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The typical ways of dealing with insecurities are self-defeating
And how I deal with my insecurities…
What do you care about? What makes you proud of yourself?
For me, I’m proud of my math skills, my ability to code, my witty humor, my patience, and my philosophical insights. These are the pillars of my identity that supports my confidence and self-worth. As such, they are also my insecurities.
Three Defense Mechanisms for Insecurity
1. Show-’em-who’s-the-bossism: I am bad now. So what, I will grind harder show you who’s the boss
When I did competitive programming, my dad signed me up to train with some programmers much more intelligent than me. We solved problems together, but I regularly took twice or thrice the time to finish each problem. I had this bizarre feeling that I was living through a simulation, and the simulation god was against me: We had a Zoom meeting open where we were supposed to group-solve problems in real time. For the first few days, I contributed my ideas as they came up. But whatever approaches I came up with, my peers already had thought of them, and would immediately explain to me why they wouldn’t work. It’s like...they live in my head but are smarter than me. I felt stupid. I was insecure. I had fits of anger issue—and developed a perchance for smashing whiteboard markers when I couldn’t figure out a problem.
I didn’t quit though, because I wanted to get into a good college. I lived through success for most part of my life with an unscathed ego. So, I had a very irrational belief in my potential, in the narrative of the hero’s journey—that I will be the best because I am me, the protagonist.
So, I grinded harder instead. I wanted to own those other kids. Show them who’s the boss. That ended up working out (because intelligence is learned). I saved my ego, padded out my insecurities. And that pumped my pride in my CS skills. Life was good.
But then college necessities fucked it up. I got into a high level training camp in the US. The coders there were better skilled, and I was rock bottom again. I struggled and felt insecure again.
This, I think is the core problem of show-’em-who’s-the-bossism: your peers are better than you → you feel insecure → your insecurity fuels your competitiveness, an urge to “show them you are the boss” → you grind hard and reach a new height of achievement→ you are again surrounded by peers better than you → and it renews your insecurity.
There’s no end to this ladder climbing contest because there are always people above you, with higher in-group status.
2. Denial: The thing I’m bad at is pointless anyways
If you grow tired of the ladder climbing contest, you can just hop off. This is what I did with regards to math competitions.
Spring last year, I was enjoying a fine afternoon in a room with several math kids. It was nearing the end of school and we were chilling. One of them decided to explain topology to the rest of us. His lecture was, unfortunately, at a level beyond my understanding. My friends were better at math. They enjoyed the talk, while I felt clueless and silly.
I already quitted competition math a year ago, so I didn’t feel like straining my brain to keep up with the talk. Instead, I talked myself out of it. I argued with myself that topology is not an important branch of math, that it has no practical values, that it’s full of pedantic formalities. In fact, math is useless and full of craps. And I’m not even a math person, I’m a CS kid!
What I did was pretty silly, because…I like math, and enjoy studying its “pedantic formalities.” I saw that my self-worth as a math person was verging collapse—so, to prevent it from crumbling down and wounding my ego, I surgically removed it myself. I removed math from the list of things I am proud of. I denied the value of math, and denied that I ever cared about math. Denial saved my self-esteem that day.
But the problem of denial is that…if you turn to denial in every situation where your skill/ability/confidence is called into question, you would find yourself removing the pillars of your self-esteem one by one, with your own hands. Today, you say “I’m not a math kid. I don’t base my self-worth on my ability to do math.” Tomorrow, you say “I’m not a philosophical type of person, I just do it on the side, and I don’t care about it that much.” Gradually, you would be running out of things to be proud of—your self-esteem cannot be hurt anymore, because you removed it completely.
3. Avoidance: I’m not even trying
There’s a mid-ground between hopping on the competition train and the fatalism of ennui: it’s avoiding situations in which your ego can be wounded in the first place. And I do that quite often as well.
I took a physics contest the last winter—I used to be decent at physics, but was pretty out of practice. I did bad. But I just parried the disappointment away by telling myself that “I wasn’t even trying.” Since I put no genuine effort into the contest, the bad grade reflected nothing about my abilities, so the story goes.
Avoidance is not a great strategy either, because if you always avoid putting your skills to use out of fear of disappointment, your skills will actually rot away. Plus, physics, or whatever the skill, becomes a vulnerability of your ego, instead of something you enjoy doing.
Dealing With Insecurities
We can’t gaslight away our insecurities
Why don’t you just fix your insecurities? You can’t. Insecurities are entrenched beliefs that cannot be easily gaslit away.
What’s insecurity? Insecurity is a lack of self-esteem. And what is “self-esteem”? It’s our brains’ estimation of how we are perceived by others, and how much respect we command in the room. Our self-esteem, in other words, is not an internal variable that we can just dial up to feel better about ourselves. It’s a function of how much we are respected by others around us: The math genius does not have a genetically inflated ego—he thinks he’s smart because everyone around him keeps telling him that. The short kid is not insecure about her height because of some personality defect in her confidence system—she’s insecure because she’s shorter than everyone else in the room.
You can’t just tell her, “you are insecure. Go fix your self-esteem”…it doesn’t work like that.
Figure out what you care about and why
To hack your brain, you have to understand it first. You have to understand your primal desires and reprogram your thinking or redesign your environment to align yourself with whatever you actually want.
I did math competitions for two years in high school, but never questioned why I did it. I don’t actually enjoy solving complex puzzles—it just hurts my brain. I don’t feel excited after tackling a problem. I just feel relieved, freed from the death struggle between the problem and my ego. I solved math problems because I wanted to prove I am not dumb, to myself and to others. Doing math improved my perceived smartness, coolness, and status within my social group. That was why I did math competitions—just a hot-headed chase for social status.
I learned physics for a very different reason. I wasn’t active in physics competitions. I studied physics because I was genuinely curious about the fundamental structure of reality. It isn’t a status game. I enjoy doing physics because of the activity’s intrinsic value.
These are two very different types of motivation. To fix your insecurity, you have to understand which motivation drives you.
Finally, my two pieces of advice
So, what can you do about your insecurities? Well, it depends on what motivates you.
1. If you feel insecure about something you do as part of a status game: then stop hanging out with people who make you feel insecure. If all you care about is being perceived as cool or high status, then you really shouldn’t hang out with people who are better at that thing than you are. We anchor our self-esteem by the people around us. If everyone around you is better at something than you are, you will naturally feel inadequate and insecure about your ability in that thing. Even if you are better than 99% of the people but worse than 1% of the people—if you only hang out with that 1%, you would still feel inadequate. On the other hand, if you are the best at something in your friend group, you will feel your status and coolness desires satisfied. You will not feel competitiveness towards others, or live constantly in insecurity.
If you are insecure about your writing, hang out with musicians instead of writers. If you are insecure about your height, find some shorter friends. If you are like me, insecure about your math competition skills, then stop hanging out with math Olympiad kids.
2. If you are insecure about something, but you enjoy that thing for its intrinsic value: then stop thinking about status competition. Shift your framework of thinking from the individual to the collective. Stop thinking “he has studied quantum mechanics, so he gets to do research and explore the nature of the universe.” Refactor your thoughts into, “one of us has studied quantum, so we get to research and explore the nature of the universe.” Stop thinking “she founded a non-profit that fights climate change.” Prioritize the collective over the individual, the end goal over the means, and think “she founded a non-profit that will help us fight climate change.” If you really care about your study or your endeavor because of its intrinsic value for humanity, then it shouldn’t matter who gets to play what role in this group project. There shouldn’t be any sense of competitiveness between individuals whose objectives align.
If you are insecure about the impact you bring to the world, stop thinking in terms of “your impacts”, it’s “our impacts” that matter. If you are insecure about your ability to come up with AI alignment ideas, stop brooding over “your ability”, it’s “our abilities” that count. If like me, you feel insecure about your ability to research physics and understand the universe, then…well it shouldn’t matter who does the research if what you and I care about is “understanding the universe” not “gaining academic prestige”.
You cannot fix your insecurity by one-upping the people that triggered your insecurity. It’s also a bad idea to cope with the hurt of failure by convincing yourself you don’t care about it at all. You cannot gaslight your insecurities away. But you can choose a social group that wouldn’t make you feel weak or inadequate. You can rehash your way of thinking about your endeavor so that the collective end goal is prioritized, and individual status competition takes a back seat.
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