The Down Side to Independence

Body+Soul, 2007

"I don't want to ask for help."

Operating Assumption

If I do, I'm indebted to that person -- or she'll resent me for asking. Worse, putting myself in a vulnerable position sets me up for getting hurt.

An ingrained resistance to asking for or accepting help may be making your life more arduous than it has to be -- and may speak to a deeper fear playing out in your life in other ways. "We don't ask because we're afraid it means admitting we can't be all things to all people," says Falk. "This is the other side of neediness -- it's a kind of dependency on the self for all the wrong reasons." It may be a case of actions proving a point: "I'm quite capable of opening the door and carrying this enormous package, thank you." But what do you have to lose if someone offers to hold the other end? To wrestle with it yourself may show that, for all the world, you're completely self-reliant. Or it could mean you're heroic one moment, and flat out on your back with a disk injury the next.

Resistance to assistance may also reflect the assumption that no one wants to help you -- and that, perhaps, you don't deserve it anyway. For instance, do you reflexively say "no thanks" the moment a salesperson approaches you at a department store? What would happen if you said "yes," you could use her help? Is she going to regret asking? Probably not. More likely, she won't have to stand there folding sweaters, and you won't have to spend 40 minutes searching for the pants in your size. "You'll find that people are usually more than willing to offer assistance," Trimberger says. "The key is in learning to accept it."

Try This

Ask a favor -- any favor. It doesn't have to be huge. Don't preface it with how you'll pay that person back later, or how bad you feel about asking. All this does is project a sense of guilt and unworthiness. Confront your need without apology, and simply trust that person's goodwill and integrity. You're not doing anyone any favors by turning down what they're willing to give -- and you're not doing yourself one, either.

For extra credit, try your hand at reaching out in the midst of need -- not after. An emotional moment may be the best time to connect. Susan Piver, a meditation teacher and best-selling author of "The Hard Questions," suggests seizing a moment of heavy tears or deep gloom to contact a close and trustworthy friend. You'll be surprised how people respond to genuine emotion. "It's very inspiring to learn that people will still want to help you even when you're a mess," says Piver.

"I need my space."

Operating Assumption

If I get too close to people, I'll lose my sense of self. It's often easier not to let others in at all.

The notion of being independent has an emotional aspect: You might fear that letting people into your life threatens your identity. While we all have different comfort zones, there's a risk in believing that opening up to others will compromise your autonomy. It's a trap that many people fall into, particularly with romantic relationships, says Falk. But you don't have to choose between keeping your space (and your identity) and sharing your life with a partner or friend. Relation-ships come in shades of gray, not black and white. If you tend toward an all-or-nothing mentality ("If dating means spending every waking moment together, then I just won't date"), you'll benefit from exploring the balance between independence and intimacy.

Piver learned to strike this balance when her need for space conflicted with her desire to be married. She actually kept her Manhattan apartment for four years after her wedding, visiting her husband only on weekends. Though an extreme case, her situation illustrates how this fear of losing our independence can keep us at arm's length. Solitude is important for cultivating an inner life, notes Piver, but we're not meant to function in isolation. "By facing my fear of intimacy," she notes, "I gained insight into myself that I wouldn't have otherwise. I was able to really open my heart-and my capacity to love deepened.

Try This

Take stock of your fears. On the left-hand side of a page, jot down the fears that arise when you think about letting someone into your life, whether a romantic partner, friend, or family member. Will he or she want more from you than you're willing to give? Will you be beholden in some way? On the right-hand side, write down what positives could come of the relationship. Could you benefit from having someone to spend time with? Could you use the emotional support? More fun? Then, at the bottom of the page, list the steps you can take to open up to the person in a way that feels comfortable and doable for you. For example, rather than feeling pressured to say yes to plans on the spot, you might suggest talking about future plans sometime during the next week. "Face your fears head on and in advance," says Piver.

"I already have all the support I need."

Operating Assumption

If you have someone you're close to, you don't need anyone else.

In this case, we assume "collective" independence by sealing ourselves and our partner (or closest friend) off from the rest of the world. Believing that a single person can fulfill your every need is not only unrealistic, says Richardson, but also puts your relationship at risk. "When you really care about your relationship, you don't want to burden your partner with everything." Beyond that, you cut yourself off from other supportive and rewarding relationships-and make things hard-er for yourself in times of crisis. "It used to be that illness and other issues didn't go beyond the family unit," says Trimberger. "But this is no longer the case. The truth is, with many of us without family nearby, our friends become an alternative to family in many respects."

For this reason, Trimberger believes in fostering what she calls relational autonomy -- a network of friends who you can both support and rely on in times of need. It's not a popularity contest, just a way of seeing every interaction in an open, inclusive way. Maintaining connections with a wider collection of friends, coworkers, and acquaintances has an added bonus, says Trimberger. "We need a variety of relationships to define ourselves against. By cultivating a number of them outside of, or in many cases instead of, a single relationship, you give yourself more opportunities to develop your sense of self."

Try This

Nourish your network -- now. Don't wait for a crisis to connect with the people in your life. "Start creating a reserve of support that includes more people than you think you need or deserve," says Richardson. Make a list of friends, new and old, and note when you've seen them last. How long has it been since you caught up with your colleague two towns over? Your old roommate in New York? Get back in touch with a few good friends -- and, if you can, share dinner, coffee, or even a weekend visit. Rather than just wave to your neighbors from the car window, drop by from time to time. Invest in the relationships that bring meaning to your life and that you know will be with you for the long hauls.

I emerged from the post-op, drug-induced fog, the pieces began to come together: a battery of tests, a restless night in the ER, a rush to surgery. I had been on a business trip when I was hospitalized with acute sepsis and, I'm told, came quite close to not making it through the night. In a flash, I'd gone from a healthy, capable, independent 32-year-old woman to someone who couldn't stand, eat, or bathe without assistance. The reality of the situation began to sink in; life had thrown on the brakes -- hard.As a single professional, I was used to taking care of myself. I had my own place, paid my own bills, made my way in the world. But here I was, completely dependent on others. My sister put her life on hold to move into my hospital room. For weeks, I was under my mother's constant care. Love and support flooded in -- a selfless outpouring that overwhelmed me. I'd never been in a position to need it before.

Eventually, I returned to my life with only a six-inch scar to tell the tale. But I began rethinking my focus on independence. Like so many women, I'd measured success by how much I could do on my own. But this near-death experience taught me otherwise. The idea of sailing solo through life was an illusion: When the tide turned, I saw that a wide net of support had been keeping me afloat the whole time.

Independence, a concept driven home as we celebrate the Fourth of July, is as American as apple pie. Modern life supports our Lone-Ranger ethos -- arguably to a fault. The digitizing of daily interaction puts distance in our relationships; you no longer need to be there to "be there." Exciting new career opportunities may mean more money and recognition but can often require moving to other cities, far from family and friends. As virtual connection replaces face-time and financial independence overshadows community, we move away from the intimate networks that have sustained us for millennia. More and more, we become islands unto ourselves.

For women, the myth of independence can prove especially risky. Whether it's fallout from the equality movement or the breakneck pace of life in the 21st century, the notion that "you can do it all yourself" can co-opt our psyches in troubling ways. "We're told we can do anything and everything," says psychotherapist Florence Falk, author of "On My Own: The Art of Being a Woman Alone." "We're caught between the idea that we're supposed to be superwomen, but also nurturers. That can cause a real strain." Forsociologist Kay Trimberger, author of "The New Single Woman," even the word "independence" poses a problem. "Independence implies that you're completely on your own and you don't need anyone -- and that's a myth," she says. "We simply have to get over doing everything ourselves."While few would argue against the conveniences of our modern lifestyle, we need to recognize the costs. Fall into that independence trap and there's a good chance you'll burn out. "Shouldering everything on your own can ultimately take its toll on your health," says Body+Soul life coach and best-selling author Cheryl Richardson. The solution? Be honest with yourself and open to support. "Show me a fiercely independent woman," she says, "and I'll show you someone who's often sending out messages, without realizing it, that say I don't need anyone.' The world will respond to that."

Send out a different message, though, and the world will respond to that, too -- and the results can be transforming. "When you're able to break down walls of resentment, fear, and pride, and accept the help of others," Richardson says, "you discover the untapped networks of support that have existed in your life all along."

Myth Busters

Do any of these knee-jerk responses sound familiar? We thought so. The good news is that recognizing the most common reasons behind white-knuckled independence will help you loosen your grip and open you up to new opportunities for connection.

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