Not too long ago I was reading The Phantom Tollbooth aloud to my two oldest children. Milo, the book’s hero of sorts, stumbles upon “the long-nosed, green-eyed, curly-haired, wide-mouthed, thick-necked, broad-shouldered, round-bodied, short-armed, bowlegged, or big-footed monster” who claims to be one of the most “frightening fiends in the great wild wilderness.” Milo, his faithful watchdog, Tock, and the Humbug tremble in trepidation after hearing these boasts but upon closer examination (Milo uses his telescope to take a long look at the beast), the monster isn’t a monster at all but a tiny creature who sheepishly admits to being the demon of insecurity.
“I don’t mean what I say, I don’t mean what I do, and I don’t mean what I am. Most people who believe what I tell them go the wrong way, and stay there, but you and your awful telescope have spoiled everything. I’m going home.” And, crying hysterically, he stamped off in a huff.
“Keep reading, Mommy!” one of my daughters insisted after I had stopped reading aloud. See, I’d taken a long pause to silently read the demon of insecurity’s words once again because this is the demon that haunts me the most frequently. Here is a creature with a big, intimidating voice but a nondescript, even mingy presence.
How often have I let that demon get the best of me? Just recently, I went so far as embellishing an accomplishment of mine – okay, really I went so far as lying – to a new acquaintance I found intimidating because I was embarrassed about my own qualifications. It was like I was once again relegated the the nerd table as an adolescent and was prepared to claim I was dating the most popular guy in school who probably didn’t even know I existed. I did apologize for the incident and come clean, but I still can’t believe I behaved so terribly. I thought I’d finally grown up and was confident and self-assurred, but I’ve been struggling with some anxiety and have been questioning my worth and identity a bit more lately since having given up homeschooling. Cerebrally, I know my husband and my decision to send our two oldest kids to school doesn’t make me a failure or take anything away from my mom title, but I’ve felt like if I’d done things differently or if I was simply different, we would not have made this decision. Likewise, I feel like I’m going through a bit of an identity crisis. I was a homeschooling mom. Now I’m not anymore. Maybe I should do more or try to be more. Even as I write this or when I say it to my husband, I know it’s ridiculous, but it’s just what I’ve been wrestling with lately. All of this then awakens the demon of insecurity in me, and I’m acutely aware of those familiar twinges of inadequacy.
There have been other times in my life when I’ve preened my peacock feathers to hide my bald spots. I’ve apologized for things I didn’t need to be sorry for. I’ve even compromised my values and what I stand for all because I was afraid of revealing the real me and risking rejection. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only who struggles with these feelings of inferiority. But there’s a reason Norman Juster, the book’s author, had Milo met this demon and revealed the creature for what he really is. He’s a very familiar demon to most of us. Sometimes the more hubris someone appears to have, the more of a crumbling mess she is on the inside. Our insecurity is what drives us to chronically diet and then finish off the entire sleeve of Oreos because we messed up and are bad and ate one cookie. It’s why we turn to drugs, designer handbags, jobs that don’t fulfill us but that give us a good paycheck and titles that sound impressive, and bragging or on the flip side, excessive self-deprecation. It’s why young people and yes, some adults, too, pine for “likes” on Instagram. It’s what leads us to beat our chest in front of strangers, on our blogs, on Facebook, or in the workplace. It’s why when someone we consider a running god and could only dream as running as quickly as if we grew at least three inches, took performance-enhancing drugs, and were prepared to hurl and perhaps pass out at the end of the race asks us our most recent half marathon time, we shave off a few minutes and blurt out our goal time for an upcoming half instead of what we actually ran in the recent race. (Okay, so now I’ve come clean to you; this is what I did recently when the demon of insecurity got the best of me. Pathetic, I know).
We desperately want to be good enough, to be validated, to be accepted, and to be our best.
So we pretend to be that the long-nosed, green-eyed, curly-haired, wide-mouthed, thick-necked, broad-shouldered, round-bodied, short-armed, bowlegged, or big-footed monster. We feel badly for being frauds, but we’re convinced everyone else is not just pretending to be that the long-nosed, green-eyed, curly-haired, wide-mouthed, thick-necked, broad-shouldered, round-bodied, short-armed, bowlegged, or big-footed monster, but they really are that awesome or at least more awesome than we are. Nobody sucks as badly as we do. No matter that you, in fact, have other, different blessings than that same person or that someone else thinks you’re pretty darn cool or fast or pretty and smart and would like to have an ounce of what you have in some area. There’s probably a whole cadre of people wishing they were more like you in some way. But, nope, you’re fixated on what you lack and on the rabbit you never can catch.
Not that we admit any of this. We pretend. Or we put ourselves down so much it’s a form of false humility. We’re ashamed of the person we really are. We may even tell lies to ourselves and to others, but it’s all because the demon of insecurity is lurking within us and whispering lies like:
You’ll never be as [fill in the blank] as [fill in the blank], so why even bother to try at all?
You can’t do anything right.
You’re the paragon of mediocrity. Congratulations on being unremarkable!
You might as well quit.
You are not [insert blank; e.g., fast, thin, smart, brave, kind, funny, or simply good etc.] enough.
Don’t tell the truth because it will reveal the loser that you are. A little, lie won’t hurt anyone.
Oh, but it does hurt. Because even if the person doesn’t have a telescope to see what you really are, you still know. You know that pretending just makes the self-doubt cut more deeply.
Lying, gloating, boasting, crawling into a hole because I’m convinced I don’t have anything to offer, or assuming everyone is better at something than I am or conversely, telling myself I rock at something doesn’t help me feel better or help me avoid future rejection. It magnifies the insecurity, the self-loathing. It creates a life that’s a pile of BS instead of a life of authenticity. It transforms me in to something I’m not – a perfect human being. Note to self: Those two descriptors are mutually exclusive.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “There is a crack in everything God has made.”
We’ve all got cracks (in more ways than one; sorry I could not help myself), and we all desperately want to pretend we’re not broken. All those people I have elevated to uber status, the people I see as being long-nosed, green-eyed, curly-haired, wide-mouthed, thick-necked, broad-shouldered, round-bodied, short-armed, bowlegged, or big-footed are as cracked as I am, and they probably are as terrified as I am about revealing those fissures.
We’re all scared. We all tend to only see the ways we aren’t perfect. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of the demon of insecurity taunting me, of collapsing into a heap of self-doubt in the presence of anyone I think I might be better than me or better at something than me, of worrying about I said or how I look, or over-analyzing a conversation I had.
So what are we going to do with this demon of insecurity?
Due to my recent identity crisis and heightened self-doubts, I’ve been trying to really come up with some concrete ways to cut my own demon of insecurity down to size (and maybe one day I’ll squash the bugger completely). Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
1. Recognize it isn’t you who is screwed up, but your perception that’s all messed up. I had a recent text exchange with a friend about an event we were both attending that required us to squeeze our post-children bodies into formal dresses. I texted my friend about how wonderful she looked. She expressed the same sentiments about me. We sent texts suggesting we disagreed with each other’s assessments. But I finally realized that it wasn’t our bodies that were flawed, but our perception. She saw me as lovely. I saw her the same way. We need to work on seeing ourselves as others do.
2. Yet at the same time, accept your own and others’ flaws, and then choose to love yourself and others anyway. Be authentic even if it means you’ll come out looking slower, absent-minded, impatient, or whatever. Don’t be afraid to share your real stats – your race times, the fact that you sent your child to soccer pictures in the wrong color uniform (yup, did that recently), your dusty bookshelves. Putting your authentic, imperfect self forward is scary. Some people will write you off or use it against you. Still, I’ve found that being despicable me is far better than being fake me, and it takes too much emotional energy to spend a lifetime trying to cover up the cracks and imperfections. They’re here. So is the dust and mismatched soccer uniforms. The people who really love me see my imperfections or maybe they don’t alway see them, not as glaringly obvious as I do anyway, but they love me anyway. And I love them right back.
3. Then again, accept that there are plenty of people who won’t love or even be very nice to you. Don’t give power to the jerks, naysayers, or braggarts. But do try to be kind to them (more on kindness in a minute). Some people will annoy me, but maybe I annoy them, too. I need to accept others for what they are, and I also can’t be afraid of those who don’t love or accept me. Life isn’t a popularity contest. Get over the desire to always be liked and praised. Rejection stinks, but it can’t kill you unless you let it. We don’t need constant affirmation from others to accept ourselves.
4. Edit those internal scripts from your past by replacing self-effacing thoughts with affirming ones. You are good enough. You don’t have to be the best at anything (or even good at anything at all) to have value. I’m not sure when I was first introduced to my demon of insecurity, but I have memories from a young age of feeling inadequate. Sometimes I let those memories of feeling lonely, of being the overweight girl who was relentlessly teased, of being rejected by boys or the director of the school play taunt me. Having a daily, positive mantra might sound cheesy, but it helps. I am fine just the way I am. I will give my best today and forgive myself when I stumble. I am so grateful for all that I have and all that I am.
5. Stop being a victim. I endured some pretty hurtful zingers in my lifetime. (I pray all the time that my kids won’t be teased like I was when I was young.) I don’t have to deny the pain or that I was hurt, but I do have to stop being a victim. A victim is someone who is powerless, and powerless people breed insecurity. Yet, I have the power to silence the messages from my past wounds that may torment me – you know the ones that make me believe I have to be liked or thin or successful or doing something other than wiping poop off my toddler’s bum to have value. Absolute rubbish. I am not a victim to my past hurts or to anything else. I have the power to move forward and to believe in my beauty and worth.
6. Run your own race. You’re your worst critic, and it’s that demon of insecurity that’s your worst competition. The only cheering section that matters is that voice in your head. Is she going to berate you? Or lie to you and tell you you’re worse or perhaps better at something than you really are? Or is she going to accept you, encourage you, and drive you to give your best while at the same time, invite you to remember that sometimes your best can get better, but sometimes it won’t and that’s okay? Don’t count everyone who’s ahead of you. Similarly, don’t count everyone you pass. Give your personal best. That’s what will make you winner. Just recently I was racing with my three daughters. One of my children, a melancholic perfectionist (I have no idea where she get those traits from, ahem), who is naturally very fast, but also younger than some of her competition, gave up when she was no longer ahead. She couldn’t win against her big sister, so why bother? I pulled her aside and told her she can’t give up and should run hard for the personal reward of finishing the race, not because she’s trying to beat the person ahead of her. Winning is fun. But sometimes we have to just focus on what we can do and how we can improve our own race time and not worry about what everybody else is doing.
7. Or don’t run at all. Newsflash: You’re a human being, not a human doing. Your worth does not, despite what the world proclaims, hinge on your accomplishments, the size of your house or the size of your hips, or how much money is in your bank account. Just be you. That is enough.
8. But if you want to do more, then practice doling out more kindness. Don’t be stingy with sharing your goodness. Give others the benefit of the doubt. Celebrate their accomplishments. Forget the telescope. You know they’re about as perfect as you are (not very perfect at all) but very much worthy of your attention and respect simply because they exist. Life is short. Make the days count by making being kind your number one priority. Not only will people be more drawn to us, but when practice kindness, we just automatically feel better about ourselves.
9. Enough with the navel-gazing. You go to a party. You come home and fret about every single thing you said or did and wonder what others think of you. Guess what? Most everyone else is doing the same thing: They’re thinking about themselves and what others thought about them. Now consider if we allotted all that wasted energy to pursuing pointer number 8: To be kind and to think less about ourselves and more about others. Step away from the constant self-scrutiny. Take a look outside of yourself. If you’re going to be a mirror, don’t be a critical one that has the sole purpose of directing you or perhaps others toward self-improvement. Be a mirror that reflects light, hope, joy, as well as possibility. But be more than that. Be a window through which others can be seen and understood. Be a door that opens wide to others and welcomes them in, flaws and all.
10. Last but not least, do the exact opposite of what the demon Milo meets is guilty of: Mean what you say. Mean what you do. Mean what you are, and you’ll be leading yourself as well as others down the long road to self-acceptance.
Now if only I can take my own advice!
In what ways, do you slay your own demon of insecurity?