Too Much Of A Good Thing? When Self-Reliance Backfires

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Many of us are brought up to believe self-reliance or individuality is one of the most important personal qualities to cultivate. And it is. But there is a flip-side to having too much self-reliance that can work against people, hindering personal growth and bonding in both short-term and long-term intimate relationships.

As a sex coach and relationship therapist, I see many men and women who struggle with this idea; that they must only depend on themselves. In the Hakomi Method (a type of therapy I had studied), there is actually a character strategy called “Self-Reliant.” This character strategy explains a certain way of being in the world that has shaped who we are and how we see things.

Imagine when you are young, you are looking out of a window that represents “the window of life.” It is a lens or viewpoint from which you are seeing the whole world. All of a sudden, the left side of the window gets painted blue. Everywhere you look, everything has a blue tint, thus you formulate that the world to the left is blue. That is the only way it is, it has been this way your entire life (or from whenever it got painted), and you are going to just accept the world as such. Except, when someone else comes along and says, “hey, actually, the right side of the window is yellow and I have never heard of the left being blue.” This exercise teaches us that our experiences in life shape the way we color the world.

Often our windows get painted when we are very young. This paint, if you will, in psychotherapy, is called our core beliefs. In Hakomi, the person with the Self-Reliant strategy has the core belief that their life is created by experiences where they learned they could not rely on others to be responsive to their needs. Rob Fisher wrote a great book called Experiential Psychotherapy with Couples: A Guide for the Creative Pragmatist, where he defines the core beliefs of this strategy:

“These individuals have decided, based on experience, that they cannot count on others to be responsive to their needs, they are organized to handle everything on their own. They will not admit to needing much from others, because dependency has brought them so much loss, pain and disappointment. They tend to be alienated from others. Their reluctance to show their needs and their vulnerability diminish the possibility for connection. They are angry with their partners because of a sense of lack of support, which they cover by looking independent.”

Essentially the core belief of a Self-Reliant is: “if I need something, I must do it myself because asking someone or trying to get my needs met does not work.” They follow this mentality: “I must get my own glass of milk from the fridge,” because in our culture, that is often rewarded and supported. You will hear other people say things like, “oh, little Billy is so independent, isn’t that great!”

There is a time and place in childhood where children do start to move toward independence. Although, when the pull to independence comes from a reaction of not getting their needs met,  this can be what causes that strategy to become a core belief. Children are very smart, and learn that if someone is not going to help them, they will just figure it out a different way. It is really quite remarkable when you think about it. Children need to know that their needs are important, supported, and they need to know that they can ask for and receive support.

The relationship trouble that people that are Self-Reliant struggle with, is that they often have a difficult time opening up, connecting or “relying” on a partner. They believe they are all alone and have to do it all themselves. These people also end up very resentful because they take on everything as theirs “to do” because no one else is going to do it (for them) or even meet them halfway. Internally, they are often angry with their partners because they do not feel adequately supported by them, although, they will cover this anger up by projecting independence. Even though someone with this strategy feels unbearable disappointment, they paradoxically struggle with fears that if they accept the support of others, they will unravel or come apart.

When it comes to sex: feeling alone, disconnected, fear you will unravel or come apart if you allow for more support, does not lead the way to blissful experiences. You have a person who is holding back, shut down, and pushing the other person away.

You can see how reinforcing this strategy leaves people disconnected from themselves and from their partners. Not believing in other people’s ability to hold space for you and support you is part of having a scarcity mindset. The scarcity mindset is believing that things are not available for long, or are going to be taken away; opportunities like sex, are scarce and hard to come by. The first step for the self-reliant types is to address these underlying beliefs is to explore what it is they believe about what others can offer them, how they keep themselves away from letting others in, or relying on another.

I have witnessed this strategy with many of the men I work with because in many ways, our society encourages men to be self-reliant. Women, however, also use this strategy. One of my friends, for example, decided that after a close family member died when she was young – someone she relied on heavily for love and support – that she would rather be alone than risk losing someone else she cared about, or dying young herself. She has a heart of gold and is a great friend, but she still keeps people at a distance. Romantically, she’s not interested in the guys who show interest in her, and she thinks she can’t get the guys she’s interested in. At the same time, she dresses herself down and wears unflattering clothes – she does this as a defense mechanism to avoid getting close to others and confront the feelings of fear that go along with that. She relies only on herself to meet her needs.

It is nearly impossible to get out and stay out of our strategies. Yet, when we start to see them and how they are running our lives, just having this awareness can give us room and freedom to find alternative approaches and ways of being. With the self-relying strategy, having awareness of how it is creating resentment while running (and ruining) a relationship can bring about a huge shift in connection. On the other side of this belief, is less resentment, connection, intimacy, and love.

Below are 3 steps to better understand your needs so you can increase the level of connection in your relationships:

1. Explore (out loud with a friend, lover, or write down) what you believe others can offer you. Look at how you keep yourself away from letting others in or relying on anyone else. Be as non-judgmental as you can, berating yourself is not going to help you grow.

2. Know your needs. Self-Reliants often have a hard time figuring out what they need. When you wake up in the morning, see if you can spend 10 to 15 minutes looking at your needs. Write them down as you think of them under the categories: physical, mental, and spiritual. Think about which areas would benefit from letting others in.

3. Take action. Notice the moments where you hold back asking for something – this is where resentment starts to build. A very common trait of the Self-Reliant is to just do things as if it were their job, like a task assigned to them at work. Take the opportunity to reach out to someone else. You might have to start small – like getting input on an unfinished product – “what do you think I could do to make this presentation better?” – sharing a chore – “can you hold the ladder while I fix this?” – or acknowledging out loud when someone is meeting a need – “I love it when you do that” – and build your way up to larger needs.

– Keeley

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