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Insecurity Traps

by Niklas Haas on January 7, 2021

Tagged as: life, philosophy, society, personal, mental health.

Prompted by some introspection (and provocative prompting), I decided to write down some of my thoughts to help crystallize them in my memory. I don’t think any of this is particularly new, but I still like going through my own arguments. In a nutshell, I was thinking about the concepts of what we call “low confidence”, “high confidence”, how one gets from the former to the latter, how it all connects to cultural signaling, and ultimately, how I interpret certain psychiatric conditions.

The first major question here is.. what do we even mean by “confidence”? Confidence in what? As a hedonist, my answer will obviously have something to do with happiness. In particular, I think the word “confidence” here can be taken quite literally: I have a “high confidence” if I have a high confidence in my prediction of future experienced pleasure/pain being positive. In other words, high self-confidence quite literally means that I have a positive outlook on life.1

As many others before me have realized, this means we can’t distill “confidence” down into a single axis, no more than we can distill down our physical needs into a single component. I have a different level of confidence for every emotion I’m capable of experiencing.

This is, in essence, why it’s such a terrible idea to try and fill the void in one aspect of confidence by overcompensating using a different aspect. Like trying to take cocaine to numb out the pain of being hungry, it doesn’t last - you’ll still be hungry after you come down from the high. The only fix is, obviously, to actually eat something. I suspect that a lot of what we associate with “low self confidence” behaviors are just people trying to overcompensate for something they lack with something they don’t lack.2

Even within a single dimension of emotionality, however, there are different ways of satisfying those demands; so another way in which “overcompensation” can happen is if I rely on only a single source for my entire needs (in a given category). If can only placate my hunger by eating bananas, for example, I have a relatively “insecure” confidence in my ability to feed myself - any even perceived threat against bananas will suddenly cause me a great deal of mental stress. I suspect that this is sort of what we consider “neuroticism” to be - somebody with few ways of satisfying a desire ends up excessively stressed about the possibility of losing that desire. If somebody focuses way too much on fishing for compliments, for example, it might be the only way they know of feeling societal acceptance. This is especially disastrous for people with no friends, because the first friend you attempt making will now represent your only source of friendship, leading to excessive worrying about losing them - which is exactly what tends to drive people away.

The healthiest way to have confidence in some area is to have a diverse source of stable activities that satisfy the underlying need. This minimizes your risk in one source disappearing, and therefore maximizes your ability to remain confident - especially for long enough to replace a source by another.

As an aside, this provides a weak argument for why anybody driven to doing something ‘extreme’ as a source of self-confidence (e.g. deliberately breaking societal norms) probably has low self confidence in that (or a related) area: The more sources of confidence you have, the more likely those sources will end up approaching the central limit in converging on the Overton window. At which point, why bother doing something extreme if you can reduce societal friction by just sticking to what’s considered stable and commonly accepted?3

For some closing thoughts, it’s slightly illuminating to think about the dynamics of habituated anti-patterns. If I learn that I gain societal acceptance, say, from achieving something, then I’m stuck in a high-effort mode of maintaining that status. Not only do I need to continue achieving things in order to continue feeling happy, but I would also tend to subconsciously select the people around me to be people who look up to those achievements. Rather than, say, people who like me for things that require less effort to maintain (e.g. my sense of humor). A lot of pathologies (BPD and NPD in particular) seem to describe insecurity traps - people who’re forced to chronically overcompensate in the only way they know of satisfying their societal needs, but because of their insecurity, they end up driving away the people who would give it to them unconditionally, thus reinforcing the cycle.

The way out of such traps is, therefore, only achievable by gaining other, more secure sources of those same needs. Which is, admittedly, easier said than done, especially for many insecurity traps. For example, I say this with a straight face, as a software engineer clearly capable of solving problems considered ‘difficult’ by many others: managing to lose my virginity was the most difficult challenge of my entire life, and I’m still not sure I succeeded due to anything other than sheer, dumb luck.

Most importantly, I’d like to emphasize the importance of starting small. If you can’t manage to get the job you want, settle for a job you can get, and work your way up. Incidentally, the same applies to dating, which sounds brutally cruel on the surface, but sadly that’s just the way society seems to work - and I’m not one to worry about morals when trying to understand mechanisms. Even if you have so little self confidence that you can’t get a date even with the ‘bottom rung’ of your ladder, there are (thank god) people you can pay to go on dates with you. Anything to reinforce your monkey brain into thinking that “intimacy” is something that can be reliably obtained, rather than a chronically deprived resource that comes around once in a blue moon. This, by definition, raises your confidence, thus giving you more options.

Finally, the whole reason I’m writing this blog post: by understanding the mechanism behind insecurity traps and confidence feedback loops, I’m hoping dearly to be able to placebo my way out of life’s predicament. After all, the better I understand the mechanisms behind confidence, the more confidence I will have that acting confident will lead to a desired result; therefore, if I act confident, the more confidence I will have; therefore, the more confidence I have that acting confident will lead to a desired outcome; ad infinitum! This is a positive feedback loop I aspire to capitalize off of.

  1. Which is paradoxically cruel to those with low self confidence, because having low self confidence is one of the best predictors of failure in any task you attempt. It’s an all too frequent trap, when you need to have high confidence to succeed at the things required to gain confidence! (Dating being the archetypal example)↩︎

  2. That being said, it can still be a useful crutch to help you get out of a confidence trap. I think that you can, essentially, hide your lack of romantic confidence by just overcompensating with enough other things to prevent you from screwing up a relationship for at least the period of time needed to build up some actual object permanence.↩︎

  3. I’m basing this in part on a personal anecdote. I once had a phase where I tried quite egregiously to signal non-conformance (going so far as to paint my nails, and so forth). I realize only in retrospect that this was an extreme measure I was trying as a last-ditch effort in gaining some societal acceptance by just forcing my identity on it. Effectively, a way of buying cheap attention and compliments - things that I had been chronically lacking previously. It’s only once I started receiving those things for other reasons besides just having the “bravery” to break societal norms, that I lost my desire to do so.↩︎