On insecurity, confidence, and aloofness
[ Below is the text of the presentation. Note that in the video I sometimes explain statements which are not found in the text. ]
Table of Contents
- Self-doubt, expectations, and ideals
- Misused idealism and insecurity
- Selfhood, ownership, and insecurity
- Selfhood and the comfort zone
- Be careful with ideals
Hello everyone! My name is Protesilaos, also known as “Prot”. In this presentation I want to talk to you about matters of disposition: how we conduct ourselves in a social setting, what is our sense of self, and how we can cope with the relevant challenges.
The idea is to use practical examples and connect them to abstract concepts. Studying everyday scenaria makes it easier for us to understand the meaning of those abstractions. We can discern them in facts we are already familiar with. We go from the particulars to the general, while from the general we can better comprehend the combinations between the particulars: we start thinking in terms of relations and systems.
As always, the text of this presentation is available on my website: https://protesilaos.com/books/2022-08-25-insecurity-confidence-aloofness
If you are watching this on the video hosting platform, there will be a link in the description.
I will use two Greek words in this presentation, so I must first explain what they mean:
Aktisia (ακτησία): non-ownership, else the state of not having possessions.
Ataraxia (αταραξία): non-disturbance or tranquillity, else a state where one is not moved or pressured by evolving states of affairs.
Hints to—or mentions of—these concepts can be found in my previous
videos on philosophy (and other works). As a starting point, check this
section of my website for entries with the
Though you don’t have to, as I will explain everything here.
Self-doubt, expectations, and ideals
Self-doubt is when you question yourself. You want to have a healthy dose of scepticism and do a reality check from time-to-time. This is fruitful: it ensures you do not get absorbed in your own subjective narrative of selfhood and all the misunderstandings that may go with it.
The tricky thing with self-doubt is that it can easily be mishandled. If done carelessly, it turns into self-denial. This is a state of mind where you refuse to give credit to yourself. It no longer manifests as a questioning attitude or a form of criticism. There is nothing fair about it. It is a polemic, an attack against everything you do.
Self-doubt turns into self-denial when we set unrealistic expectations about our self. For example, we notice this in people from a young age when they develop issues about their body image. They see all those highly edited pictures in magazines or TV and they get this idea that they are ugly. Then the self-denial moves from a perception of ugliness into self-loathing and self-hate. The person feels worthless.
While beauty standards are an obvious case we can all relate to immediately, they are not the only one. In society, we have standards for everything. How we should express ourselves, how we are perceived as professionals at the workplace, what our income or status says about our character, who we should have relationships with, and so on.
Everything we do has a standard. There is an ideal made out of it. Whether this ideal is correct or not does not really matter for our immediate experience with it. For instance, we may say that modern beauty standards are inhumane, but that does not solve the problem for people who are already feeling the pressure to be so-called “beautiful”.
Ideals are not inherently wrong. I am not saying that the reason we develop self-hate is because we have ideals. No! I’m hinting at the need for a balanced approach in understanding what an ideal represents.
Ideals are mental constructs. They are representations of patterns we observe in the world. We trace the common in the multitude of various phenomena and we turn that into a concept. We basically keep a perfect version of the pattern in our head.
Think, for example, how we derive the notion of
Dog. We observe all
sorts of specimens. Small dogs, large dogs, service dogs, catch dogs,
and so on. There are many breeds, landraces, and mixtures between them.
Dog then must not have specific attributes, because those
will not exist in all actual dogs. If, say, the ideal
Dog had long hair
then we would have to rule out all short-haired dogs as a different
species. That would be wrong. So the
Dog concept needs to be abstract
and sufficiently generic to cover all specimens.
All ideals are generic in this way, otherwise they remain open to
review. Since I mentioned beauty standards, think about the ideal of
Beauty. We cannot limit it to how humans look, because then we can’t
admire a sunset by saying “oh, this is beautiful”. We also can’t see
the beauty in a piece of art or in an elegant program, and so on. As
Beauty has to be generic as well. And the same for all ideals.
Strictly speaking, generic representations are not actual in our world. Everything we have is instantiated with specific attributes. There is no such thing as a generic dog with no particular skull size, for example. It has to have a head with a certain bone structure. The gist is that the actual cannot be ideal; the ideal cannot be actual.
We can thus infer that ideals do not exist directly. They do exist as
patterns in this world, which are discernible, but they do not get to be
experienced as such. We can only understand ideals through their
instantiations. For example, we get what
Dog is because we have seen or
interacted with all sorts of dogs, so we have a pretty good idea of what
the abstraction of those would be. The more we know about the
particulars, the finer and more generic our ideal will be.
The point, then, is to appreciate the role that ideals play in our everyday life. We cannot become the ideal student, the ideal professional, the ideal friend, the ideal philosopher, and so on. We can only ever have approximations of those mental images.
To use ideals properly, we need to avoid the common mistake of thinking that they can exist as such. Imagine that you will only settle for the ideal lover. Well, I have bad news for you… You will always be disappointed as such a person cannot exist. Our ideals are perfect and generic, but everything that is an instantiation of them has to be imperfect and specific by comparison. Humans are imperfect throughout. All of us.
Ideals are used correctly when they are our guides to action. We want to have a criterion that helps us decide in any given situation which among the alternatives is the closest to its perfect form. We do this with knowledge of the fact that we live in a world of imperfections. The ideal thus serves as the proxy of the good; not as its enemy. It is here where self-denying folks commit an error. And this includes me from a few years ago, so I am not blaming you out there. The error is in believing that we can have ideals in our life. Perfectly honest people, genuinely cooperative colleagues, pure intentions, and so on.
When we have this notion that ideals can exist, we necessarily operate with the expectation that they should exist. We wait and wait until we find them. Though as the years go by and we don’t get ideals in our life, we start to grow anxious and become unsettled. We are disappointed. “Why can’t people just be perfect?” we wonder.
These sort of unfulfilled expectations can then turn us into naysayers. We become unfair with things and this makes us dogmatic. It is how we end up hating our self and the world at-large. We see that we cannot have perfect beauty, so we go to the other extreme of insisting that we are absolutely repulsive. Idealism thus begets negativity and frustration. It leads to the propensity to dismiss the worth in things.
The person who is an idealist has to be able to distinguish between what they want and what is possible. I am speaking in conceptual terms here. By “possible” I do not mean what is politically expedient or appropriate in the given cultural milieu or institutional order. I am referring to the impossibility of ideals ever being actualised, as I already said.
It is fine to have ideals. We want to have them. The key is to learn how to use them properly. They help us aspire to our highest. But they must not be used against us or against the rest of world. We want the ideal to empower us to go from the available, to the good; from the good to the better; from the better to the best. We do not want ideals to be used as a reason to punish ourselves and to dismiss everything this life has to offer.
The self-denying and ultimately self-hating fellow must be understood as an idealist who applies ideals incorrectly. It is an imbalanced method; a method that is not informed by wisdom.
Misused idealism and insecurity
Let’s return to the example with the issues people have about their body image. I am using this because it is relatable to all of us. These people have developed—or been indoctrinated into—an idealised notion of what it means to be beautiful which they use to belittle and ultimately reject what they have. For whatever reason, they do not acknowledge that ideals cannot be instantiated as ideals.
Idealists who are misguided in this way are dogmatic in how they take the ideal for granted. They do not criticise it. They do not try to think that maybe—just maybe—something is amiss. Television, marketing, social media all reinforce certain stereotypes which are misconstrued as objective ideals. I say “misconstrued” because they are not sufficiently generic, as ideals ought to be. They are inane standards.
People are not at fault. When seemingly everyone out there holds those views, we become intimidated in even questioning them. It takes a lot of courage to say “hold on a moment, this is a lie!” Most people will not do that because they are inclined or conditioned to go with the majority and play it safe. So a cultural construct appears in the mind as a universal constant. The thinking is that “this is what beauty is, full stop” and it does not tolerate any counterpoints.
Due to the way it is framed, the misguided idealist is prone to develop tunnel vision and intolerance of alternative views. They will judge everything on the basis of their narrowly conceived ideal. For example, they will assess the worth of a person based exclusively on their looks. They won’t care if the person is nice, knowledgeable, has a sense of humour, sensitivities about art, or whatnot. It is an all-or-nothing kind of deal based on appearances alone.
The false ideal and its inconsiderate application thus inhibits the person from experiencing the world as it actually is, with all its flaws and imperfections, with its complexity, and with the multifaceted reality of its beings.
Society with its culture plays a catalytic role in how we think about our self. I have explained this point in greater detail in a previous presentation about selfhood: https://protesilaos.com/books/2022-05-31-selfhood/
The gist is that we use the opinions of others about who we are as (i) confirmation of our thoughts or (ii) we try to become who others think we should be. Either way, our selfhood is not a strictly private affair. It emerges through intersubjective modes of behaviour.
We can already get a sense of this intersubjectivity by thinking again about how ideas that find currency in our milieu influence the behaviour of individuals. Societies establish rules which define roles for classes of their members. If a person has certain characteristics or is in a given situation, they have to act in accordance with the requirements of the role. It is no longer about the person as such, but rather about the institution, the role carried out by the person.
When we take those roles for granted, we become the institution. We are who the rules of the game demand that we ought to be. And this is where the line between one’s notional “true self” and their culturally instituted self is blurred. We cannot really have the person in a decontextualised state to determine what comes from their environment and what doesn’t. So we have to take selfhood as this subjective narrative which, at the very least, has strong intersubjective influences.
But let me be practical here as I may be becoming too vague. I want to help you follow my line of reasoning and see how philosophy is a practical affair. I don’t need to tell you about all the falsehoods we find on the Internet, though imagine this caricature of the social media influencer. They will post what is considered a “hot” picture with the caption:
Be yourself ❤️
Contrary to the salient point of “Be yourself”, they will take a hundred shots to find the one that flatters their figure the most. They will likely heavily modify the photograph to remove blemishes or, perhaps, add more emphatic curves here and there. You know how it works.
The issue is that those who are already misusing ideals do not critically assess this sort of publication. They don’t notice the disconnect between what is shown and what is stated. Instead, they get feedback that reinforces their already dogmatic attitude and feeds into their growing insecurity or warped expectations. They see an influencer showing off what so-called “beauty” is supposed to be and they are, well, influenced to think accordingly and to propagate those beliefs.
As for the meaning of the message to “be yourself” in such cases, it is but idle talk. Honesty is here sacrificed to the altars of social validation, instant gratification, and outright hypocrisy. There is nothing substantive about it. I am not blaming the influencer though, as they too are a victim of those very standards they vindicate and embody. But more on this later.
Extend this mechanism to all cases where standards and concomitant social expectations are involved. The person who is misusing idealism gets the message that this is how things ought to be and, due to their wrong mindset, due to their dogmatism, they conclude that those are the reasons why they are worthless as a person.
Insecurity comes from self-consciousness of one’s perceived limitations as seen from the imaginary social eye. This is key: the belief that there exists an omniscient and ubiquitous judge “out there” that will punish us for our every misstep. Of course, this is not limited to the example I have used with beauty standards, though that gives us a fairly good indication of how things work.
Insecurity is fuelled by the belief we have that we are not good enough. We are conditioned to assign value to all those lofty targets and we ultimately feel inferior to them. Even when we find ourselves in a new situation, we assume that those standards still apply or that something relevant is in force. Thus our self-impression is that of the impostor. Deep down we have this self-doubt that pushes towards self-denial, as we think we are incompetent and start hating who we are.
We do not question the presence of this “social eye” as we are used to it in every situation. We know that people judge others for everything. We would rather not find ourselves in that position. We wish to be loved or, generally, to feel safe. We are extra careful. Yet there is a fine line dividing caution from prejudice and relevant self-fulfilling prophecies. If we truly believe that we are an impostor, then all our actions will be defined by this pervasive sense of insecurity. We will look insecure and, consequently, appear incompetent exactly because that is how we operate.
Selfhood, ownership, and insecurity
I believe that at the core of insecurity lies the intuitive belief we have about ownership. We think that every critique is an attack on our person. As we are of the view that our self has specific attributes that we cherish and want to hold onto, we perceive criticism as an attempt to deprive us of those things we think we own. For example, if someone says that we are wrong, we become defensive because we fear that our intelligence, or pride, or something related, is under threat. We do not want to lose what we think is ours.
Do we own anything though? The belief in ownership is deeply embedded in our conduct. We take it for granted. You may be thinking that this question I just asked is some kind of trick. But I do not play games: I am serious and want you to think about this topic very carefully. Do we own anything?
We think we own stuff due to the association we make of their joint presence or correlation. For instance, our sense of self involves the notion of how good our memory is. We take this as a definitive characteristic of who we are. Though it is not truly inalianable, meaning that it can be taken away from us. Under certain conditions, our organism as a human may develop in ways that do not include this attribute. You slip, hit your head, and sustain an injury that causes a permanent condition. You no longer have what you thought was yours…
Consider your appearance, your beauty, or whatever else. You really care about it. It defines who you are. Is it yours though? Who owns what? Can you truly hold on to it, no matter what? You cannot. You definitely cannot. Whatever you think is yours, is so by coincidence. It is not a necessary relationship.
We need to understand how the universe works and accept what is transient as just that. Our presence and all of its attributes are ephemeral and coincidental: they are contingent on a multitude of factors. We tend to think of our self in a vacuum. Even the expression I just used of “presence and all of its attributes” is an analytical construct: a product of thought. In practice, those different names do not exist as standalone magnitudes that can be neatly separated.
We do not consider the intersubjectivity of selfhood that I already explained, but we also forget about the natural order. Our presence in the cosmos is always—always—framed, informed, conditioned, influenced, or otherwise determined by factors beyond our control. What our actuality is, is not simply a function of our volition, else free will. We cannot be whomever we want, no matter what. The prevailing conditions delineate a horizon of possibilities.
The main insight for us right now is that ownership is an illusion. We do not own anything. Not our looks, not our brains, not our self. Whoever you think you are, there is always a chance that you are refashioned into someone else, given the right triggers or modifications in the constitution of the case; in the factors whose interplay affects your presence.
Everything we think we own is alienable, meaning that it can be taken away from us and be rendered alien vis-à-vis our person. We understand this point with possessions, like our phone or clothes, even though we have an elaborate legal-institutional order that envisages and safeguards property rights. We know that property is conventional and that it does not exist without the instituted reality that enables it. We just extend this principle to what we consider our internal world.
We thus arrive at aktisia, the state of non-ownership. We acknowledge that owning stuff is an illusion. It is based on the instinct we have for self-preservation which establishes in us a bias in favour of certain beliefs. We assume we own our self, our body, our possessions, simply because this helps us survive. That’s perfectly fine. Though when we do philosophy, we start developing what I have explained before as the mystical side of our being.
[ Read/watch: Ataraxia, moderation, and mysticism https://protesilaos.com/books/2022-02-16-ataraxia-moderation-mysticism/ ]
Mystic, mysticism, mysterious, and related concepts have to do with initiation in a corpus of knowledge or way of thinking. If we encounter something we do not know, we think it is mysterious. Though this merely indicates our ignorance. The subject matter is not inherently unintelligible or incomprehensible. It is just unknown to us, as we have not been initiated in the relevant school of thought or discipline.
Our mystical side, the one that is informed by wisdom, is the least developed of our facets, as opposed to instincts. But as we cultivate our mystical qualities, we begin to overcome the built-in prejudices we have. This happens organically. It is the product of a life-long commitment to philosophy. By understanding things at a deeper level, we no longer have this impression of selfcentredness: we do not think that the whole world revolves around us and that we somehow are special. We ultimately do not even operate on the basis of our ego.
Aktisia, however, is a profound realisation that requires a lot of work. It is not something we learn over the weekend and then carry on with our routines. It changes our life.
When we do not admit to aktisia, we assume that we own our self. We then think that we also own everything that is an extension of our self. For example, we are emotionally invested in our projects or ideas. We want them to succeed and be proven right. This is a way for our ego to find fulfilment. We defend them as if we were fighting for our survival, exactly because we take them as our own possessions, as a part of who we are.
This links back to insecurity. When we labour under the prejudice that we own stuff which are alienable, we fear that we might lose them. And as we associate our selfhood with them, we are afraid that a loss of this sort constitutes a diminution of who we are. Insecurity, then, is fuelled by the justifiable albeit mistaken presumption of ownership.
Here I will say something you may find strange. Confidence is just like insecurity. They are two sides of the same coin, for it too is an attitude that is predicated on ownership. Confidence also requires that we have things we can cling on to; things which define us as unalterable and give us this seemingly unflinching resolve.
Both insecurity and confidence are fragile because they spring from a baseless belief of owning our self and all of its apparent extensions. Given the appropriate stimuli, these thoughts can be exposed and be undone, leading to the collapse of everything built on top of them.
Admitting to aktisia thus helps us overcome such a dichotomy and its precarious state. We all want to be confident. Confidence is the best thing possible, or so we believe. Though confidence presupposes commitment to an illusory state of affairs, which is reducible to the claim that what we have is inalienable and permanent.
This leads me to the next point. The illusion of ownership comes with another presumption: the belief in permanence. However, our life and every aspect of it is impermanent. Our notion of self evolves over time from our teenage years, to adulthood, and as we grow older. It depends on our experiences and social interactions, among others. Our appearance changes as well, as does our “inner world”, and all else.
We know about this. We are readily aware of it. Though we do not think deeply of impermanence as doing so would challenge our view of ownership. There may be a built-in resistance there. Though it is not insurmountable. Once we get past that initial hesitation and admit to impermanence, we also notice how what we take for granted in our life is contingent on a multitude of factors beyond our control. And then we ultimately arrive at the admission of aktisia.
When we reach that point, we are finally freed from the biases that fuel both insecurity and confidence. There no longer is a fear that we may lose something, or an aspiration that we might gain something else, as we already know that we cannot truly own anything.
Aktisia is a state of mind. It is not that suddenly we have no self, no appearance, no recognisable attributes. We are still human. It just means that we are not attached to those qualities or their derivatives. We are not emotionally invested in them. If we have something, we are okay. If we lose it, we are okay. In other words, we remain indifferent.
Such is a state of ataraxia, else tranquillity. We operate with aloofness. There is no fear, no desires, no past or future. There is a lightness to our being, where we merely operate in the here-and-now unencumbered by all those burdens we would otherwise carry on our back.
Selfhood and the comfort zone
Ataraxia changes how we live our life. We are no longer going through a constant struggle of trying to maintain our happiness, to accumulate more things, or to fight for what we consider as rightfully ours. Through aktisia, we overcome the bias of egocentrism. The ego is like an insatiable monster that keeps asking for more. But once we escape from its grip, we simply accept what happens to be the case.
This brings me to the topic of one’s comfort zone. We often hear or may even say it ourselves that we need to relax and just be comfortable with who we are. “Be yourself”, right? The idea is to practice self-love and to not try to conform with whatever inane standard. If we think about the examples I provided earlier, such as with the beauty standards, this advice is fecund. It can help people avoid the suffering associated with the impossibility of conforming with an unrealistic criterion. That’s good.
However, to be yourself does not guarantee that you start walking on the right path. It might be that you remain misguided, driven by cultural norms, instinctive biases, and so on. There is nothing in self-love that ensures emancipation from fear and desires. It is better than a living hell, sure. Though it still is problematic in its own ways.
I have said before that sometimes the comfort zone is but a prison that we have gotten used to and thus consider a cosy environment. It makes us feel good superficially due to our familiarity with it. Though this may well be a case of “the evil you know is better than the one you don’t”. I am sure you have heard this expression before or at least something like it. It basically captures the view that familiarity is giving us a sense of comfort even when it is not really good.
The problem with trying to practice self-love and to “just be yourself”, is that your selfhood is likely to be predicated on years of experience and conduct that are biased in major ways. Think about someone who has always been insecure. They have the propensity to guard themselves from getting exposed, by planning everything ahead of time. They tend to have a prefigured response to every stimulus or social interaction. And when they are caught in an unfamiliar situation, they tend to panic.
This is an older version of me. I am not blaming anyone. I used to operate in ways that would allow me to be in a controlled environment. This would help me figure out all possible outcomes and decide in advance how best to react. Though this seldom works, as life is complex and our neat schemes tend to not correspond with the state of affairs. Hence the anxiety and panic attacks.
Now, if we tell such a person to simply love who they are, we are not doing them any kind of favour. We are, in effect, encouraging them to stay in their prison. It is like we are saying, “oh, but your cage is so pretty”. Whereas what we really want, when we conduct ourselves with wisdom, is to help people overcome their own worst enemy: their fears, their desires, their expectations, their ego.
And this applies to all folks, not just those who are insecure like past me. It is the same for the person who appears confident or even for that social media influencer I mentioned earlier. They all are under some kind of pressure to conform with standards: they are victims of expectations. And they all dread losing what they think they have: their beauty, their popularity, their success, their social circle, or whatnot. What happens if the influencer gets zero attention? Are they okay? They do not admit to aktisia and, therefore, cannot attain ataraxia.
Be careful with ideals
In conclusion folks, let me return to the theme of what ideals are. We don’t want to get into the mindset of wanting or hoping for some ideal to be actualised. This cannot happen. Ideals that are formulated with wisdom are our guide in life. We use them to make practical decisions and deal with specific circumstances. But we know where they belong.
Furthermore, remember what I covered in my previous presentation on “Who can be a philosopher”: https://protesilaos.com/books/2022-08-07-who-can-be-philosopher/. The key to philosophy is patience. We cannot have wisdom without being patient. We cannot achieve sophistication in haste. We cannot be profound while remaining at the level of superficialities. And so on. Please check my presentation if you need the details.
The point is that aktisia and ataraxia are concepts that can be misused as well. We are imperfect and tend to seek the course of action that requires the least amount of effort. We should not commit the error of thinking that all of sudden we will become an absolutely immovable object that subsists in perfect harmony. This is not realistic.
Similarly, we should not have a ceremonial or tokenistic understanding of those ideas. If, for example, you throw away your phone you do not necessarily reach that point of embedding aktisia in your modus vivendi. Maybe you are working towards that direction, though you need to be mindful of what the substance is and not remain limited to the appearances. What I am saying here is not a glorification or rationalisation of poverty or the simple life. To lead a simple life is but a side-effect of the recognition that we do not own anything. But we must get the order right and understand what comes first.
In practical terms, let me share a few things about myself, the insecurities I once had, and how I now operate with aloofness. Not confidence, mind you, but aloofness. Very different.
I used to be afraid to speak in public. I thought that everyone around me was a preeminent expert and that somehow I had cheated my way into their company. I felt I was an impostor. I dreaded speaking as I believed it would expose my presumed charade and that everybody would then laugh at me for how ignorant I truly was.
It was the same with written communication. I had to read an email over and over again to check for typos and to painstakingly explain every inconsequential detail. Why? Because I thought my language skills were not up to par. Also, because I did not want to expose what I considered to be my ignorance. Again, this feeling of being an impostor.
I only managed to overcome those impediments with my transition to philosophy. I became a philosopher through trial and error in life experiences. Not books, not formal education. The short version of the story is that it was a painful transition, after which I was effectively remade.
Compare the fearful me to the attitude I have now. For example, I started using Emacs three years ago. In case you don’t know, this is a special program that looks like a text editor but actually is an integrated computing environment. I was not a programmer, though I was indifferent about it and thus had neither fear nor desire. I was free from all the burdens, so I started using Emacs and eventually learnt to be good at it. Now I maintain all those programs for Emacs. You see how this works?
Same principle for these philosophy videos. I am doing them not because I think I am the foremost expert on any of the topics I have covered. In fact, I don’t have any formal qualification as a philosopher. Previous me would have been intimidated to ever do this, out of fear of being branded as a charlatan. Such is the bias of ownership, of losing something we think we have.
Yet here I am, aloof with a lightness to my disposition. I have nothing to prove, nothing to gain, nothing to lose. I am merely sharing those words as others might find them useful for their own life. And, if they don’t, well… I didn’t lose anything.
To the question “who do you think you are?” I blithely reply with “Protesilaos, also known as ‘Prot’—nice to meet you!”
All this is simple, perhaps deceptively so. Same as with what I said before about patience. That too sounds easy. But it isn’t. It takes a lot of work and requires commitment. Though this is a case of doing the basic things right. It’s not some deep secret that only the “special ones” or some elite knows about.
I thus ask you to reflect on your condition. Think carefully about your insecurity or your confidence. Your achievements, your personhood. Consider all those things you take for granted. Are they yours? What are you afraid of, really?
That’s all for today, folks. Thank you very much for your attention!