She's so insecure!

My girlfriend is brilliant but wracked with self-doubt. Her need for reassurance is wearing me out.

By Cary Tennis
Published March 2, 2004 8:04PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

For the last six months I've been seeing a talented, intellectual woman in her mid-20s (I'm 29). She's had a ton of academic and professional success for her age -- or for any age. I'm not exaggerating to describe her as genius or near-genius level. She's extraordinarily attractive, very compassionate and a natural socialite with literally dozens of close friends. Within three months of meeting her, my social circle had easily tripled.

But she has essentially no self-confidence. Zero. She knows it, and we talk frequently about it, trying to help her feel more secure both in her life and in our relationship. Most of the conversations are loving and communicative, but emotional conflicts happen more than I'd like. She has a lot of deep emotional losses and unsupportive authority figures in her past, though no criminal abuse I'm aware of.

In our first month, she confessed her deep insecurities to me and asked if I could handle them. I told her I'd be supportive in every possible way, but I was human and couldn't promise with certainty I could. She seemed very pleased and said such an honest situation would be an ideal environment for her to work on growing her confidence. Unfortunately, after six months I'm getting burned out after all.

We have chronic conflicts about her many fears, for example: that I'm not truly committed, that she "doesn't measure up" to my exes, or that I spend time with her just to be nice rather than out of actual desire. Twice a month I'm defending some new nuance of her worth against the perceived perfection of my ex-girlfriends until 3:30 a.m. I often suggest we let issues cool until the morning so we can be rested. Sometimes I'm so tired I'm afraid I'll lose patience, raise my voice and start a real fight. But she has a terror of issues festering unresolved, her tears trump, and I always give in. We both lose a lot of sleep this way: It always ends up with her reassured and me spending the next couple days exhausted and resentful (but hiding the latter).

On her own she's relatively independent; she certainly has the skills and intelligence to get through her day. But when we're together, she seeks my approval of everything from clothing choices to the wording of minor e-mails. She often won't run even basic errands without my company. I love her company, but I'd rather spend our time together doing more fun and romantic things than a special trip to Rite Aid for hair clips. I work from home so my time is somewhat nebulously available; it gets sacrificed regularly.

I've tried everything to reassure her. But my responses to "You ... really do find me attractive?" are starting to sound wooden from sheer repetition. I've found far more patience for late-night difficult conversations than I thought I had. But I'm starting to need larger blocks of solitude to recover my energy, and I fear she'll pick up on that and confirm all her fears. She claims she's OK with me reserving time for myself, but my two previous attempts generated enough worry and conflict that the time gained hardly felt worth the process of reserving it.

She even expresses fear that her insecurities and admittedly irrational concerns are getting in the way, self-fulfilling prophecy-style. She's right, but I don't dare agree for fear of worsening the problem!

When we aren't arguing about exes or the like, we have a ton in common and really enjoy each other's company. My attempts to reassure her aren't acting, I really do love and respect her. I'd like to turn things around, but I'm running out of ways to tell her she's a wonderful person! I'm not sure what approach to try next. Help!

Drained in the Rockies

Dear Drained,

Suppose you're working and she comes into the room and says, "Do you really think I'm pretty, or are you just taking pity on me?" You may feel like keeping your concentration on your work, like not giving her any attention. You may feel that this was an intrusion, a kind of aggression. If you work with ideas, you may feel that breaking your concentration for even a minute is going to cost you hours of lost time, so you may hunch your shoulders and try to hold whatever thought you had and give as little as possible to her.

Or you may abandon your work and turn to her and listen and talk for hours, fearful that if you try to set a limit on it, she'll collapse or become angry, but all the time feeling that something is being stolen from you, and becoming over time resentful toward her.

But you need to handle this differently.

Look at her and hear what she has to say. Don't rush her. Hear it all. Give her a squeeze. Say something kind to her. Set her down on your lap. But tell her that in five minutes you have to get back to work, and then stick to your word. Spend a few minutes with her in a quiet, intimate way, and then turn back to your work, but with a promise that when you're done you'll take a long drive together, or go out for a meal, or make love.

If you can do that, you will give her a structure she can put her insecurity into: She gets immediate reassurance because you respond to her lovingly; and she gets something on which she can hang her anxiety for the next few hours: When you're done, you're going for a drive, or out for a meal; you're going to be there. Reassurance in the moment and a plan for the next few hours: That's a strategy for dealing with her attacks of insecurity.

It may not work perfectly the first time you try it. You'll probably sound awkward and fake; she may become indignant or angry. And since you've been doing the wrong thing for a while now -- spending long hours trying to reassure her verbally, which reinforces her cycle of dependence and manipulation -- she may sense the change in your approach (and indeed any independent action you take) as a mask for some deep and threatening betrayal.

So it would be good if you could get across to her that you're in this for the long haul -- that this change in your approach isn't a sign that you're abandoning her, but a sign that you are committed to her. Tell her that you know her insecurity is a problem but you want to be with her and you're trying to help her through it and that's what this is about. (You're going to have to work at this for a long time, so if you're not up for that, you should just tell her and break it off, because prospects for the short term are rather arduous and demanding.)

I don't think she's crazy, i.e., destructive or deeply manipulative. If she were, she might work harder to undermine you and harm you (if that happens, you may have to rethink your compassionate project). But I don't get the feeling that's what this is about. I get the feeling she's had her world shaken by something she wasn't quite ready for, that she's got a bad case of nervous insecurity, but she's basically sound and functional.

What I've observed is that in otherwise healthy and strong people the mind and the emotions, after a crippling blow or a bad few years, can be retrained and healed over time through habitual acts of the will -- deliberately sane actions, repeated until they begin to take root and become second nature.

So what you need to do is come up with those actions, things you can do when she is in this frame of mind that help you both get through it, coping actions that lead, through repetition, to eventual liberation. And part of that requires you to read and respond to the real emotion behind her words. She is feeling: Lonely. Unhappy. Unloved. Cold. Respond to these things: Give her some of your time; do something together that makes her happy. Put your coat over her shoulders. She needs love more than anything. That's what's going on here. If she gets love from you, it will strengthen her so she can withstand the various emotions that crop up.

But don't spend hours wallowing in the mud with her. That doesn't help either one of you. It's like you see her stuck in the mud but you don't want to embarrass her or hurt her feelings so instead of saying, Hey, get out of that mud! you get down there with her. Don't do that.

She knows she has a problem. Don't be afraid of it. Love her but help her out of the mud.

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Cary Tennis

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