Insecurity at the Office
Seventeen years ago, I met an unusual college student. I had recently taken a job in campus ministry and we were hosting a back-to-school bar-b-que when this first-year kid walked up and shook my hand.
“Jesse. Jesse Dorman.”
He was confident, even arrogant, but this wasn’t the unusual part. Arrogance as a cover for insecurity was common among YAMs—young athletic males. I knew because I was still one myself.
What was unusual—and what I came to know almost as quickly as Jesse’s accomplishments and aspirations—was his honesty.
Jesse was as honest about his weaknesses as he was about his strengths, and that intrigued me in a world of 18-year olds needing to be liked.
In this series on obstacles to faith and work integration, Katherine Alsdorf lists the “need to be liked” as number three, behind money and power. I invited Jesse to answer a few questions about the topic. As one of my closest friends, and a young professionals coach here at The High Calling, this 35-year-old Dean of Students speaks honestly once again.
Jesse, thanks for your time. Alsdorf says, “The need to be liked…can really get in the way.” Her comment reminds me of Henri Nouwen, who is like the king of insecurity navigation if you ask me. Remember this from Reaching Out?
“When our unfulfilled needs lead us to demand from our fellow human beings what they cannot give, we make them into idols and ourselves into devils. By asking for more than a human response we are tempted to behave as less than human” (119).
Are Nouwen’s words too strong for the workplace?
Jesse: Yes and no. I’ve seen time and again where colleagues and I act out of our insecurities and foul up the works. But often it’s the smaller, more easily missed circumstances—not big devil moments—that force us to confront our brokenness. It’s the everyday work interactions that get us most.
Where do the foul-ups appear in higher education?
The better question might be, “Where do they not show up?”
There’s a whole lot of unhealed pain in higher ed: Getting frustrated when others don’t respond positively to our hard work on an initiative, getting embarrassed when students we’ve invested in stumble big time, vying for supervisors’ attention, gossiping about each other to assuage the insecurities we’re fighting off...
I suppose this is what Alsdorf means by saying that the need “can really get in the way.”
Every professional, perhaps especially in student affairs, needs a “come to Jesus moment” and face insecurity head on.
Alsdorf also says that when you want to be liked (to an excessive degree), “you can find yourself avoiding paths of truth.” What’s this about?
I’ve often been struck by the capacity to deceive myself. I believe the lies and accept half-truths regarding my self-worth and dignity. It’s easier to seek affirmation, especially if it delays my need to answer the tough questions; you know, those questions which inevitably lead to the truth.
I hear you, Jesse. Maybe this is what I appreciated about our photo editor choosing the bridge image for this interview. Half-truths don't get us very far. Speaking of truth, where are you most often on a Need-to-Be-Liked scale of 1 to 10 (10 being desperate)? I hover between 7 and 8.
I’m probably in the 5 to 6 range. I wonder, though, if certain insecurities are what ironically tip me toward the low end. In the desire to protect myself from hurt or rejection, I sometimes distance myself.
Interesting thought. I avoid certain people for similar reasons. So what encourages you toward genuinely healthy connections with others at work?
One of the best things I’ve discovered is admitting my failures to those who have been impacted around me. When I’m humble and in tune with Christ’s efforts to heal my wounds, I can see the tendency toward insecurity and do something about it. Being real helps me value those work relationships.
My path in student affairs went through Residence Life, and in Res Life, many of us hit the wall when it came to our need to be liked. Inevitably, this led to poor decisions which necessitated a supervisor advising us to deal with the need, since neglecting it would not only hurt us but would also not help students grow.
Wouldn’t we all benefit from this kind of advice. What else keeps you from becoming a “devil”?
Being generous. Giving credit to others and taking a back seat in the self-promotion department. When I’m generous with praise, I’m less focused on trying to be liked.
Last question. What advice would you give to the young professional on this topic?
Face it head on, with eyes wide open and with a good mentor. The sooner you understand your own insecurities and which baggage leads to which auto-responses, the sooner you’ll begin the necessary healing. Healing is often what dictates the success and meaning you’ll find in your work. As long as insecurities drive the train, those around you can’t experience the best version of you—the version God has always intended you to be.
My thanks to Jesse Dorman. Read more of the work and faith obstacle series here:
- Four Obstacles that Threaten Every Good Endeavor
- The Businessman and the Fisherman
- Young Professionals Pick Freedom Over Money
- Wanting More Power and Getting It
- Powered by Wisdom: My Fall and Rise in the Classroom
- Insecurity at the Office
- The Danger of Securing My Future
- 'Twas the Eve of My First Job