Wednesday, July 4, 2012

In(ter)dependence Day

Today is Independence Day in the United States. It celebrates the country's separation from Britain - its existance as an "independent" nation. Many countries have similar holidays, at various times during the year, because many people and cultures see independence as something to celebrate (and yes, also because of widespread colonialism that preceded independence). We like getting to decide for ourselves how we want to structure and govern our countries, to feel like we at least have a say in decisions that affect us. Nobody likes "taxation without representation!"

Independence is also something that is important to many people on a personal level. Particularly in the Western world, independence - both emotional and financial - is held up as an ideal toward which we are encouraged to strive. Unfortunately, striving for the elusive ideal of independence can cause dissatisfaction and unhappiness for too many people, who feel worse about themselves because of their (normal) perceived dependence on others for emotional or material support. As a result, independence and dependence are often themes in therapy - for example, as a motivation for change, as a loss associated with symptoms, as a contributor to stress or (low) self-esteem.

Now don't get me wrong - there is certainly some benefit to feeling independent. It provides a sense of competence and mastery that contribute to ego strength, and a sense of agency and engagement with life that keeps us alert and motivated. It facilitates child development, and improves functioning in old age. However, that beneficial feeling of independence can occur without ever meeting the independent ideal - the expectation that we will be able to function independently in every facet of life.

In fact, our inability to reach to ideal, even when we're feeling independent, can detract from our experience of independence - we minimize or dismiss our achievements because we are still short of the ideal. The solution? It's not, as many clients suppose, to redouble our efforts toward the ideal. Instead, the solution is to change our ideal.

Humans were not created to be "independent." We are social animals, and it's normal to turn to other humans for help and support. In fact, relying on each other is healthier than striving for complete and total independence. We are designed to be interdependent. That means that we depend upon each other in a social group, and wider society, to share both responsibilities and benefits. After all, most of us have areas of life that are a struggle, and/or go through periods of struggle in our lives. However, "depending" on others in this way is not "dependence" because it is mutual - we also help sustain others in areas and times that are not a struggle for us. We enrich each other's lives, and that is as it should be.

I had this conversation with a group I was running last week. They were adament that they should not "burden" anyone in their lives with their problems, and that the best thing they could do for loved ones would be to pretend everything is fine. I suggested that this was unfair to others - and not selfless, as they imagined. I encouraged them to consider the possibility that other people they care about actually want to care about and support them in return...and that by refusing to accept support, they were depriving their loved ones of the chance to do so.

Yes, relying on others can feel vulnerable, and sometimes lead to disappointment. However, I contend that we also feel vulnerable and disappointed when we're striving for an unreachable ideal. If we choose to strive for interdependence rather than independence, we may just discover that the vulnerability and disappointment are fleeting, the sense of connection sustains us, and the mutual support and "dependence" enriches our lives.

After all, when it comes down to it, even our countries are not truly "independent" - for example, look how strongly our economies have turned out to depend upon other countries' financial condition! Therefore, given our reliance on one another, let's forego Independence Day, and celebrate Interdependence Day instead. Any takers?

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