Perpetuating vulnerable feelings?

Feel unsure of your mate’s love for you? Should you tell them that you are not feeling safe or secure in the relationship? When you tell them (accuse them of not caring?) and they profess their love for you, what will tell you that you can believe their promises? What will tell you to doubt their words?

Two Yale University psychologists (E. Lemay, Jr and M. Clark) explore this problem in 2008 in their “Walking on Eggshells: How Expressing Relationship Insecurities Perpetuates Them” (Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, v95, 420-441).

Their study is fairly long (5 studies in fact). But here are some key points.

When people feel insecure about a partner’s regard and acceptance, they often judge their own prior behavior as having communicated insecurity and emotional vulnerability to the partner. Consequently, they come to believe that they are viewed as especially insecure and vulnerable. Then, due to shared beliefs that people walk on eggshells around insecure, vulnerable others, such reflected appraisals of vulnerability elicit doubts about the authenticity of the partner’s expressions of regard and acceptance. Once authenticity is doubted, positive expressions are discounted, negative expressions are augmented, and hidden negative regard is inferred even when partners are accepting and actually hold positive regard. (p. 436)

What they are saying is that our own anxiety fuels are belief that they know we are vulnerable and are tiptoeing around us and that we doubt they love us and then we read their actions through a lens that denies the evidence of love and declares their love to be inauthentic. Which of course, we then share with them. Repeat this action and sooner or later they don’t want to be declared a liar anymore and distance from us thereby proving our deepest fears of abandonment.

In short, anticipated rejection leads to presumption that it has happened and that any activity countering that presumption is rejected and re-read through the lens of rejection. Because that is what we believe happens to weak people–they are abandoned.

So, should we keep our fears to ourself? No say the researchers. Then what should be done? The researchers say only a little on this (since it is not the focus of their research here). But, challenging cognitive distortions are at the top their list? What distortions in particular? Believing that others see you as weak as you feel; challenging the interpretations of another’s motivation. Also in their suggestions is practicing reading the commitment of the mate to the relationship by re-appraising and collecting the evidence of authentic responses from that mate.

The next time you feel the need to express your fears that your mate doesn’t really love you check to see whether your insecurity isn’t already telling you the answer you fear and rejecting evidence to the contrary. Dig a little and you may be able to find evidence that shows they love you. Then, be specific and tell them one concrete thing you would like to see changed, something that bothers you. Do it in love so as to not trigger their fears that you do not love them. Be wary of listening too much to your fears!


Filed under Anxiety, counseling science, Psychology

5 responses to “Perpetuating vulnerable feelings?

  1. The Rev. Andrew Nussey

    I find this discussion particularly relevant and helpful. Thank you.

  2. Dana

    This post got a big hmmmm out of me, because I sort of agree with parts, but mainly because the parts I disagree with were stated clearly enough to help me find words for opposite thoughts I’ve been struggling to express.

    My disagreement admittedly comes out of an extreme situation–an abusive marriage. But it was an abusive marriage in which most of the abuse was “hidden” and subtle. I felt insecure for years in my first marriage, but if I “dug a little deeper” as is suggested here, I could always find actual “real” evidence that my husband loved me. Those evidences were always WAY more tangible than my insecurities and even than my husband’s smart manipulations, and so the obvious conclusion by the counselors, my husband and even myself sometimes, was that I was too insecure and was trusting the “certainties” of my insecurities much more than the “facts”.

    By the end of that marriage, I was about as insecure of a person as I can imagine. And yet. A few years later I found/find myself in a new relationship. This time, I’m starting out the relationship extremely insecure. I express those insecurities. Nobody tries to fix me, or bend over backwards to prove my insecurities false. I’m allowed to be insecure, and I keep being loved. The amazing thing is, after two years knowing this guy and eventually marrying him, I continue to be absolutely shocked, day after day, that I’m NOT insecure. Even though I kept expressing insecurities. It blows me away, and forces me to rethink a lot of my previous insecurities and the ways they were handled in counseling (including challenging cognitive distortions).

    My hmmmm, though, is not because I think the authors are completely wrong. There really are situations in which insecurities are given more certainty than they should be given. But, at the same time as I’ve often rethought what I would go back and share with my counselors about the abuse that went undiscovered, etc., I’ve kept returning to the value of listening to my fears and insecurities.

    I didn’t start out a dreadfully insecure person, and I didn’t change anything, consciously, in myself, to become a much more secure person again. What changed? I don’t know. Mainly, I think what changed is that I was not in a secure relationship and now I am.

    Should I have shared my insecurities with my first husband? I don’t know. In the end, he wasn’t a safe person, and so my insecurities were not safe with him. Do I regret sharing them with my current husband? Not a bit. When I am safe, I am safe even being as insecure as I was. Walking through those insecurities with a safe person was incredibly healing and strengthening.

    At the same time, I do see their point that expressing my insecurities can contribute to the other person’s insecurities, but really, that’s not automatically necessary. My insecurities are mine. They impact my husband, but they aren’t his. My insecurities are not actually a challenge about his love, and so he is able to love me in that broken, insecure, weak place without having to be a different person, or “walk on eggshells”. It does take an amount of personal strength, health and caring to be able to hear another person’s insecurities about a relationship in some way other than a threat to the relationship or a challenge to my very real love for that person. But it can be done. And I’m really thankful it can be.

    I suppose the verdict is still out. My second marriage is still young. But I’m putting a vote in for the incredible healing that has come as both of us have been able to own up to our insecurities and doubts and give and receive love with them in the mix.

    The thing is. Feeling insecure when one IS insecure is a lifesaver. And so, while I don’t believe insecurity should be given absolute authority and credibility, I don’t think it should be treated as absolutely uncredible, even in the face of some “evidence”. Insecurity can be dishealth, but it can be a God-given warning sign that should be listened to.

    I do like the thought of “collecting the evidence of authentic responses from that mate” though an experienced, intelligent abuser knows how to give/accumulate quite a collection of authentic responses that can stand as “evidence” against the insecurities. In the end, though, no amount of evidence was ever going to make me stop feeling insecure in a relationship which wasn’t secure.

    No amount of insecurities, it also seems, were going to keep me from eventually feeling secure in a relationship and love which IS secure….

    • D. Stevenson

      What we might call cognitive distortions might not be distortions. Like “just because I am paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t out to get me”

      I find myself wondering about aspects of “challenging cognitions.” I am now doing cognitive therapy with a client. (my first time) I ask myself the same questions I ask my client. I hit a wall and seem unable to go further.

      I suppose it is that I don’t understand challenging cognitive distortions well enough. Or perhaps because I wonder how much stock we can put in our ability to know.

      And then, for example, if all you have experienced is abandonment, where is “evidence” that this won’t occur in yet the next relationship?

      • Dana

        Right–there’s got to be some way for a person who has been abandoned not only to learn to recognize trustworthiness and then learn to rest in that, but to be able to do so without forgetting that some people AREN’T trustworthy and the feelings of unsafety around them should be trusted….

  3. Dana, excellent comments. This research and my post do not address the very real concern of actual insecurity that you point out. And, you are right, the experienced abuser will know how to put the abused into a state of confusion and self-doubt.

    I would suggest that many folk who feel insecure have at least some reason for that feeling (and maybe much more). And yet, we ought not shrink away from the real prospect that we come to a conclusion about a problem and then fail to really evaluate the whole source of our insecurities. I find your comments helpful here. You are recognizing your tendency to verbalize insecurities and yet at the same time evaluate yourself as not being insecure.

    It might be helpful for me to list the key finding of each of the five studies. I’ll do that tomorrow.

    Thanks again for your careful thinking.

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