Emotional security can be defined as a state of calmness that doesn’t get overwhelmed by negative emotions. Emotionally secure people can handle situations that can shake the emotional balance of emotionally insecure people. They have good emotional self-control.
Emotional security and emotional stability are synonymous terms. The opposite of this tendency is neuroticism. Those scoring high on neuroticism are less likely to be emotionally secure.
Emotionally secure people make others feel comfortable because they’re comfortable with themselves and their own emotions. They’re perceived to be strong, level-headed and leader-like.
In contrast, emotionally insecure people have little control over their emotions and are seen as weak.
Many people wrongly think that emotionally secure people are out of touch with their emotions. Emotionally secure people are well-aware of their emotions and they’re also emotionally intelligent. They just don’t let their emotions get the better of them.
To put it in another way: Emotionally secure people feel emotions like other people do, but they’re strategic with the expression of their emotions. They like to have control over their emotions and don’t let their emotions control them.
Recently, there has been a lot of talk about being emotionally vulnerable. People, especially men, are advised to express emotions and be vulnerable. While it may be great advice for men in relationships because expressing emotions increases intimacy, it’s certainly not good advice for those in power positions.
Leaders who express their negative emotions communicate weakness. Emotionally intelligent and secure people understand this. So they’re strategic with their emotional expression. They know what emotions to share when and with whom.
Emotional security and high self-esteem
To a great extent, the level of self-esteem dictates how emotionally secure a person is. In my recent article on low self-esteem, I mentioned that people with low self-esteem lack self-worth diversification. Their self-esteem is fragile and hangs on weak foundations.
In contrast, the self-esteem of high self-esteem people hinges on solid foundations. Therefore, high self-esteem people are better able to weather the storms of life that can turn low self-esteem people into emotional wreckages.
This isn’t to say that having a high self-esteem is a prerequisite to becoming emotionally secure. You could have low self-esteem and still have emotion management skills. But having a high self-esteem makes it a lot easier.
Characteristics of emotionally secure people
You can use the following list to see where you stand. If three or more of these characteristics apply to you, then you’re likely to be emotionally secure.
1. They can manage their emotions well
On one end of the spectrum, we have naïve people who express and act on almost every feeling they get. On the other end, we have people who suppress their emotions.
Emotionally secure people lie somewhere in the middle. They acknowledge and experience emotions but choose when to express them or act on them.
2. They maintain a general level of happiness
Emotionally secure people maintain a general level of happiness thanks to their high self-esteem and pursuing activities that interest them. This general happiness is unshaken by minor setbacks or disappointments. Thus, emotionally secure people also come across as resilient.
3. They maintain healthy relationships with others
High self-esteem gives a person a strong sense of self to present to the world and interact with it. Low self-esteem people tend to be insecure and lack a strong sense of self. When you don’t know who you are, you don’t know how to present yourself to the world, interact with it, and build relationships.
Therefore, emotionally secure people maintain healthy relationships while emotionally insecure people lean more toward isolation.
4. They see emotions as their guides
Emotionally secure people see emotions for what they are- guidance systems. They listen to their emotional signals but don’t trust them blindly. They’re able to separate facts from feelings in themselves and in others. They know when to trust their gut and when to think things through.
5. They seek to understand their emotions
Again, this goes back to having a healthy relationship with your emotions and emotionally secure people are masters at that. They’re not controlled or trapped by their emotions. They use their emotions as much as they can. They know emotions are like a sharp knife that can be used to kill or save a life.
They make use of their emotions while minimizing their negative impact. They seek to understand their emotions so they’re not easily swayed by them.
6. They know they’re not their emotions
Many emotionally insecure people act like they are their emotions. They’re unable to enforce a psychological distance between themselves and their emotions. This is especially true for impulsive people.
The more you distance yourself from your emotions, the more you can look at them objectively, understand them, and make use of them. Emotionally secure people can separate themselves from their emotions.
How emotionally insecure people behave
In contrast to the general level of happiness experienced by emotionally secure people, emotionally insecure people experience a general level of unease or nervousness.
This goes back to them being unsure of their identity and feeling inferior compared to others. Since a constant, underlying sense of vulnerability haunts them, they overreact to stressors or express emotions that are disproportionate to situations.
For instance, they may have a short temper, or they may panic in response to minor setbacks. Their self-worth hinges on weak foundations and so they go out of their way to protect it.
This might also manifest in their getting overly upset by criticism or their habit of constantly putting others down (to make themselves look better).
Since insecure people see themselves as inferior to others and are threatened by them, two strategies they adopt to counter this threat are:
Shyness, paranoia, and social withdrawal are all ways insecure people use to prevent their flawed selves from getting exposed to the world.
This includes arrogance and bullying. These are the pre-emptive “hurt them before they hurt you” strategies.
Emotional security theory
It’s understandable that adults vary in emotional security based on their levels of self-esteem and emotional intelligence. But what about children?
Children are not expected to have a strong sense of self. The need to establish an identity only emerges in adolescence. Yet, we can see that some children are more emotionally secure than others.
Emotional security theory explains why this is the case. It explains why some children have adjustment problems that can tip over into adulthood.
According to the theory, children have a goal to preserve emotional security within family relationships. They want their caregivers to love them and love each other. This makes them feel emotionally secure.
In high-conflict families, particularly families rife with inter-parental conflict, this emotional security gets compromised. Witnessing inter-parental conflicts that aren’t resolved healthily makes children vulnerable to psychological problems.1
When parents engage in frightened or frightening behavior during a conflict, the child witnessing it feels threatened. The fear and distress experienced by the child motivate her to intervene or avoid the conflict.
The goal of these two responses- intervention and avoidance- is self-protection. In this way, the child’s mind is sensitized to detect threats in the social environment. Witnessing prolonged inter-parental conflict makes child see novel social situations as threatening.
Witnessing parental conflicts activates the child’s Social Defence System (SDS). The goal of this evolved system is to protect oneself from social harm.
As a result, the child scans their social environment for harm as a defensive strategy. Children who experience emotional insecurity in inter-parental relationships become proficient in detecting threats and recruit behavioral strategies of self-protection.2
Such children might become shy, submissive, and socially anxious (avoidance) or see harm where there is none and protect themselves via aggression (bullying).
With a mind primed to detect social threats, such children are likely to become less sensitive to positive social signals such as friendliness.3
The over-activated and hyper-sensitive SDS inhibits other approach systems that are critical for healthy adjustment in children. They’re called approach systems because they enable a child to approach the world and others. They are:
1. Exploration system
This dopamine-driven system encourages a person to master their physical world. It drives people to explore and understand their world.
Since emotionally insecure children are preoccupied with detecting social threats, this system takes a backseat. They’re likely to suffer from problems such as doing poorly in school or lacking problem-solving skills.
2. Affiliation system
This system drives people to make friends and form a shared identity in social relationships. Since the SDS interferes with the processing of positive social cues, emotionally insecure children struggle in forming close relationships.
3. Care-giving system
This system makes us sensitive to distress signals (sadness and crying) emanated by others and generates sympathy and empathy so we can show caregiving behaviors. Hyper-activated SDS interferes with this system, reducing the chances that a child will show helping behavior.
Unless something brings down the SDS back to normal activation levels, this defence system could color the life of a person well beyond childhood and adolescence.
The person may struggle to achieve their goals because they don’t seek to understand the world (exploratory system) and form relationships (affiliative and caregiving systems).
However, there’s hope. Those who experienced emotional insecurity in early childhood can learn new ways of thinking and behaving to cope, engaging their approach systems and keeping their SDS in check.
- Davies, P. T., Martin, M. J., & Sturge‐Apple, M. L. (2016). Emotional security theory and developmental psychopathology. Developmental psychopathology, 1-66.
- Davies, P. T., Sturge-Apple, M. L., & Martin, M. J. (2013). Family discord and child health: An emotional security formulation. In Families and child health (pp. 45-74). Springer, New York, NY.
- Pollak, S. D., & Tolley-Schell, S. (2004). Attention, Emotion, and the Development of Psychopathology.