The feeling when you are uncertain about your ability to do something or to measure up to a certain standard. This uncertainty has a negative effect on your self-esteem.

You feel insecure when you are uncertain if you are good enough for something1, for example, whether you are smart enough to join an honors program, whether you are attractive enough for other people to be interested in you, or whether you are charismatic enough for people to want to spend time with you. These personal qualities are generally of the kind that we assess through other people’s judgments.

It generally depends on the social context which personal qualities are relevant and important, and thus, what people are insecure about. For instance, in a working environment, people may care much less about looks and more about professional competence. Because insecurity is about measuring up to a certain standard in the eyes of other people, the emotion is ultimately a fear of not being accepted, respected, or popular.

If people have a strong and frequent tendency to experience insecurity, it can be a trait, in which case someone is said to be ‘an insecure person’. However, insecurity as an emotion is experienced by everyone from time to time. Although insecurity is about the future possibility of something bad happening (as all fear-emotions are), past events can make it more likely to occur. For instance, you may become insecure about your fashion sense if someone made a remark about your outfit. Even when no one says or does anything that reveals a negative opinion, someone may notice that they fall short on a certain quality, compared to others in the group (through a process called social comparison). Secondly, people’s tendency to experience insecurity is inversely related to their self-esteem2.

Sometimes insecurity is restricted to a certain personal ability. For example, if someone makes a sneering joke about your looks, this may not impact your feelings about your intelligence. However, often insecurity has an overall negative effect on your self-esteem, making you feel worthless altogether.

In the comic, Murphy becomes insecure when he is coaxed to talk to Jessica, a female colleague he likes. He suddenly finds himself lacking in his appearance and eloquence.

Movie clips


Typical expressions

“I’m nothing. I’m worthless.”

“If I say something now, people will find out that I’m stupid.”

Murphy's bad day

Comparisons with other emotions

Insecurity & Anxiety

Anxiety and insecurity are both fears for abstract threats. For both emotions, it can be difficult to pinpoint a direct cause. The difference between the emotions is in the type of threat that they respond to. In the case of anxiety, the threat is existential: threatening the physical and mental wellbeing of a person. For insecurity, the threat is social: not measuring up in the eyes of others and ultimately, being accepted.

Insecurity & Nervousness

If you have to give an important presentation, you can feel nervous and insecure. Both emotions seem to relate to personal success and failure. The difference is that you are nervous for what you do and achieve, and insecure for who you are in the eyes of others. Because most of life’s achievements are somehow linked to recognition (or rejection) of others, the two emotions can often co-occur. However, someone can feel nervous without feeling insecure when they have to do a difficult job that does not impact how other people see them. For example, a doctor can be nervous for a complicated operation, but probably not insecure. Conversely, someone can feel insecure about themselves in a situation that does not require them to do or achieve anything.

Sources and further reading