I am an independent person by nature. I was an only child until my mother remarried when I was 11 years-old suddenly making me the youngest of three girls. My developing personality came to a grinding halt. I didn’t know my place in my family anymore nor did I like my new stepsisters. They didn’t like me either. I look back and cringe particularly if there are family photos involved. I did not make that transition gracefully. As I got older, however, that new family became my family; I learned all sorts of things in that family, and then my mother and stepfather divorced a few months before I graduated from high school. And, I left for the East Coast never to return to Texas again except for a funeral and to visit one of my stepsisters years later.
I learned that remaining independent–fiercely independent–was a good thing. Self-reliant. Literally. I learned to rely on myself first and foremost to get things done. My mother was too unstable and self-involved to count on for legitimate help. My stepfather was too beholden to her for his emotional stability and sense of self for any kind of authentic help. When the dreaded Choose-A-College time came around, I picked a women’s college and handled all the financial aid on my own–tax documentation and paperwork included. I drove to college by myself. I drove across the country numerous times alone, and it didn’t seem that dangerous or odd to me. I spent days in hospitals alone. Endured painful medical testing. Alone. As a teenager. In my mind, I had to normalize this. This, for me, had to become a social and emotional norm in order to be tolerated.
I once got into a serious car accident in an ice storm in Pennsylvania on one of my solitary cross-country road trips returning to college. I remember knowing that it was serious. I remember realizing that my car had fallen into a ravine and was not visible from the road. I also realized, at the time, that I was going to freeze to death if I didn’t get out and go for help. I have so many stories like this, and I’ve met many, many people who do as well. You learn, by force of circumstance, that you must take care of yourself because there is no one who will do that for you. You are on your own in the world. Rely on yourself because you can always count on yourself. You won’t betray you. This becomes hard-wired. It is the truth for you. It has to be. There is no other way to survive your life if you believe otherwise.
Then, long-term relationships enter the picture. People expect to be trusted. They want to be trusted and feel needed, but I’ve got this hard-wired belief that backs certain behaviors: “Trust myself. Depend on myself. Rely only on myself.” I have saved my own ass countless times! I also have good evidence from past significant relationships and experiences, mostly from my family of origin (FOO), that my inner prosecutor can whip out anytime to prove that people are untrustworthy and not to be counted on. People will fail you and even hurt you when you count on them. Worse, they will attach strings or conditions to their help if and when they give it.
So, how does this work out? I either end up in relationships with people who are emotionally unavailable and happy not to be needed, thusly, enabling my extreme self-reliance, or I am challenged to discard my maladaptive extreme self-reliance and begin trusting people by asking for help while also offering help. An even, reciprocal exchange and trust-building, relational exercises. It feels aversive and gives me emotional hives.
This type of extreme self-reliance is, of course, a conditioned response. It is an adaptation made to fit into and survive a particular environment. I was very self-reliant when I got married, but I had expectations that I would be able to relax into a different kind of relationship once I was married. I asked my husband for help quite often. He rarely gave it to me. Initially, I thought it was immaturity. It wasn’t. It was personality-based, and it remained a consistent problem throughout our relationship. A year and half before our marriage ended, he refused to go with me to a diagnostic mammogram that involved an impromptu biopsy because he “felt unwell”. He did, however, go to work. On the morning of the appointment, I actually summoned the courage to ask him for help. I asked him to go with me because I was nervous–a rarity for me. I asked him for help often enough in terms of tasks, but this was different. Admitting to someone that you’re scared is different. Asking for their presence to offset fear is showing vulnerability. I wasn’t asking him to take out the trash. I was asking him to be my partner. To be an emotional support.
He acted predictably. He was unwilling to support me. When he was willing to be helpful, he helped but on his terms putting me in the position of beggar. That kind of disempowerment became intolerable. I finally stopped asking and fell back into my previous position–it is better to be completely self-reliant. At least one gets to keep one’s dignity. That was my default mode, and that is my struggle today.
Asking for help is my Achilles’ Heel. I don’t value extraordinary self-reliance as a measure of character. I’m not a pioneer or Ralph Waldo Emerson. For me, depending upon other people for just about anything has led to punishment. Relying on others=hot stove experiences. Or some sort of humiliation.
Does this ring anyone’s bell?
Now, this is where I get to be my own therapist. This core belief and “stance”, if you will, only successfully works if I’m interacting with my ex-husband or my family of origin. I adapted to living with them both, and I survived both experiences. I cannot, however, take that particular adaptation, or psycho-emotional template, and apply it to other relationships. Suddenly, it becomes MALadaptive meaning that it will not work outside the environments in which it was developed. It will wreck my other relationships and potentially hurt other people.
The opposite of this would be trusting untrustworthy people. If I had a healthy approach to relationships in which I could ask for help, depend upon people appropriately while also relying on myself, too, then would I practice this kind of relationship approach in, say, the prison system? Or, would I be far better off using the “extreme self-reliance” approach? The latter, yes? The former would be maladaptive in a prison environment while the latter would be highly adaptive in an exploitative and violent setting.
The term “maladaptive” when applied to a behavior means that the behavior was adaptive or worked successfully in the original environment, but it does not work successfully outside of that environment. A very concrete example of adapting our behaviors to environments would be speaking softly in libraries. As soon as we enter libraries, we speak softly–for four reasons.
- Social contract
- Respect for people reading and studying
- Fear of librarians who use shushing to warn and socially embarrass us
- Social embarrassment
When we leave the library, we resume speaking at a normal volume. If we continued to speak at “library volume”, no one would understand us. We would have failed to adapt to a new environment. Our continued use of “library volume” would then be maladaptive.
In its most simplified terms, when we take behaviors that only serve us in abusive environments, be they extreme or not, and continue to use them in other environments where they do not work or are in no way understood by others, they lose their adaptive qualities. We are the ones who are failing to adapt. Often, we fail to adapt because we have come to believe something about people, the world, or ourselves based upon our experiences with a small group of people who were very important to us (our family and friends), or we had a very bad experience with a random person and developed beliefs about that event that we have generalized to every other random stranger (a random stranger mugged me on the street ergo all random strangers on the street might mug me at any time).
What is to be done about this? Maladaptive beliefs and behaviors are some of the primary reasons people go to therapy. People survive abuse and continue to survive their lives because of these maladaptations, but they don’t often go beyond mere survival. Maladaptations become a prison. This I know a helluva lot about. I have been asked to trust people and reach out when I need help. You may as well ask me to drink poison. That is how hard it is for me. I have been conditioned from a very young age to solely rely on myself. I have tried for years to overcome that, but I was met with such disdain and displeasure for even asking as if my need for companionship and aid from another human being was a sign of a character defect or congenital weakness. It was used against me repeatedly and caused inordinate suffering and humiliation.
I resorted to what I knew. I know that I did that. It is harder now. What eases the effort is viewing this as conditioning because that is what it is. If I can be conditioned to rely on myself, then I can be conditioned through repeated positive experiences to rely on others in addition to myself. The rub? You have to put yourself “out there” and ask for help. You have to be willing to make yourself vulnerable, and that can feel existentially terrifying. It can lead to feelings of real panic particularly if the very reasons you are defaulting to extreme self-reliance have not be addressed or resolved.
This is what I know for certain. You cannot grow beyond the point of survival and experience real intimacy with other people if you remain in the cycle of maladaptive behaviors and desolation. It is impossible. You must break that cycle, and one of the first ways that you do that is by reaching out. Is it often anathema to you? Well, yes. Who do you reach out to if you have zero safe people in your life? Get a therapist. For real. This is exactly what they are for. They are there for practice. They act as models for healthy human interactions. They teach you how to adapt to new and healthy relationships, thusly, showing you where your maladaptive behaviors are, and they help you move from the maladaptive behaviors into new and better ones.
This is not pie in the sky. This is all very real and possible. It is hard and painful, but it is what must be done on the road towards healing and recovery.