How insecurity leads to narcissism and mental ill health
Anxiety is the solvent, failure is the flame and depression is the consequence.
That’s what I wrote in a recent article explaining my battles with generalised anxiety disorder.
It remains the single most useful metaphor that has ever popped into my head, but I want to dig deeper and attempt to decode such a fundamental constituent of mental ill health.
What is anxiety?
First, we must take a step back and actually analyse anxiety itself. Sure, you have heard about fight or flight and unsubstantiated worry, but let’s delve beyond the dictionary definitions. From lived experience, I would explain anxiety as an instinctive, debilitating reaction to doing or feeling something we do not want to do or feel.
Anxiety is an absence of comfort that totally impairs the mind. So when contemplating ways of managing or eradicating anxiety, asking why we do things we do not want to do is a very efficient place to start. It holds the key to recovery from a wide range of mental health disorders.
Why do we do things we do not want to do?
Overwhelmingly, we do things we do not want to do simply to appease other people. Society upholds certain expectations, and failing to meet those minimum thresholds of acceptance is an unconscionable concept.
We can’t let our friends down, so we sit in the pub against our will. We can’t let our family down, so we go to that party or contribute to that gift. We can’t let our bosses down, so we stay late at the office to the detriment of our health.
Why do we live our lives in the contexts of other people?
The answer is simple: because society has trained us to seek approval from others rather than living, behaving and acting in accordance with our inner urges.
The pressure to conform in modern society
Perhaps the most destructive consequence of social media is the way it dispenses brutal, unavoidable confirmation of just how uncool we really are. We may have had a hunch in bygone times, but now our nervy otherness is quantified for all to see.
There is a direct correlation between a small number of Instagram likes and ones chances of being considered an alien, an outcast or a hopeless loner. Nothing else seems to matter.
We need our actions to be corroborated. Are they acceptable to the reputation kingmakers?
We need our opinions and ideas to be verified. Will they jive with mainstream populism?
We need our personalities to be accepted. Do we fit in with everyone else?
And above all, we need to be liked. How can we ever progress if we don’t blend in, keep quiet and toe the trendy line?
This is bullshit. Fuck what people think of you. Act by instinct, not by outsourcing your soul to the masculine arbiters of social acceptability.
It’s time to get real.
The signs of insecurity
If anxiety is the solvent of depressive illness, insecurity is its predominant molecule. More than any personality trait that exists, I believe insecurity to be the most predictive and indicative of mental disorder. It is also the most prolific encourager of bad decisions I have ever encountered. Moreover, the world is awash with insecurity, and we are about to reach epidemic proportions.
Such is the prevalence and potency of insecurity, we should really consider it as a standalone psychological disorder, not merely an engine or amplifier of more recognised conditions.
Insecurity is a very complex concept. In some cases, it is naturally occurring and innate. Rather like anxiety, we all experience insecurity, but complications arise amid chronic surplus or unjustified occurrence.
I’m keen to highlight that insecurity is often a manifestation of very real, very harrowing experiences in life. That should never be trivialised. The loss of a parent, partner or role model can stimulate insecurity. Bankruptcy, redundancy and life-changing accidents can encourage insecurity. Failure and rejection, in its various inexorable forms, can also play a role. Insecurity correlates to fragile, fractured or non-existent self-esteem. Anything that has a negative impact on our confidence can perpetrate it.
However, in this particular article, by insecurity I mean misbegotten consumerism, debilitating narcissism and noxious paranoia masking anything that isn’t perfect. I mean buying a Ferrari hoping people will respect you. I mean giving yourself a grandiose job title in a desperate bid for respect. And I mean micromanaging to within an inch of your life through fear of somebody being better than you at anything.
When I see a luxury car or an expensive watch, I really just see insecurity. I know because I have been there. When I see bravado and contrived confidence, arrogance and brash boastfulness, I really just see a plea for help. And when I see bullying and hostility, lies and coercion, I really just pity the instigator because insecurity is the most transparent struggle of all.
He with the loudest mouth typically has the most tortured mind. He with the most jokes usually has the least comfort in his own skin. He with the best clothes and most money often has the worst understanding of himself and the least ability to live a meaningful life.
Insecurity in mental health
While I contend that insecurity is a self-sustained mental disorder in its own right, we must also appreciate the role it plays in burnishing other conditions. There seems to be a two-way nexus between insecurity and various personality disorders. Whether a symptom or a cause, I’m not qualified to determine, but the link between insecurity and narcissism, insecurity and schizophrenia, insecurity and paranoia, and insecurity and borderline personality disorder is unavoidable. You can’t have one without the other.
To have insecurities, and indeed to suffer with any of the aforementioned conditions, is perfectly fine. I’m a tireless campaigner for mental health equalities and I will stamp out discrimination wherever it resides. However, what I can never countenance or support is internal problems having external effects on other people. You cannot convey your own insecurities onto friends, family, employees or peers through erratic and unhinged behaviour. You are in control of your own life. Master your problems and don’t let them mutate.
To overcome insecurity, we must accept ourselves without caveats. Such a quest is upended by ego, which is intrinsically biased towards an inflated sense of self-importance. Strip that back. Analyse the real you. Forget the past and live in the moment. It is never too late to start again, never too late to reclaim your true identity.
In so far as it succinctly describes insecurity - the most powerful agent of anxiety - being somebody we are not is the surest way to ensure a mental breakdown. Losing ourselves and wearing the boisterous mask of public pretence erodes our centre of psychological gravity. Emotional immaturity is a common product of that struggle, feeding bad decisions and fuelling the depressive cycle. Rarely has the phrase out of kilter been more appropriate.
What is an empath?
If the narcissist is the defining protagonist of insecurity, the empath is his or her arch-enemy.
Where the narcissist shouts and bawls with reckless abandon, the empath is introverted and thoughtful. While the narcissist often bullies and steamrolls his or her way to the top, the empath lives in accordance with a strong internal voice, detecting the emotions of other people as a means to connect rather than as a tool of exploitation.
The empath and the narcissist do not interact well. The latter takes advantage of the former, seeing them as an easy target. The former detests the latter but will rarely find the courage to sever ties. At a most basic level, relationships are an exchange of energy, and that which exists between the empath and the narcissist can become toxic, strained and downright hostile.
Narcissists are known colloquially as energy vampires and their tactics can be particularly damaging to those inclined to sensitive introversion, of which the empath is a predominant exponent. You need to analyse your relationships and possibly make some changes. Don’t suffer in the bad energy of another person.
I’m an empath in a narcissistic world, and that’s an accurate slogan for my mental breakdown. In a world that prizes capital, value, status and image above all else, merely participating in the daily progression of life can be a monumental drain on energy, motivation and happiness.
This spiritual exhaustion is often referred to as ‘burnout,’ usually a precursor to hopelessness, the most dangerous state a human can encounter. And thus we see the devastating impact of outward bravado suppressing inward fear.
Anxiety will always be the solvent, failure will always be the flame and depression will always be the consequence. But by limiting insecurity, we can starve the cycle. By limiting insecurity, we can achieve true happiness. By limiting insecurity, in the end, we can deconstruct the very concept of failure, breaking the chain entirely.
Be yourself, and don't judge people for doing the same. You'll be surprised by the impact such a small change will have on your life.