The Myth of Doing it on Your Own
Updated: Oct 24, 2017
“Suffering is wasted when we suffer entirely alone.”
~Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, p.85
by Daryl Chow, MA, PhD (Psych)
There is a myth in our modern culture that we should make it on our own. A month ago, I was working with a bright young man in his early twenties. Tommy* has a passion for the arts and literature. Sadly, he hasn’t been able to sustain meaningful employment. He was struggling with bouts of depressed mood, existential crisis, and what I would call “analysis paralysis.”
We hit it off well when we started counselling, as we shared a deep love for the creative arts and expression. But I had a sense that he wasn’t too keen to continue. I wasn’t the first therapist he had seen and it was under the insistence of his mother that he again seek help. I broached this openly with him, asking if he would like to collaborate further in our work together to help him out of this rut. He confirmed my hunch, telling me something important, a belief which is all too pervasive in our modern culture: “Daryl, thanks, but no thanks. I think I got to do this on my own.”
I began to understand that this wasn’t just an issue with not wanting to seek help in therapy, but rather, he was buying into the myth of independence across all aspects of his life; he was alone. He had no help. He had cut himself off from his peers since experiencing bullying at school. There was no one to guide him or provide constructive feedback about his literary work. He was not connected to a community to walk with him on his journey of faith. He received no pastoral care. He was trying to get through life on his own.
I suspect this notion that we should make it on our own is fueled by what we read in self-help books, popular media, and maybe even in biographical accounts of iconic personalities. When we think of successful people in the limelight, we are enamored of their achievements. They may even inspire us to persist in our dreams and aspirations. Yet what we may fail to realize is that we often only see the fruits of their labor. We see their outputs but not their inputs. What we may also fail to see is the community that has helped them to reach great heights. In turn, we begin to value the myth of independence.
What we fail to realise is that we often only see the fruits of their labor. We see the outputs but not the inputs.
But the other end of the spectrum speaks loudly as well. What Tommy was telling me was actually something like this: “I don’t want to rely on you. I don’t want to become dependent on you. It’s scary to relate with others. People have failed me in the past. Why should I trust you? It makes me uncomfortable to open myself up to you.”
We addressed this head on. I pointed out to Tommy that sometimes life can be like walking in a dark forest, and it can serve us well to have someone guide us through. Since he’s a Christian, I pointed out that Christ would never send his apostles out alone. He would insist that they go two-by-two. I added that “Let’s not forget, even the pros in sports have coaches.” Why do we allow ourselves to have fitness instructors to help us with our hardware (i.e., physical fitness), but are resistant to allow someone to help us with the software (i.e., our emotional world)?
I also framed the therapeutic work as a form of pit stop, to recalibrate his life. In response, for the first time, he said that he would give this a try. Tommy has since returned for therapy and is taking steps toward connecting with another person. His therapist was his first leap of faith to re-connect with the world.
This is not to say that we should shift entirely from being independent to becoming dependent creatures. Rather, these two ends of the same spectrum must come to a middle ground, a point of “meeting by the river,” by the banks of inter-dependence. The state of interdependence is a belief that “I can be completely who I am, I can also count on others for help, and I am capable of helping others in need.” This view assumes that whether you are the one giving help, or the one in need, we are all equals.
…These two ends of the same spectrum must come to a middle ground, a point of “meeting by the river,” by the banks of inter-dependence.
Psychologist and writer, Robert Francher puts it well. “Life is complex, often confusing and conflicted. Distress can come with the territory…When we’re distressed, and we’ve tried everything we know, we need outside counsel…A counselor provides an ‘auxiliary mind,’ so to speak. An alter ego. Someone to bring to bear, on your behalf, a range of knowledge that you simply haven’t had occasion to acquire before. Someone to provide emotional balance that your distress prevents you achieving alone. Someone to provide an objective eye on your circumstances. Someone to help you sort out your troubles.”
As anthropologist and cybernetics giant Gregory Bateson once quipped, “It takes two to know one.” As social beings, we learn about ourselves in relation to others, not in the silence of a cloistered room. There are times when we would need to build walls around ourselves to protect us, to work on our lives. But don’t forget to build windows too.
Gregory Bateson once quipped, “It takes two to know one.” As social beings, we learn about ourselves in relations with others, not in the silence of a cloistered room.
Our identity is formed by who we identify with.
When we build relationships, relationships build us.
Daryl Chow, MA Ph.D. (Psych)
Daryl specialises in helping people dealing with a spectrum of anxiety and emotional hurts. He uses a trans-diagnostic and multicultural approach in his work.
He is an author of several professional articles and chapters, including the book The Write to Recovery: Personal Stories & Lessons about Recovery from Mental Health Concerns. (ebook now made available for free)
This article was originally published in Full Circles: Reflections on Living, April 22, 2015.
Thanks to Michelle Saleeba for her editorial. see Michelle's art work.
*(not the client's real name)