How to Deal With Insecurities and Difficult Thoughts

It doesn’t matter if your insecurity is true or not.

Posted May 09, 2018

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In 1620, Francis Bacon published a scientific manifesto called “The New Instrument”. In this book, he argued that the value of knowledge does not depend on its truthfulness.

No scientific theory is 100 percent accurate, which is why truth is a poor criterion for knowledge. Instead, he thought of knowledge as an instrument.

The real value of knowledge, he argued, depends on the degree by which it empowers us. The more knowledge empowers us to act effectively in the world, the more valuable it is. Hence, he declared “knowledge is power”.

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Whenever I work with clients through their difficult past, sooner or later, self-doubts creep up. Self-doubts about their worthiness, their ability to get better, and whether they deserve to get better in the first place.

The truth is our mind often gets in the way of healing by presenting us with difficult thoughts of all kinds:

  • “I really am a screw-up, and nothing I do can change that.”
  • “My life is a complete mess, regardless what I try.”
  • “It’s just hopeless. Maybe I’m not meant to be happy.”

These difficult thoughts can cause a lot of distress and pull us into self-defeating behaviors. After all, if betterment is “hopeless,” why even bother trying?!

Maybe you are not as desperate as some of my clients, but you certainly are familiar with self-doubts and insecurities. If we buy into our insecurities and let them dictate our actions, we are guaranteed to move away from what’s important and meaningful.

For this reason, I’ve always done a lot of defusion work with my clients. Defusion involves choosing a troubling thought and separating it from its normal function.

For instance, take the thought “I’m not good enough.” That’s a very heavy, burdensome thought (and quite common) that can provoke a lot of angst and misery.

However, if we were to sing “I’m not good enough” to the tune of Happy Birthday, we would witness how the thought loses its grip. The words are still there, but the effect it has on us - the function - has changed.

And there are many more defusion techniques that accomplish a similar result.

In my work, I help a lot of clients to defuse from difficult thoughts (“defuse” meaning separating the thought from its normal effect).

And although defusion techniques are effective in dealing with the inner critic, at some point or another, clients tend to object:

“BUT IT’S TRUE!”

Many clients cling to their insecuritities because they are convinced of their truthfulness.

  • “I really am broke”
  • “My spouse doesn’t love me anymore”
  • “My life really is a hopeless mess”
  • “I’ve lost custody over my children”
  • “I’ve been diagnosed with cancer”

It’s easy to defuse from self-doubts when you are aware that the thought is irrational. It’s much trickier, however, when our deepest fears are objectively true.

At this point, it’s tempting to get into an argument with the client, aiming to convince him or her that “all is not lost” or that they “still have a future ahead of them.” Most likely, though, this will only make them justify themselves, serving to harden their position.

Instead, I change the metric.

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, we are less interested in whether a thought is true or not. In fact, it’s not very relevant whether the thought is positive or negative. All of that doesn’t matter.

What matters, is whether a thought serves us. Thoughts are tools. Does buying into a thought empower you to strive for your goals and values, or does it pull you into self-defeating behaviors?

The value of a thought is not measured by its truthfulness but by how it works and what it does.

A negative thought like “I’m a bad friend” can motivate you to be more considerate in your relationships. A negative thought that is always true with a capital T, such as “I’m going to die,” can help you focus on how to live. An uncomfortable truth like “My love life is a mess” can empower you to sign up for a dating site.

And likewise, a positive thought like “I’m the greatest in whatever I attempt” can quickly alienate others and pull you into narcissistic behaviors.

The content of a thought doesn’t matter. The truth of a thought often doesn’t matter. What matters is whether it empowers you or not. What matters is what it does.

The next time you hear your mind rambling on about your mistakes and shortcomings, and you hear your inner critic emphasize at full volume how they have to be believed because they are T-T-T-True, ask yourself this:

“Does buying into this thought help me to move forward in life?”

If it does, great! And if not, maybe it’s time to sing the good ol’ Happy Birthday tune.