Susan Krauss Whitbourne is a professor of Psychology and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She writes the Fulfilment at Any Age blog for Psychology Today.
You’ve got a relative who always purports to be the expert on any subject. Although it’s sometimes helpful to get actual advice you can use, the constant drumbeat of supposedly knowledge-based conclusions that comes out of this person’s mouth leaves you feeling that somehow you’re defective. When you think about it, the advice was useful, but it was given in a tone of voice that seems to have been designed to drive the point home that your ideas – and you – completely lack validity.
When people go out of their way to make you feel bad about yourself, the question becomes whether it’s you or them. If ordinarily you feel your self-concept is pretty robust, it shouldn’t really be affected by some small event that exposes your inadequacy. In fact, when you think about it, there are plenty of people who make you feel comfortable around them without feeling the least bit weak or defensive. Recent research by Simon Fraser University’s Uthike Girme and colleagues (2017) examined what they call “relationship-specific” attachment insecurity. They proposed that people can be made to feel insecure within a particular relationship, even when on the whole, they’ve got a relatively solid sense of who they are. Although the research focused on attachment security within a romantic relationship, the results can be thought of as generalisable to other close relationships as well.
As Girme et al. note, “greater turbulence in the form of more negative emotions and irritations that occur during difficult transition periods escalates doubts and increases feelings of uncertainty about the relationship." In other words, when you’re made to feel insecure in your relationship, you question whether your partner will really be there for you. Translating this to the more general problem of feeling insecure with a non-romantic partner, the experience of being made to feel insecure should also create emotional turbulence. Part of what might influence your sense of insecurity, though, is whether you expect the relationship will endure over time. If you feel you’re going through a rough time that eventually will work itself out, you won’t be as upset if another person is unsupportive temporarily.
Attachment security is the basic feeling that your relationship with others is solid and will endure over time. People high in this quality, additionally, have an equally solid sense of self. They don’t worry when someone comes along who challenges this stable base. However, if the Simon Fraser researchers are right, just because you feel secure one day doesn’t mean you’ll feel secure the next if something happens that challenges this foundation of your self-concept. Girme et al. hypothesised first that people high in attachment security expected their relationships to be more stable over time, and indeed this was confirmed. They next examined whether people’s feelings of distress would vary according to fluctuations in attachment security and, on a study of individuals drawn from a community sample, were able to establish this point. Finally, using a sample of couples undergoing the transition to parenthood, a notably stressful time, the Canadian researchers showed that those whose attachment security fluctuated the most throughout this 2-year period of change in their partner's availability were the ones who felt the most emotional distress.
In summarising the findings of their three studies, Girme and her collaborators conclude that their work “counterbalance(s) previous research documenting secure individuals’ steadfast resilience when confronted with potentially damaging relationship experiences." In fact, the people who expect the greatest relationship stability are the ones who suffer the most when things go wrong. The flip side of this is that people low in attachment security don’t seem as distressed if their relationship partner becomes unavailable to them. Expecting less, they’re less surprised and disappointed when they get it.
If we extrapolate from the conclusions of the Canadian research team to other, non-romantic relationships, similar principles may apply. In your own circle of friends, relatives, and co-workers, there are some people who reinforce and others who undermine your own security. In these instances, it’s important to ask yourself why these people challenge your basic sense of self. Is it because they are outright critical? Or do they make themselves seem more desirable by being emotionally unavailable? Then ask yourself whether it’s you or them? What causes people to need to make you feel insecure?
To answer some of these questions, look outside your own relationship with these insecurity-fostering people. How do they relate to others, and what do others do in their presence? Do you sense that others, too, are made to feel small? Once you realise that is them and not you, this can help you neutralise your interactions with them. Going in ahead of time with them, knowing that you’ll be led down the path of self-doubt and anxiety, will allow you to make more objective appraisals of the situation. Girme et al. noted that people high in attachment security who were made to feel insecure also felt high levels of emotional distress. You can set that distress aside when you understand its source. You can also turn the tables on these findings to examine your own behaviour with others. Are you the one who needs to put people down by showing your superiority? Having a solid sense of self means that you don’t need to inflict this pain on others, because you’re confident in your own self-worth.
To sum up, the way you handle people who make you insecure is to turn your attention inward and shore up your own self-esteem. Just because one person leads you to question yourself doesn’t mean that you’re inadequate. There may also be times when you’re particularly vulnerable. Recognise that people’s feelings of security can vary over time, and this will help you reduce the distress that one given individual can cause.
Written by Susan Krauss Whitbourne. First appeared on Psychology Today.