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Dealing With Self-Doubt
YCteen staff with reporting by Emily Goldberg
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Insecure is an unusual adjective. Sometimes it’s used to describe shy, nervous people. Other times, it’s used to describe those who seem like the opposite: people who brag loudly, or bullies who mistreat others. So when we say someone is “insecure,” what do we mean?

According to livestrong.com, a website that promotes physical and mental health, insecurity is characterized by a sense of not fitting in, a feeling of not being good enough to meet the challenges you face, and a tendency to believe negative things about yourself. People who are “chronically insecure”—who feel insecure most or all of the time—suffer because of it. They may feel others are out to get them, and become defensive. They may put up a front of snobbishness or arrogance to mask their bad feelings about themselves. They may become so afraid of failure that they never risk anything.

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Or, they may handle their insecurities in some other way. Different people have very different ways of coping with feelings of insecurity, and that’s why especially “insecure” people can come across as cocky in some cases and timid in others.

Looking Beyond Yourself

In reality, though, almost everybody is insecure about something. Maybe getting picked last in gym has left you with no belief in your athletic abilities. Maybe you’ve struggled in math class, and your heart sinks every time the math teacher calls your name. Maybe someone made a thoughtless comment about your height or weight once, and it’s bothered you ever since.

Being unsure of yourself in some areas is natural, and if you feel your confidence flagging, there are ways to boost it. YCteen talked to some teens about their insecurities and what they’ve done to feel more confident.

Suzi, 17, remembers judging her own body harshly starting in middle school. “I was in pursuit of the perfect body.… It seemed like all of my friends were perfect. I just wanted to be like them,” she said. Like many adolescents, she wanted attention from the opposite sex and felt a different body would bring her more admirers. At first, she turned to unhealthy habits in an effort to change things. “I starved myself, and worked out excessively. I realized it was wrong and bad for me when I almost passed out during an athletic event,” she said.

Finding a healthy way to overcome her insecurities wasn’t easy. Since no one around her knew what was going on, it was up to Suzi to handle the problem. She found an answer by shifting her attention away from herself. “Instead of worrying about what was going on in my unimportant life—the calories I consumed, the hours I worked out—I focused on people who have actual needs,” she said. She tried to think more about others, and started volunteering. She advises teens who are suffering because of their insecurities to reach out to others in the same way.

New Body, New Confidence

For other teens, the key to dealing with insecurity is to do more, not less, self-examination. Luis, 17, also felt insecure about his weight when he was younger. “When I looked at family photos, I noticed that my face looked big. Every time I smiled with my teeth especially, my cheeks would pop up and say ‘Hello.’ I’d tell my mom to delete every photo because I never liked how I looked.”

Luis’ turning point came during a conversation with his mother. “She said to me, ‘You can be the most handsome man in the world, but if you don’t see the value in yourself, then no one will.’” He began making a conscious effort to be more accepting of himself as he was. At the same time, he began taking more responsibility for his own choices and speaking up for what he wanted. That meant asking his dad to take him to the gym and more frequently saying “no” to unhealthy food.

Today, Luis is 50 pounds lighter, but more importantly, he said he is comfortable with who he is. This in turn has made him more social. “I’m really outgoing now,” he said.

It’s His Problem

Insecurities aren’t only about appearance, of course—and they don’t always go away easily. When Tairys, 17, came to the United States not knowing English, she developed insecurities about public speaking and dreaded presentations. “I don’t think I overcame it, I just deal with it and try my best,” she said. Understanding she isn’t alone is helpful. So is facing her insecurity head-on by talking more.

And what about bullies who conceal their insecurities by being mean? They probably aren’t ready to admit that they’re insecure, even to themselves. But if you’re faced with a bully, maybe you can change your own response. As psychotherapist Michael J. Formica wrote in a blog for the magazine Psychology Today, “The key for the bullied is to recognize that the bully’s bullying is not about us—it’s about him, and his weakness. It’s about his sense of being threatened, and his horror at being found out as an imposter or a poser .… With this recognition that it’s not about us, we can then stand firm, or even push back.”

At the least, maybe we can prevent the bully’s behavior from becoming another source of insecurity for ourselves. We all have self-doubt, but we can try to live with less of it for a happier, more comfortable state of mind.

This story is part of the media/news literacy series, which is generously supported by the McCormick Foundation.

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(NYC-2012-03-05)