My big toe nail was damaged when I was a wee young lad, on account of a heavy vase being dropped on it. Insecurity about my toe has been a concern for me most of my life. Someone had made a comment about it when I was young, which led to a spiral of fear and dismay. As a kid, my biggest fear was that people would think I was different or make fun of me. Whenever I went to the pool, I would wear shoes for as long as possible, throw them off, and then jump into the pool as quickly as possible. Around friends I would always wear socks.
Today it seems silly to think that such a small external “defect” caused me so much internal strife. Heaven and hell are real, but there is no fire and brimstone — we create them ourselves every day. They often exist as a result of our own overblown self-inflicted pain or pleasure.
One day I went to a nail doctor and he asked me if I wanted the nail removed. This would have left the skin to grow and callous over a nailless toe. That thought didn’t really appeal to me, so I made the ‘brave’ decision to keep the toenail. As I walked out the door, the doctor said, “If a girl ever has a problem with that toe, don’t marry her.” Such wisdom in those words. I then consciously made a decision to get rid of that insecurity, mostly by telling myself it wasn’t a big deal, over and over. Positive thinking.
As I grew older it slowly became less of an issue, but I still would have this feeling of anxiety creep up on me when I wasn’t wearing shoes – a fixation. It’s as if, even though time had largely helped me get over it, the mind-body connection wasn’t so easily eradicated.
A few months ago, I bought a pair of flip-flops. I decided to wear them the entire time I was traveling across Asia. And so I did. After 5 months of open-toed travel, my insecurity is effectively gone, and I no longer have any sort of emotional response when I am barefoot. In fact, I rather enjoy it — and it only took me 20 years.
When we avoid uncomfortable situations, the power of that situation increases. When we face the situation, the problem loses its fuel and we no longer see it as a big deal. This is called ‘extinction’ and is a well-documented psychological behavior. All I had to do was — as cliche as it sounds — face my fear.
My toe might seem like a small issue to some, and you may have much bigger problems. But the larger insecurities in life sometimes feel too big to overcome, that is, we don’t know where to start (or even recognize our own feelings), so we are too paralyzed to take action. So we do nothing, or let them slowly eat away at our lives. Study upon study continues to link the increase of chronic physical illnesses, cardiovascular health, lung disease, high blood sugar, epilepsy — to name a few — to our psychological health. Mind and body are inextricably linked, something that humans have known unconsciously through experience for a long time and that we continue to validate through science.
For the sake of our health and happiness, we should start somewhere.
There’s a case to be made that starting with the smaller issues is a better idea than going for the bigger issues first, at least when it comes to feelings of insecurity and shame. One study showed that making incremental achievements actually leads to structural changes in the brain – in other words, this process builds up your brain in a way that makes positive outcomes more likely. Celebrating the “small wins” of overcoming a bad habit or insecurity will breed more confidence. Now that you’ve conquered one fear, you can move on to a slightly larger fear, systematically. Knocking down one bowling pin is better than none. As you get better, you’ll get a few strikes.
This may seem like an overly simple point, but often we get so caught up and overwhelmed with big issues that we forget about all of the little things that may have been accumulating. When you have a few pebbles in your shoe, you might be able to walk, but those littles stones are going to become frustrating as hell when you’re trying to run a marathon.
But first, we need to accurately recognize these problems.
Oftentimes when we feel an inflated sense of importance (egotistical behavior), this behavior is really hiding some insecurity. This manifests in overconfidence, envy, putting others down to make yourself feel better, and a host of other unhealthy habits (for a good example of how egotistical behavior manifests, look no further than President Donald Trumpkin).
Your inner voice is focused on doing what’s best for me, me, and me. Diminishing our feelings of self-importance and developing a sense of compassion for yourself (and others) is a way to extinguish the fuel that drives obsessions with external or internal insecurities.
The process goes something like this:
Increased awareness of situations that trigger ego-inflation > increased self-compassion > insecurities become more manageable and trivial > ego-inflation decreases
The good news is that that if you do successfully conduct step one, the others fall into place like dominoes. There are lots of techniques you can use, but from my experience one no-frills way to trigger this positive chain reaction is to start by writing down your thoughts, every day.
A fascinating study was done in which participants were made to experience mild pain. Those participants who were prompted to describe the physical and emotional experience were better able to cope with the pain. The idea is that creating a vocabulary to articulate and describe our emotions assists the process of emotion regulation. This is related to the concept of emotional granularity.
The simple act of writing out your thoughts, worries, and concerns starts to detach you and that incessant voice in your head, and puts it down on a piece of paper. It becomes separate from you. Getting things out of your head allows the journal itself to become a form of more objective self-analysis. Journaling is one of the best habits I’ve picked up over the past 3 years, and is an integral part of my morning routine.
How to journal:
Thoughts often happen below the levels of conscious awareness, so it’s hard for us to recognize the more relevant ones. But, it’s easy to notice when we’re feeling ostensibly anxious/sad/angry/etc. Next time you feel out of sync emotionally, use it as a cue. Write down those worries, concerns and thoughts on paper. Over time, almost naturally, you can start chipping away at the source of these little anxieties, recognizing them one by one and taking action. Eventually, it will have a domino effect and the seemingly insurmountable becomes achievable.
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