Compulsive Self Reliance
Are You the Only Person You Depend On?
by Mitch Meyerson and Laurie Ashner
You're swamped at your desk when an assistant hired two weeks ago offers to help. You:
a) Gladly hand him two projects off your desk with a sigh of relief
b) Think, "By the time I show him how to do this, I could finish it myself" and politely turn down his offer of assistance
c) Say no. You don't want the buzz around the office to say you don't have this project under control.
Your friend's directions to the restaurant were sketchy at best. You've driven in circles for ten minutes and finally you admit you're lost. A man is walking his dog ten feet from where you're stopped waiting for the light to change. You would:
a) Roll down your window and yell, "Hey, do you know where Charlie's Chop House is?"
b) Drive four more miles until you come to a service station so you can ask for directions
c) Return home, furious at your friend. You don't bother strangers for directions.
You and your current love think it would be fun to take scuba diving lessons. You're the one who
a) Waits for your lover to figure out where and when these lessons are offered and what the next step is
b) Gets out the phone book, makes some calls, and presents the options between PAUI and NAUI diving certification the next time you're together
c) Does hours of research, registers you both, and heads to the sporting goods store to buy two sets of snorkels and masks.
Which of the following statements can you see yourself making?
a) "I need you to do the shopping; I'm really snowed under."
b) "I would have asked you to help me, but you seemed too busy."
c) "Don't worry. It's okay. I'll walk to the airport."
Are most of your answers are B's and C's? You may suffer from what therapists refer to as compulsive self-reliance.
Colleen, a twenty-four year old administrative assistant admits, "I cringe if I have to ask someone for a ride, a favor, or advice. Yet, I offer my soul to other people without a second thought."
It's called compulsive self-reliance because no matter how high the cost, we feel most comfortable when we're depending solely on ourselves. Lying in bed with a hundred and two fever and the cordless phone jammed to our ear, we fire instructions at coworkers until our head aches. The fear isn't that others might survive without us. Unconsciously we simply don't want to become dependent on anyone, even for a second. We hate any form of emotional debt. We want to be the giver. The giver is always in control.
What in our past may have contributed to compulsive self-reliance?
Controlling parents. Compulsively self-reliant people often experienced one or both parents attempting to overpower them or each other. They sympathized deeply with the "underdog". Secretly they vowed they would never be controlled once they left home, no matter what.
Too many adult responsibilities in childhood. Think of the oldest son who is called to the principal's office to discuss his little sister's detention because mom and dad can't be reached at work. Or the little girl who must come home straight from school to do her mother's chores; the child of alcoholic parents who has to clean up the mess; the teenage boy who undergoes what therapists refer to as spousification --he's forced into the role of mother's confidant, mother's little buddy, even mother's date because mother won't deal with her own intimacy issues. These men and women never really experience childhood and develop compulsive self-reliance because irresponsible or overwhelmed adults reward them for it.
Too much competition for the family spotlight. Karl, a thirty-six-year-old accountant remembers how all of the attention in his family was focused on his brother. "He sold my mother's jewelry to get money to go to California when he was fifteen. I remember coming home and the jewelry was gone, my brother was gone and my mother was sitting at the kitchen table crying. I wasn't about to ask her to help me study for an algebra quiz."
Fear for our safety. Any experience in childhood or early adulthood which made you feel that the rug was about to be pulled out from under you will contribute to the development compulsive self-reliance. Did your parent's share their problems paying the bills, when you were helpless to do anything more than have nightmares about it? Did a parent or relative you depended upon die before you reached age eighteen? Is there serious family illness, divorce, suicide in your family background?
Our rigid, controlling, masterful style has its payoffs. But the costs are high.
For one thing, an overdeveloped sense of responsibility is exhausting. "I'm the only one who can do it right" is a statement that insures we'll have to do it all. "It's either my way or the highway," is a message we don't even realize we give other people constantly. We assume we're being responsible. The people closest to us think we're hyper, detail-oriented and perfectionistic--when they aren't thinking something less flattering.
Worse, the person who is compulsively self-reliant attracts procrastinators. These people are drawn to the help they know they will receive from someone who can't bear to see a half-done job. We tend to think our compulsive self-reliance makes us more valuable to other people. If you believe this, look back. How often has someone close to you hinted that you're aloof? That you seem bored? That you're a workaholic? That given all your virtues, you just don't seem to be someone they could cuddle with?
It's vulnerability that makes one person seem emotionally available--and therefore lovable-- to another person. It's the one thing the compulsively self-reliant person is trying hardest to hide.
Mitch Meyerson and Laurie Ashner
Laurie Ashner has authored numerous books. Among the newest, she has co-authored with Alan Altman, M.D., Making Love The Way We Used To: The Secrets of Midlife Sexuality