does really good work, and is successful, it pushes other people on to even more success (a la the wave of founders in Boulder/Denver who used to be early employees, and the successful founders who are now investing).

  • panterosa,

    It relates to @@philipsugar:disqus’s comment, but many people feel they don’t matter. Perhaps the opposite of being a fraud, just insignificant. Love can help connect people, and give them purpose, but it doesn’t automatically make them be significant. I have seen how damaging this is in some talented friends, and I’m not sure how it gets resolved.

  • josh

    Interesting. I think this classification system would be most effective when paired with bright multicolored shirts and long hair.