Originally appeared on Catholic Stand
Long, long ago, in the primeval depths of Chaos, a hideous monster was spawned. The sin of Adam unleashed it on the earth, permitting it to ravage him and his offspring. It crept up so stealthily that its victims might not even notice until after it had taken hold, sinking in teeth and claws, after which it destroyed any who did not fight it well. Or rather, it creeps, it destroys; the monster roams the world still. In fact, you’ve probably encountered it . . . it goes by the unassuming name of Insecurity.
Insecurity may be defined as habitual fear of one’s own inadequacies and what others may think of them. It might seem a fairly innocuous problem, calling simply for a pat on the shoulder and assurance that, as One Direction put it, “You don’t know you’re beautiful!” Such responses are good in themselves; indeed, sincere affirmation is crucial for these sufferers. But if offered too glibly, this approach treats their affliction as harmless and perhaps even charming, a sort of excessive modesty. It overlooks not only the intense pain that insecurity causes, but the potential damage to the person’s soul and relationships with others.
To clarify, insecurity is not, in itself, a sin, nor is the person who suffers from it usually to blame. Far be it from me to be hard on any who have endured this monster’s cruel torments. Such a person is, however, at fault if he does not work to overcome his insecure tendencies. If he does not understand this, he may not realize the importance of fighting back. If you, dear reader, have noticed this affliction in your own heart, I hope to help you reject and break free of the thoughts that it inspires in you.
Understanding insecurity as a kind of fear, one can begin to see its relevance to the well-known words of 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Of course, love does not preclude every kind of fear; not all fears are wrong. The kind of fear in question is indicated in the next half of the verse: “For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.” Thus, the fear that perfect love casts out is a cowardly, ultimately self-centered fear, the kind that keeps a person preoccupied with concern for himself.
Now you may be objecting: St. John is not talking about insecurity; he is discussing the relationship we ought to have with God, one of confident love rather than servile fear. This is correct. The Evangelist is not dealing directly with the monster. However, his words are nonetheless applicable to it. The passage makes clear that this kind of fear is incompatible with perfect love. The soul that loves God as it should will not live in dread of Him. A similar principle applies to our relationships with others. If we love them generously, holding our hearts open to them, we cannot live in a defensive attitude, a spirit that keeps us on guard against them lest they hurt us. We must, then, conquer our unworthy fears in order to love perfectly.
A more concrete consideration of what insecurity does may help to illuminate this point. A vivid demonstration appears in Shakespeare’s play Othello: the titular general, an African in the service of Venice, turns against his virtuous wife, Desdemona, when his malicious standard bearer leads him to suspect her of infidelity. The standard bearer, Iago, undermines Othello’s confidence in his wife by playing on the general’s insecurities: his black skin bears a considerable stigma in Renaissance Europe; he has married relatively late in life; and he is not from the same social stratus as Desdemona. Iago insinuates that she must have “a will most rank” and “thoughts unnatural” to choose such a man, and remarks that “her will, recoiling to her better judgment, / may fall to match you with her country forms,” i.e. compare him with more likely choices and reject him. That these suggestions arouse latent fears is soon clear, as Othello worries aloud that they are all true:
Haply for I am black,
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have, or for I am declined
Into the vale of years . . .
She’s gone, I am abused, and my relief
Must be to loathe her.
As the play progresses, this anxious suspicion escalates into deadly anger; by the time Othello learns the truth, he has already murdered Desdemona. While most cases of insecurity do not have such drastic consequences, the story nonetheless illustrates how this kind of fear is incompatible with love.
First, insecurity keeps a person focused on himself, thereby turning his attention away from others. Othello’s speech demonstrates this focus: I am black, I am declined in years; I have not soft conversation. Absorbed in this self-deprecation and doubt, he can no longer see Desdemona’s love or the pain she suffers from his abusive behavior, leading up to the murder. Real people who have faced the monster can observe similar patterns: I’m not good enough, I’m not attractive, I made mistakes, how could they care for me. If they allow this worry about themselves to dominate their thoughts, it can prevent them from recognizing other people’s kindness, or, worse, lead them to hurt those whom they believe to be giving offense. In defensiveness or suspicious indignation against a presumed ill intent, the insecure person may destroy a real or potential friendship.
The second issue overlaps with the first: if one’s instinctive reaction to others is fear rather than love, one can never understand them. The more a person is preoccupied with anxiety over his own faults, weaknesses or handicaps, the more other people become, not brothers and sisters to be loved, but potential threats. In a mild form, this attitude manifests itself in hypersensitivity, intense self-consciousness, anxiety at a friend’s slightest apparent sign of indifference or irritation. If never checked, it may strangle the soul as a creeper vine does a tree in the jungle, leading to bitterness and inability to connect with others. This person may not commit murder like Othello, but can nonetheless sink into a cold inner isolation as terrible as his.
Now I repeat: dear readers, if any of you are victims of this monster, I am by no means putting you down. I know how intensely you have suffered, and I certainly do not blame you for your affliction. Rather, my aim here is to help you combat it. To that end, the above has (hopefully) explained the importance of overcoming it. If you are not aware of that, you might not be as alert to the dangers of insecurity, or strive as hard to be free of it.
So what can we do to defeat the monster? First, we must recognize that we cannot overcome it with reason. Its suggestions are not based in reason, but in emotions, instincts, the subconscious, sub-rational psyche. One may argue down one’s anxieties a thousand times a day and still find them back in full force the next day. The only way to conquer insecurity is to silence it with the will, to make a decision to love and push aside all contrary thoughts.
Certainly, willing insecurity to silence is an arduous task, demanding courage and a frequent renewal of effort. For those who struggle with the monster, however, this choice offers their best chance of victory. We must love; God is love, and has called us to love as He does, whatever the cost or risk. We see this theme emphasized in many Scriptural passages besides the one quoted above. Another well-known passage on love describes it thus: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). Love believes and hopes all things, against insecurity’s characteristic doubt and fear toward self and others; and love bears and endures all things, fighting off temptations to unworthy fear and self-absorption, not becoming unduly anxious about others’ opinions, maintaining an attitude of openness and charity.
Someone might object here: not all conflicts and hurts are products of imagination; isn’t it true sometimes that one person regards another with scorn or indifference? Certainly. We meet unkind people, or we are disappointed in those we had trusted, or we find we cannot get along with someone. Hardly anyone would deny those things. To live, however, in constant anxiety about these possibilities, to regard others with fear and suspicion because they might let us down, is no way to live. After all, most of us have had unpleasant experiences with food, such as gas pains, food poisoning, or allergic reactions; yet we must continue eating in order to survive. This principle is even more vital when applied to human relationships: we must approach others with a spirit of love, receptiveness, self-gift, even at the risk of being hurt.
So, dear victims of the monster of insecurity, I encourage you to do the following. First, pray for the grace to conquer your fears. Ask God, who is Love Itself, to help you purify your heart and conform it to His. Then, when the anxious thoughts arise, don’t try to argue with them. Simply push them away, remembering that they are temptations. Pray again for help, and smile at the other person for love of God. Choose to think the best, to believe and hope all things. Thus, by grace and patience, perfect love will cast out your fear.