I have been mulling over this excellent post. I read it a few days ago, and something struck me in particular that I want to ramble about. The issue at hand is insecurity.
Here’s the deal. Every person has their individual strengths and weaknesses, desires, tendencies, and quirks. Shaped by our experiences, we venture out into the world to, one way or another, experience more. The intersection of all these different moments, lit up by the way our individual brains fire neurons in every direction, is who each of us are. Some of us are similar to others of us, while being less similar to yet others of us. Many of us have more in common than we don’t have in common, because we are all built along roughly the same lines. It’s the detailing that makes such an impact, rather than the chassis and basic collection of parts.
Most people are not secure in themselves. They are, in fact, insecure. Lacking the sense of a firm foundation, even if they have one. It is the rare human being who exists feeling perfectly secure in their own skin. Most people have to look outside themselves — to family, to a particularly close friend or two, to a job — for the kind of stability that really makes them feel safe. This isn’t a problem, and it isn’t a personal failing. Everybody needs somebody sometime, people who need people are the luckiest people, blahblah, you get the idea. Feeling more or less insecure doesn’t make you a good person or a bad person, or a better or worse person. It’s just how things go. To question is to try and improve. That’s what we’re doing, when we have a bout of insecurity. We’re questioning ourselves.
So, to bring this baby around, feeling insecure is a part of life. It’s part of the comparative existence most of us lead. We’re constantly trying to figure out what’s better, or not, and why, and who do we like more, and what’s our favorite this or that. It’s part and parcel of a consumption-based culture with lots and lots of advertising. Insecurities come up, because we all want to be loved and approved of, but we are all aware that we are not the only or the best or the most. A lot of the time in this culture, it is not all right to simply, genuinely be who you are. You have to “stand out,” when really, you should be able to stand out because of the things that you, individually, say and do. It is enough. I don’t have to be the only smart, pretty, red-headed writer, reader, musician, knitter, witty girl in order to be a smart, pretty, red-headed writer, reader, musician, knitter, witty girl. It is more than enough to be all those things. Flavored with everything else, concrete and ineffable, that makes me myself and unique.
As I was writing the last paragraph, I had to change “being insecure” to “feeling insecure,” because I realized that by labeling insecurity as a state of being, rather than a transient state of mind, I was giving it the power of definition. How many times have we all said, “I’m insecure?” I know I do it, especially when I want outside validation of things I believe about myself. But, as Sarah brought up in her interesting post, there is a reluctance to give myself that support. It would make me look spoiled, or bitchy, or delusional, to be able to tell myself how capable and intrinsically interesting I am and believe it. So I sidle up to a friend and usually make a self-deprecating statement, to prime them to take over the reassurances that in all likelihood, I can probably give myself. This isn’t always true. We are all unsure of ourselves and our talents, and that’s okay. But I think if we exploded the idea (possibly with dynamite) that being proud of ourselves and pleased about our own particular abilities makes us blind, or full of ourselves, there would be a lot more room for healthy conversation about strengths and weaknesses.
Compliments are nice, don’t get me wrong. I love compliments. Reassurance is necessary, especially in a romantic context, because we’re more vulnerable to another person to begin with, and other people are their own complex and wonderful selves. Being unsure in that situation is fine. We never really know what’s going on in another person’s head, and we want to know. As humans we are reliant on words for that, but starting a conversation by saying, “Tell me why you like me!” sounds a little bit too much like “Give me compliments!” Feeling insecure is in its own way a defense mechanism. But it isn’t a healthy one. It robs us of feeling pretty good about ourselves, a lot of the time.
So, to once again try to bring this baby around to fiction, I think some of this behavior is learned. The comparative consumerist culture is one part of it. There is also the pressure on girls to be modest. We’re not supposed to be too openly proud of ourselves, even if we are aware that we’re great, which a lot of the time we’re taught not to be. This leads to “Who, Me?” Syndrome, which so many girls and women in fiction suffer from. There are two main varieties of Who, Me? Syndrome: Delusional and Manipulative. Delusional “Who, Me?” is characterized by a lack of self-awareness, leading to not being aware that one is largely an awesome and lovely human being. Focusing on one’s flaws, real and imagined, is a common side effect, and quietly sad comments like, “I’m not special/pretty/smart/good at x” are also signs that one is suffering from Delusional “Who, Me?” The usual therapy for this condition in fiction is a hot, amazingly special guy who sees in the girl what she does not, and makes her believe it with his tender-yet-passionate raving about her and his passionate-yet-tender kisses. (Because the only reason, and thus the only cure, for a girl’s insecurities is boys. Yeah. Rant for another day.)
Manipulative “Who, Me?” Syndrome in fiction is usually characterized by a girl knowing she’s all that and more, but acting like she doesn’t in order to get male attention from that species of guy who suffers from the feeling that if he whistles loud enough, a white horse and shining armor is going to appear. (Again, rant for another day.) No good comes to these Manipulative girls. They are the bad girls, the mean girls, who are masquerading as Delusionals, and we’re given the strong impression in a lot of fiction that they will come to no good end, while the Delusionals will recover nicely with their hot men. Now, I agree that manipulating people is bad and wrong. But why, so often, are the antagonist women in fiction the ones who know they’re hot stuff? It sends a message to the women reading fiction, and especially to young women and girls. It says, “Pay absolutely no attention to how great you are. Focus on your faults so people will like you.”
Worst fortune cookie ever.
I just started reading a romance novel, and the first time we get anything from the hero’s point of view, he spends a bit of time in a rhapsodic reverie over how gorgeous the heroine is, and then thinks, “The fact that she seemed oblivious to her own beauty only made her that much more attractive.” I wanted to scream. This is what I’m talking about. To be fair to the book, the heroine doesn’t seem to be that delusional. But that mindset in the main male character drives me up the wall. Why is that more attractive?
There needs to be more room in the world for girls to think well of themselves. I’m not talking misplaced pride, or narcissism, or anything even remotely approaching them. I’m talking about being able to look at oneself and appreciate the good things. To be able to take a compliment without it becoming the center of your universe forever. To be able to take a piece of criticism in stride, or to not let a nasty comment get to you, because you are aware of the core of yourself as a valuable, viable entity without outside confirmation.
Feeling insecure is a part of life. But it shouldn’t be a substitute for a personality in a fictional character. Nor should self-confidence. People in the real world are amalgamations, so should people in fiction be.
Phew! That wasn’t a lot at all. Tune in next time, when I talk about my fictional role models, and the ways in which having insecurities contributes to a character. (Because as a part of fiction, as with being a part of life, insecurities have their place and their uses.)