Skip to Main Content

The Tender Heart

Conquering Your Insecurity

About The Book

Insight, explanations, and practical solutions for overcoming insecurity and sensitivity -- from a top psychologist
In simple language, Joseph Nowinski explains that insecurity is not a flaw or shortcoming, but rather a personality trait that reflects both temperament and life experiences. And, most important, he shows how insecurity can be conquered so that one can thrive -- especially in work and love.
The first book to investigate insecurity, The Tender Heart sheds light on its common causes and provides guidelines for overcoming the self-doubt, debilitating self-consciousness, and chronic lack of confidence that prevent many people from enjoying life to its fullest. Combining personality quizzes and case histories of people who have conquered their insecurities, The Tender Heart offers expert advice on:

  • Healing insecurity
  • Avoiding emotional predators who seek out sensitive people
  • Coping with a tough-hearted partner or colleague
  • Finding your emotional mate
  • Raising children who are self-confident

The Tender Heart is for anyone who has experienced times when their own insecurity or the insecurity of others has interfered with valued relationships or prevented them from realizing their potential.


Chapter 1: Insecurity

Perhaps you know someone who reacted severely -- to the point where it struck you as irrational or pathological -- to the loss of a relationship. Perhaps you know someone who gets deeply depressed or feels unnecessarily betrayed in response to the slightest criticism. Maybe you yourself tend to react this way. Then again, maybe you are one of those people whose heart gets broken more often than seems fair, or who is drawn to exactly the wrong kind of person -- one who is insensitive and inevitably hurts you.

The intense reactions associated with a dysfunctional response to loss, rejection, or criticism are the result of insecurity. Insecurity may mean different things to different people. In general, though, whenever I ask people for their impressions, they typically associate insecurity with someone who is constantly second-guessing himself, whose feelings are easily hurt, and who seeks continual reassurance. These commonsense definitions accurately capture the essence of insecurity.

In this book the word insecurity has a particular meaning, and a particular cause. Insecurity refers to a profound sense of self-doubt -- a deep feeling of uncertainty about our basic worth and our place in the world. Insecurity is associated with chronic self-consciousness, along with a chronic lack of confidence in ourselves and anxiety about our relationships. The insecure man or woman lives in constant fear of rejection and a deep uncertainty about whether his or her own feelings and desires are legitimate. In men as well as women, insecurity comes from a combination of a sensitive disposition and experiences of loss, abuse, rejection, or neglect. However, while insecurity has the same causes in men and women, outwardly men and women usually express insecurity in different ways.

The insecure person also harbors unrealistic expectations about love and relationships. These expectations, for themselves and for others, are often unconscious. The insecure person creates a situation in which being disappointed and hurt in relationships is almost inevitable. Ironically, although insecure people are easily and frequently hurt, they are usually unaware of how they are unwitting accomplices in creating their own misery.

Although the two can be related, insecurity is not the same as sensitivity. It's entirely possible, in other words, to be sensitive but not insecure. In fact, one goal of this book is to give parents guidance in how to foster sensitivity in their children without creating insecurity. Another goal is to help insecure people shed their insecurity without sacrificing their sensitivity. We'll be looking much closer at what kinds of experiences tend to make an interpersonally sensitive person vulnerable to becoming insecure, what kind of experiences can make insecurity worse, and what kinds of experiences can help to heal it.


This is a question that most people would like an answer to. Since most of us can relate to the idea of being insecure sometimes, the bigger issue is just how much insecurity is an issue in our lives. You can begin to find the answer by assessing your own level of insecurity (or that of someone you love) as it is right now. To do this, complete the following questionnaire by checking off all statements that describe you (or your loved one).

Insecurity Inventory

___I often worry about my relationship.

___I do not like being in the spotlight socially.

___I often feel that others don't take me seriously.

___I am an exceptionally jealous person.

___I'm forever thinking that others are smarter, more attractive, or more interesting than me.

___I worry that my partner is going to leave me for someone else.

___I would describe myself as very self-conscious.

___I've been told that I'm thin-skinned, overly sensitive.

___I often seek other people's approval, even if I don't particularly respect them.

___I've been told by friends and partners that I expect too much from myself and others.

___If someone hurts my feelings I have a hard time letting go of it and tend to dwell on it for a long time.

___I am very hard on myself when I make a mistake.

___I often ask my partner for reassurance that she/he still loves me.

___I get either angry or depressed if someone I care about disappoints me.

___I cry easily.

___I am very sensitive to criticism.

___I worry about how I look.

___I have a hard time trusting my partner not to cheat on me.

___I have a strong desire to make amends whenever I do or say something that seems to hurt someone else.

___I'm more inclined to think too little than too much of myself.

___Sometimes I feel anxious for no apparent reason.

___I worry about being disapproved of.

___I've been told that I'm very defensive if I'm criticized even slightly.

___I have often felt let down by people, even the ones who love me.

___I secretly feel that I'm not smart enough or attractive enough.

___I sometimes worry that even my best friends don't really like me.

___Most of the time I would sooner give in than fight for what I want.

___My feelings are easily hurt.

___If I do something that gets my partner angry I have a hard time getting it out of my mind.

___I often don't have confidence in decisions I make.

___It really bothers me when I think someone doesn't like me.

___If someone hurts my feelings I am more likely to give them the cold shoulder than to confront them.

___I often make up excuses rather just telling the truth.

___I worry more than most people about what other people think of me.

___I will do almost anything to avoid conflicts with others.

The more items you checked off, the more likely it is that the person you are rating -- either yourself or someone you love -- is insecure.

It's important to understand that insecurity is not something that a person either has or doesn't have, period. Just as people's reactions to loss (or abuse or rejection) can vary, people can differ a great deal in how insecure they are. There is no sharp boundary line separating those of us who are secure from those who are insecure. Few if any of us could say that we have never experienced any symptoms of insecurity. Most of us have some degree of sensitivity, and most of us have experienced at least some significant losses or separations, abuse, or rejection in our lives. On the other hand, not all of us have reacted to these experiences by becoming intensely insecure. The issue, then, is not whether any of us has any insecurity, but rather how severe and debilitating our insecurity is.

Human beings seem programmed to form attachments -- to people, places, even things. The more sensitive we are by nature, the more this is true. One route to insecurity is through experiencing broken attachments. In general, the more significant the attachment is and the younger we are when it happens, the more a broken attachment affects us. This is all the more true for those who are sensitive by nature. Attachments can be broken by physical separation, as when a parent dies or our parents divorce. They can also be broken through abuse or neglect. It's important to keep in mind that children experience emotional coldness, physical abuse, and chronic criticism as loss, just as surely as they experience physical separation that way.

When they think about broken attachments, most people think about very young children who are either separated from their parents or abused. These kinds of experiences do place young children at risk for becoming insecure. It's also true that broken attachments throughout childhood and adolescence have the potential to create insecurity. In contrast, while losses can affect us as adults, they typically don't create insecurity in a person who is not already insecure. The most vulnerable period for the development of insecurity, then, is childhood.

Few of us could say we have never suffered the loss of an attachment, or experienced at least some of the symptoms of insecurity. Who has not experienced at least a little hesitancy or distrust following the breakup of an important relationship? And how many people can honestly say that they've never had their hearts broken? The exceptions -- people who cannot relate to such experiences -- turn out to be people whom we need to watch out for, and avoid getting into relationships with, if possible.

If insecurity is to some extent unavoidable, then the key question becomes this: at what point does insecurity become dysfunctional? I believe that when insecurity is so intense and lasting that it seriously undermines our self-esteem and interferes with our ability to enjoy life, to build and keep satisfying relationships, and to achieve our career potential, it is dysfunctional. At that point the insecure person has a distorted self-image and lacks a sense of their place and value in the world. At that point insecurity leads us to harbor totally unrealistic expectations for relationships, or else leads us to choose partners who use or abuse us. At that point insecurity definitely is dysfunctional, and at that point it is worth doing something about. In fact, if that kind of insecurity is not identified and addressed, sooner or later it can and will cause us great pain, sabotage our potential for success, and very likely destroy our relationships.

This leads us to a second question: how can insecurity be overcome? First, we must be able to recognize insecurity for what it is and to see how it has affected us. It helps a great deal in overcoming insecurity to understand how it has roots both in our disposition and in our experiences.

Insecurity operates in strange and varied ways. It can sometimes lurk beneath the surface for a long time, even in a seemingly healthy individual, until some experience comes along to set it off, often with disastrous results.

Peter and Helen, both forty-eight, made an appointment to see me because, as Peter explained over the phone, he was feeling angry. Though his tone of voice was mild, Peter's words were not. "It's intense," he explained, referring to his anger. "I just can't get past it. I've been feeling this way for nearly a year, and it's at the point where we -- or I should say I -- am seriously considering separating."

The urgency I sensed in Peter's voice made me decide to meet with him and Helen two days later. Then, when I met with them, I found myself wondering why I'd sensed that urgency. From the moment they sat down I was impressed with the respect and consideration they showed each other. I had expected tension and stress, but all I saw was a couple whose gentleness was the most striking feature of their relationship. Even when Peter brought up the subject of his anger and spoke of separation, his regard for Helen was plain.

I wasn't sure what to make of what I was seeing. Caught off guard, I just sat back, invited them to talk, and listened.

I listened for half an hour as Helen and Peter described the history of a twenty-six-year marriage and a family life that most would consider not just satisfactory but downright enviable. Both professionals and both attractive and fit, they told the story of a marriage in which they had managed to support each other's careers at the same time that they'd raised two children, both of whom were now college educated and gainfully employed. They described their family as close, and it was apparent from the way they spoke, and from the expressions on their faces, that Peter and Helen shared a deep sense of pride in their children. When I asked them how many of their twenty-six years together had been happy ones, they immediately agreed on the answer: "All but one," said Peter. "The last one."

Why would this couple, whose relationship seemed so blessed for so long and who regarded each other with such obvious respect, rather suddenly be contemplating separating? What was I missing? There had to be something hidden. Had one of them suddenly committed some unforgivable offense that hadn't yet been mentioned?

Regardless of what I didn't know, one thing was pretty clear to me: this was a marriage between two interpersonally sensitive, or tenderhearted, people. What I didn't know then, though, was that one of them was not just sensitive but also very insecure. From our first session on it was evident that Peter, despite the resentments he expressed, remained sensitive to Helen and cared for her. And despite her anguish at the prospect of separation, Helen clearly cared a great deal for Peter and was able to identify with his feelings. Insensitive people don't relate to others in this way. They don't put themselves in someone else's shoes and know what the other person is feeling or wanting. If anything, they are focused on their own needs and desires. Unlike Peter, when an insensitive man is angry he doesn't particularly care about how that anger impacts another person. In certain extreme cases he can find conflict not uncomfortable but actually exciting. This description, though, fit neither Helen nor Peter.

I asked Peter and Helen to explain to me what had brought about the sudden downturn in their relationship, and braced myself to hear some secret not yet revealed. I shared with them my perception that they treated each other with affection and respect. They both smiled, which only added to my sense that the idea of this couple separating was bizarre indeed.

Peter looked over at Helen, who nodded her approval. Then he spoke in words carefully chosen. "Well," he said, "the problem is that for about the last year or so Helen has been, in my opinion at least, extremely angry, and also extremely critical of me. She was never that way before. On the contrary, she's always been an incredibly supportive and nurturing person. But to tell you the truth, the past year has been hell. It's like she's become a different person."

For the first time, Peter's voice began to show a trace of anger; but just a trace. "I know it may not seem that way from the outside," he said, seeming to know very well how he came across, "but the truth is that on the inside I'm incredibly angry at Helen. I'm so angry that I believe my feelings for her have changed. I just feel that I don't want to be her husband anymore."

I looked over at Helen. There were tears in her eyes. Our eyes met. I waited for her to talk. "It's true," she said, an embarrassed smile on her face. "Peter's right. I have been very different for the past year or so. I've been critical and impatient a lot of the time. And I've lost my temper on any number of occasions, for no good reason. I seem to have become a very intolerant person. There are times when I'm so frustrated that I feel like I'm going to explode. I can't understand why. And Peter's right, too, that I've directed a lot of this at him. I've said things I regret, but the damage, I suppose, is done. And one thing that Peter is not saying is that I've also lost all my interest in sex. Lost it totally. We always had a very good sex life -- at least I thought so -- but that's gone now, too."

"What have you been critical about?" I asked Helen.

She sighed. "Oh, just about everything," she said. "You name it. I seem to have suddenly become unhappy with the very qualities that attracted me to Peter -- things like his soft-spoken manner, his neatness, his punctuality. I've no idea why, but this past year I seem to have found virtually everything about Peter intolerable at one time or another."

Peter nodded in response to what Helen said. In a gesture of support he reached out and touched her arm. This was too much for me. "It's painfully obvious to me," I said, "that you two still have a great deal of affection and regard for each other. Frankly, you seem to me to be in love with each other. I'm puzzled as to why you'd want to separate."

Peter breathed a sigh. "I do have a lot of regard for Helen," he said. "But I also feel betrayed by her. I don't trust her anymore. I still like her, but I'm not sure she likes or respects me. And there's definitely a part of me that's angry, that wants to hurt her, and that wants to leave."

Helen spoke next. "I can definitely feel Peter's anger and resentment," she said. "Even though he might not seem that way to you, I know he's angry. And I know he feels betrayed by me. I believe him when he says that he feels that he has to separate from me."

As I started to overcome my own incredulity at what I was witnessing, I decided that the only thing to do was to take what Helen and Peter were saying at face value, as puzzling as it was, and to try to understand why it was that Peter felt compelled to take such strong action as to separate from Helen over the sorts of things she'd admitted saying and doing. After all, at least from where I sat, she was still a committed, concerned, and supportive spouse.

It had already occurred to me that the behaviors that Helen was describing -- irritability, loss of interest in sex, mood swings -- were all symptoms of clinical depression, and I offered this as a hypothesis. As educated as they were, it seemed that this possibility had not occurred to either of them. Helen had wondered if she was going through menopause. Peter, meanwhile, had wondered if his wife simply had grown tired of marriage or lost her attraction to him. What to me was an alternative but obvious explanation -- that Helen had fallen victim to a midlife depression -- was a totally novel idea to them.

I decided to refer Helen to a colleague for evaluation of her depression and to see Peter individually a few times. I suggested that we all get together after that, in about a month. I did not attempt to talk them out of separating, although I did suggest that waiting one month did not seem unreasonable. Something in his expression told me Peter would not take my advice.

When Peter met with me the next week, I learned that he indeed had not taken my advice. On the contrary, he and Helen had done some apartment shopping together over the weekend. They'd found an inexpensive studio apartment located over an old carriage house. It was clean and bright, and (most important) available immediately, and Peter rented it on the spot. Helen helped him sort through their vast collection of pots and pans, old furniture, and linens, and together they'd come up with more than enough essentials to furnish the place. Then Helen helped Peter move in!

I shook my head and told Peter that this was the most amiable separation I'd ever heard of. Then I asked him how Helen was doing. He acknowledged that she was upset. But she was also trying hard, he said, to respect his decision. I asked whether they'd argued at all over what he could take from the house. He smiled and said they'd had a few words over a favorite old coffeepot, but he'd quickly relented and left it at the house. Anything else? I asked. Peter nodded. There had also been some tension, he said, over the issue of whether he should have free access to the house after he'd left. It hadn't crossed his mind that this might be an issue, and it surprised him when Helen told him that she did not want him to come over without calling first. It wasn't that she had anything to hide, she said; rather, she simply wanted to avoid having to live in anticipation of whether Peter might show up at any moment.

Then I asked Peter how he was feeling. "Sad," he replied. "But basically I think this was the right thing to do. I mean, I feel I had to do it." I didn't argue. Instead, I turned my attention to trying to find out what it was about Peter's personality and personal history that might account for his actions, which still struck me as extreme. I shared my impression with him, explaining that what he'd done seemed to me to be something of a payback: a settling of a score of some kind. As best I could tell, I said, Peter seemed driven to hurt Helen, perhaps in retaliation for the way he'd been hurt by her. Judging by his actions, I imagined she must have hurt him very badly. But exactly how she had hurt him was not clear to me, I said.

Peter nodded. Helen's actions had hurt him badly, he said, and my idea that he somehow needed to strike back also struck him as on the mark. He confessed that at times the intensity of his urge to hurt Helen seemed out of proportion even to himself. As he described it, the feeling ran deep. "It's also totally out of character for me," he explained, "to walk around feeling this rage just bubbling beneath the surface. I think it's fair to say that most people who know me would say that I'm definitely not the raging or vindictive type."

I explained to Peter that I believed that there are real differences between people in terms of how interpersonally sensitive they are. Some people fall on the tenderhearted end of this dimension, most fall somewhere in the middle, and others still could best be described as tough-hearted. Peter agreed. He also agreed that both he and Helen definitely fell well over on the tenderhearted end of the interpersonal-sensitivity dimension.

As evidence of his own sensitivity, Peter described how his feelings were deeply hurt when Helen first began to become irritable and critical. "It sent me into an absolute depression," he said. "Even the mildest impatience on her part, or the most casual critical comment, would send me into a tailspin. I know you're probably thinking that I'm overly sensitive, but I can't help it. It was like Helen was rejecting the very heart of the person I am. Sometimes her criticism and anger weren't so mild, either."

I asked Peter to give me an example of one of Helen's worst criticisms. It didn't take him long to respond, and he blushed with anger just thinking about it. "She told me more than once to 'toughen up.' Those were her exact words."

"What were they in response to?" I asked.

"She said that when I complained about some other comment she'd made. That was just so out of character for her. I mean, she knows that I pride myself on being a reasonable, rational person. I go out of my way to avoid hurting others' feelings. I don't want to become 'tough.'"

Peter could not recall ever feeling so bad. Up until then -- through virtually all of their courtship and marriage -- Helen had been nothing but a loving, accommodating, and supportive partner. Of course, they'd had their disagreements over the years, he said; but these were surprisingly rare and always seemed to get resolved with an absolute minimum of confrontation, and virtually no hostility.

Though I am no advocate of conflict, I've always believed that there is something healthy about learning to deal with differences, and to manage them without resorting to abuse in one form or another. In some ways Peter's marriage as he described it came across as too good to be true, and I said so. I wondered out loud if he realized how unusual and exceptional his marriage had been all these years, and how it might have been a mixed blessing in that it had pretty much insulated Peter from conflict. Peter appreciated my point. Friends had made similar comments at times, he said, to both him and Helen over the years.

Could it be, I then asked, that Peter had been so blessed in this marriage that he'd developed unrealistic expectations about what long-term relationships were really like? Alternatively, could he have had such expectations all along, but been lucky enough to have found a partner who could actually fulfill them?

Peter thought, then nodded again, but said he didn't know if either of those possibilities was really true. I pushed ahead. Had Peter considered, I asked, that he might be being excessively harsh and judgmental in deciding that what could be nothing more than symptoms of depression in his wife warranted the extreme measure of separation? This time Peter shrugged. Maybe, he said, shifting in his chair, but he still felt that he had to leave.

So, you might ask, was Peter crazy? Not really. Not, at least, in any clinical sense, though some might say he was crazy to consider walking away from a wife like Helen. I could tell, however, from the way he'd reacted to my slightly challenging questions that Peter was a man who did not like to be challenged or criticized. And clearly he also had unrealistic expectations for his relationship with Helen -- expectations that I suspected he hadn't developed since being with Helen but had brought into the relationship twenty-six years earlier.

Peter's unrealistic expectations had revealed themselves as soon as Helen started to show even the slightest impatience or criticism, or to withhold affection. Peter's reaction to these changes was immediate and intense. Until then you could say that he'd been pretty much insulated from his own insecurity, at least in his marriage, by the fact that Helen had always been such a caring, affectionate, and considerate wife. She essentially met his expectations, unrealistic or not. Conflict and criticism had been such a rare event in this marriage that the soft underside of Peter's personality had never been exposed. Knowing that, I also knew there had to be more to Peter's history than I had heard so far.

Having established that Peter and Helen were both sensitive, tenderhearted people, I now began to suspect, based on our discussion, that Peter was not just sensitive but insecure as well. In fact, the more Peter described himself and Helen, the more apparent it became that he had many telltale signs of fairly severe insecurity. For example, despite considerable success, both professionally and financially, he had always suffered from a nagging feeling that he hadn't done well enough -- that his colleagues were brighter, more creative, more recognized than he. He described himself as an exceedingly self-conscious and shy individual, so much so that this had held him back from pursuing several opportunities for advancement, as well as offices in professional organizations. "Most people would say that I've been pretty successful," he confided. "But I've also stayed in place for many years, instead of moving ahead. I've watched some of my colleagues -- especially the more aggressive ones -- go after and get positions in our professional organization, grants, even awards, by pushing for them. I see myself as having done a good job, but not really going after success or recognition the way they do."

Peter knew himself well enough to admit that he was exceedingly sensitive to criticism, and he even acknowledged that this was a big reason why the change in Helen had been so hard on him. He felt he did a better job of hiding his feelings at the workplace, but still, whenever a colleague questioned anything he did, no matter how mildly, he'd ruminate about it for days. But even here Peter had been fortunate; because he was talented, he was rarely subject to very much criticism at all, and so his insecurity had never surfaced in full force, at least not until the past year.

As Peter and I reflected together on the history of his relationship with Helen, he volunteered the observation that he'd always sought approval and praise from her, much more so than she did from him. "She's always seemed comfortable with herself," he said, "while I don't think I've ever felt that way about myself."

Peter, I also learned, suffered from severe self-doubts, not just about his success and his competence but also about his physical attractiveness. He'd always thought he was too short and too thin, and that he had a goofy smile. He'd not had his first date until college, partly because he was too insecure to pursue women. Even after he met Helen, in their junior year, and felt fairly certain that she liked him, he hesitated. It was she who arranged for their first date, inviting him to be her escort at a formal dinner dance she'd been invited to.

As the pieces of the picture began to come together, I felt more and more certain that it was Peter's insecurity that was playing the key role in what was going on now between him and Helen. What was still missing, though, was an understanding of what kind of experiences in his past had so wounded this sensitive man that he became as insecure as he was. The answer turned out to lie in his relationships with his parents.

"We were raised by my father," Peter said. His tone of voice, I noticed, had suddenly become hard, harder even than it had been when we were talking about Helen's criticizing him. That and the suddenly stony expression on his face clearly suggested some intense underlying feelings.

"Who's 'we'"? I asked.

"There was me and my sister," he replied. "She's five years younger than me."

What was bringing up all these emotions? Had his parents divorced? Was his father abusive? Had his mother been ill or otherwise unavailable? I asked Peter to tell me more.

He frowned. "No, she wasn't 'ill,'" he replied sarcastically. "Not unless you call being chronically unfaithful an illness. She would come around once, sometimes twice a week. You'd never know when. She'd stay long enough to cook a meal, maybe do a wash. Then she'd disappear again."

"Where did she go?" I asked.

"Out. With other guys."

"You're saying that she was unfaithful?"

Peter nodded, a wry smile on his face. Then he looked me square in the eyes. "That's one way of saying it. Another way is that she had more boyfriends than you could count."

"Your father suspected this?" I asked.

That smile flashed again. "Suspected? He more than suspected. It was obvious he knew. He just kept quiet, though I could see it ate him up. Eventually he became sick, then developed a heart problem. If he'd taken care of himself, I'm certain he could have lived longer. But he didn't take care of himself, and he died at the age of fifty-five."

"Your parents -- they stayed together despite the infidelity?"

Peter nodded, and again I asked him to tell me more.

Apparently, not long after marrying Peter's father, his mother had decided that she didn't love the man. Yet she didn't leave. On the contrary, she went on to have a second child by him; and as far as Peter knew, although his parents didn't live together for some fifteen years before his father died, they had never divorced or even legally separated.

For as long as he could remember, Peter's mother had actively and fairly openly pursued other relationships. To make matters worse, she occasionally took Peter along when she would visit her latest friend. "I really hated that," Peter said.

Peter also described his mother as fickle. "It's like the old rhyme: when she was good, she was very good, but when she was bad, she was horrid. That's how she was: loving one minute, cold as ice the next. She could really bring you down if she wanted to. Her tongue was sharper than any knife. I saw my father get cut down by her plenty of times. Eventually he just avoided her, and they lived pretty much separate lives."

Although Peter loved his father deeply and respected him for taking on the dual role of breadwinner and parent, Peter was almost as angry at his father as he was at his mother. Why? For failing to divorce her. Peter could not abide his father's decision to stay in a marriage that Peter himself felt humiliated by. "To this day I don't know how he could have done it," he said, his disgust evident.

The picture now came into full focus, not only for me but, as he spoke, I thought, for Peter as well. Before my eyes his whole demeanor changed. Emotions that had been buried within him for years suddenly flowed to the surface, then erupted. Defenses he'd built against his pain gave way. His face went slack, and then he cried.

At that moment it became painfully clear to both of us why Peter had been acting as he had -- not only why he'd felt compelled to act decisively (as his father never had) and separate from Helen, but also why he was hurt so deeply and driven to hurt her in return. It was payback, all right; but Helen not only was paying for her own actions -- she was paying for Peter's mother's actions, and for his father's inaction as well.

Peter had always been a sensitive man; in fact, Helen said that she'd been attracted to Peter precisely because of that sensitivity. He was kind and considerate, contributed generously to charities, and went out of his way to settle disagreements without resorting to anger. She'd always appreciated her husband's gentleness and had surprised herself when she started finding these qualities in him irritating. She also knew that there was another side to her husband, although out of respect she had always tended to accept it and let it lie, rather than pressing Peter about it. She knew, for example, that despite his success Peter always felt that he was underachieving. He'd make comments from time to time about how some colleague was getting this or that award or grant, and she could hear the envy, along with some resentment, in his voice. She also knew that Peter recoiled from even the slightest criticism, and that he craved support and praise, especially from her. There were times when he would pout until he got her attention.

Peter, then, was not only a sensitive man but a very insecure man. The pain and anger that he had carried inside him for all those years as a result of his experiences of betrayal at the hands of his parents turned out to be largely unconscious. By that I mean that when we first met, Peter had not yet made any connection between his youth and his present rage toward Helen. Until I pointed it out he could not see the connection between his sensitive nature, his experiences growing up, and his insecurity as an adult. He was an educated and mature man, but he still could not connect the dots that ran through his life. Once we made those connections, though, it became apparent that Peter's recent actions and emotions were driven in large part by insecurity. That insecurity had its roots in the kind of person he was, plus his experiences growing up. He had, in fact, suffered countless separations and losses -- including the loss of his mother to her other relationships, and the loss of his father to illness -- and these experiences had taken their toll on his sensitive disposition, causing him to become insecure.

Solving the puzzle of Peter's insecurity proved critical to saving this marriage from what surely would have been a tragic ending. For years his intense insecurity had been kept at bay, in part by his own success and in part by Helen's exceptional capacity to love. But unconsciously Peter had unrealistic expectations for relationships -- for example, to never be criticized, to never experience a withdrawal of affection. On the one hand, these expectations compensated for what he perceived was lacking in his own childhood and in his parents' marriage; on the other hand, they could not reasonably be satisfied by any normal relationship.

Like Peter, Helen was a tenderhearted soul, but she was much less insecure than her husband. Peter had captured the essence of insecurity correctly when he'd said that Helen had always seemed content with herself, whereas he rarely if ever felt that way. Helen knew that Peter had not been happy growing up, but he rarely spoke about it. His father had died before they were married, and her mother-in-law had moved to another part of the country and rarely visited, which seemed to suit Peter just fine.

Helen was very sensitive to others' needs, and she possessed virtually none of Peter's mother's apparent capacity for callousness, unreliability, or exploitation. In the shelter of this loving marriage, Peter's insecurity had been pretty well contained. But then Helen's depression hit, and the changing dynamics in their relationship had aroused the demon of Peter's insecurity, which in truth had always been there, like a fault line waiting to be disturbed. Helen's depression, and the subsequent loss of the intimacy and tranquillity that Peter had enjoyed for so long, was more than enough to create the quake that unleashed his bound-up rage.

What is critical in order to help people like Peter, and relationships such as his and Helen's, is an understanding of the ways in which temperament -- the dispositions we are born with -- interact with our experiences to create the personality that we develop. Here we are talking about one important personality trait -- insecurity -- and how it can be set off in destructive ways. Only by understanding what insecurity is and where it comes from can people know what to watch out for in their own attitudes, feelings, and behavior. Peter was able to move in this direction once the pieces of the puzzle came together. He did have some insight into himself. He recognized, for example, that his reactions to Helen were out of proportion to what she had done. He even knew that he had held himself back professionally. But he did not recognize his behavior as insecurity, and that it came from his childhood. Neither did he recognize the unrealistic expectations that lay beneath his insecurity and that drove his anger and his need for reassurance.

The results of understanding insecurity, for both Peter and Helen, were positive. Within a couple of months he'd packed up his belongings and moved back home. By then Helen's depression was much improved. Equally important, they took that time to open the communication in their relationship. One thing that this led to was a clearer understanding of what had happened. They were able to take a look at the unconscious expectations that Peter had been carrying around all those years -- expectations that he should never be subject to criticism, anger, or disappointment but should be loved continuously; in other words, that he could have a perfect wife. He very nearly did, which was why his massive insecurity had been able to lie relatively undisturbed for so long. For most people, insecurity rears its destructive head much sooner than that, but the reasons for it are the same: real people cannot live up to unrealistic expectations.

* * *

Insecurity, much like jealousy, is natural. Almost everyone can relate to feeling insecure (or jealous) at times. Moreover, as in Peter's case, you can't necessarily tell if someone is insecure by his or her lifestyle. The key, rather, is in how a person feels inside. A person who is very successful and who may even seem self-assured and outgoing on the surface can be quite insecure underneath. All it takes is a perceived rejection or loss to set off that insecurity. To you someone may seem to be a successful and important person, but privately he may not feel worthwhile. He may strike you as having it made, yet on the inside he may be a lot more like Peter -- never at peace with or accepting of himself -- than like Helen.

Since feelings of jealousy and insecurity are part of our human nature, there is no point in feeling ashamed about them. At the same time, we need to recognize that insecurity, like its cousin jealousy, has incredible destructive potential. Think about this: Simple anger, if it is not driven by insecurity or jealousy, rarely threatens to destroy us or our relationships. However, anger that is fueled by jealousy can be highly destructive to our own health and to our relationships. The same is true for anger that is driven by insecurity. I have seen both jealousy and insecurity undermine the spiritual and physical health of many individuals and destroy many relationships. It very nearly destroyed Peter's marriage.

Copyright © 2001 by Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D.

About The Author

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (April 10, 2001)
  • Length: 240 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684871677

Browse Related Books

Raves and Reviews

Marcy Calhoun author of Are You Really Too Sensitive? The Tender Heart is an enlightened and practical book of wisdom for sensitive people everywhere.

Thomas Eldridge founder and director of the Center for Highly Sensitive People The Tender Heart offers a new way of understanding why people can have totally different experiences in relationships...A landmark step toward changing the way we see ourselves and the way we raise our children.

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images