3 Toxic Thinking Habits That Feed Your Insecurity
by By Ellen Hendriksen, PhD, Savvy Psychologist, Quick and Dirty Tips ™
May 12, 2017

There’s that old saying—the mind makes a wonderful servant but a terrible master. If you’re feeling insecure—about yourself, your relationship, or your life—these three thinking habits may be mastering your mind. Psychologists call these toxic habits cognitive distortions, which is just a technical way of saying “lies we tell ourselves.” But they’re tricky, because on the surface, they seem accurate, and more importantly, they feel accurate. And that’s the problem—cognitive distortions keep us feeling stupid, boring, inadequate, or otherwise insecure.

Now, it’s really important to note that we all make these thinking mistakes from time to time. It’s part of being human. But when we truly start to believe them, or we over-rely on them, that’s when we feel as insecure as a wifi network without a password.

Toxic Thinking Habit #1: Emotional reasoning

This toxic thinking habit mistakes feelings for reality. If you feel guilty, it must be your fault. If you feel hopeless, there must be no way out. If you feel anxious, something bad is about to happen.

But emotional reasoning makes us feel the most insecure when it extends to our relationships: “Because I feel jealous, it proves you’re cheating on me” or “Because I feel anxious, it must mean we’re about to break up.” Then those thoughts spiral and turn into a fight your partner never saw coming. Needless to say, emotional reasoning is particularly frustrating for partners because it’s impossible to argue with a gut feeling, even an inaccurate one.

Toxic Thinking Habit #2: Mind reading
This toxic habit is exactly what it sounds like: assuming you know what other people are thinking. Your insecurity puts imaginary judgmental thoughts in other people’s heads, which you then believe wholeheartedly, which in turn makes you feel more insecure. It’s a vicious circle of epic proportions.

Mind reading makes you think others are either judging or rejecting you. “He didn’t text me back so he must hate me.” “My boss wants to see me so she must be mad.” “Everyone will see I’m sweating and think I’m a freak.”

On the flip side, you might mind-read and assume others are superior to you: “She looks like she has it all together; she must be so confident.” “He got another promotion; he must know exactly what he’s doing with his life.” “He’s so hot he must .” Okay, not that one, unless you’re mind-reading Bruno Mars. Regardless, no matter how you slice it, mind reading makes you come up short.

Toxic Thinking Habit #3: Personalization

This is also exactly what it sounds like: the thinking error of personalization makes everything about you. Your spouse is grumpy, so you assume it’s something you did. Your boyfriend looked at another girl, so you must not be enough for him. Your friend is grumpy, so you must not be entertaining her adequately. Regardless, whatever dark alley personalization leads you down, it ends at the dead end of self-blame.

How to Stop

How to stop the madness? Half the battle is catching yourself. Try to notice those moments when your mood takes a nosedive or your insecurity flares. Got one? When you do, ask yourself what was going through your head. What did you say to yourself? Then, take the thought you caught and try these three things:

Tip #1: Put your thought on trial.
To stop your own distorted thinking, whether it’s emotional reasoning, mind reading, or personalization, put your thought on trial. You need some cold, hard evidence for your thought. And remember: your intuition, hunches, gut feelings, and sixth sense don’t count as credible witnesses—none of those would hold up in a real court of law.

So ask: What the evidence that she’s cheating, besides your own jealousy? What’s the evidence he hates you, aside from some good old projection? In a serious example, what’s the evidence that being abused was your fault, aside from your feelings of guilt? Likely, you’ll come up with nothing, which is exactly what you need to deflate your distorted thought.

A note: it’s really hard to do this when your emotions are running high. Let things diffuse before you try to put a Spock-like logical spin on your distorted thinking.

Tip #2: Act as if you feel confident.
The treacherous trio of emotional reasoning, mind reading, and personalization drive equally distorted actions that range from the mildly annoying to the all-out paranoid. They might drive you to secretly scroll through your significant other’s text messages or read their emails. They might drive you to subtly one-up your friends: “Oh, you’re training for a 5K? Well, let me give you some tips from when I trained for my last 10K.” Or they might drive you to humble-brag to anyone who will listen: “How on earth did I get this great promotion? No clue.”

And while you may not be able to stop the distorted thought from popping in your head, you can stop the actions that follow. For example, next time you find your partner’s phone on the table while they’re in the shower, ask yourself what a confident, self-assured person would do. Then do it: put down their phone and walk away. Act as if you’re secure in your own skin, even if you don’t feel it. Act as if, and magically, your security will start to solidify.

A client of mine tried this when her boyfriend went to a class reunion where he was sure to bump into several exes. She was tempted to stalk him on social media the whole weekend to see if he posted any pictures with them. We talked about what she would do if she felt confident instead of insecure. She said she’d tell him to have an amazing weekend, text him to say hi once in a while, and stay off of his social media. So she did. And as the weekend went on, acting more confident gave way to feeling more confident.

The take home: act like you want to feel, and your feelings will catch up.

Tip #3: Inoculate yourself against insecurity.

Insecurity is, fundamentally, doubt about yourself. You have serious questions about your competence, worth, and performance.

Now, most insecure people try to deal with this uncertainty by closing the gap: they try really hard to talk themselves up, to make everyone like them, to perform so well they can never be criticized.

But instead of trying to erase the doubts, prepare for them. Inoculate yourself against insecure thoughts by bombarding yourself with realistic expectations. How? Choose a neutral phrase that tells it like it is and repeat it over and over to yourself. One classic is, “No matter what I do, some people won’t like me.” Others are: “There will always be someone more attractive than me.” “There will always be someone smarter than me.”

Tailor your mantra to match your insecurity. Then repeat it again and again. Time yourself—keep at for a good ten minutes. At first, saying it may make you feel sad or defensive or desperate. But after repeating it a couple hundred times, it will likely get boring, which is exactly what you want. Face your insecurity, and it ceases to be an insecurity.

So next time you’re feeling insecure, check yourself for emotional reasoning, mind reading, or personalization. Put your thought on trial, act like you want to feel, and inoculate yourself. You can do it. Because if 5-foot-5 Bruno Mars can stand next to a high-heeled Taylor Swift, you can conquer any of your insecurities.

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Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, Susan Cain's Quiet Revolution, and many other media outlets. The Savvy Psychologist was picked as a Best New Podcast of 2014 on iTunes and was Otto Radio's Best Healthcare Podcast of 2016. In her clinic, Dr. Hendriksen treats everything from depression to trauma to hoarding, but has a special place in her heart for social anxiety. She lives in the Boston area with her husband and two sons. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, publishes in March 2018.


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