We're big on independence here in the US. I love the Fourth of July, our local neighborhood parade with kids and dogs, and politicians giving speeches at the end while we sweat and eat drippy popsicles. I love what it stands for, declaring what we hold to be self-evident truths and getting out of tyrannical relationships. And, of course, the fireworks (ooooooh... aaaaaaaaaahh).


Cowboy alone on a deserted road

But sometimes I wonder if American culture isn't more than a bit too enamored of independence. If being independent is the pinnacle of accomplishment -- for our country, for our kids -- then how do we live well with one another -- globally, or individually?

Maybe even more to the point, what goes on in the brains of those who are stoically independent, and does it serve their well-being?

Here's a take on it from one of my favorite bloggers, Mark Brady, PhD: "Having long aspired to it, I'm now pretty convinced that rugged individualism is how neurological disorganization plays out for any number of us."

One of the key outcomes of healthy, secure attachment between a child and his parent is that it creates a level of organization and integration in the brain that bodes well for the child's entire life. It supports greater emotional resiliency, more attuned communication, response flexibility, improved empathy, and better insight, to name just a few.

We need other people to organize our brains. We need to be connected. This doesn't mean that we must be utterly dependent on others, but that we aim for healthy interdependence.

Here's the continuum:
Independence <----> Healthy Interdependence <----> Dependence

This idea of independence that we so fervently strive for and instill wholeheartedly in our kids isn't without merit - being able to stand on your own two feet, literally and metaphorically, is a good thing. But it's not healthy if it's the ONLY thing, or the predominant way in which you go through the world.

Interdependence as a vital, primary, and necessary ingredient for well-being is talked about from many vantage points:

  • John Bowlby, the originator of attachment theory (along with Mary Ainsworth), "believed isolation was inherently traumatizing in and of itself, often leading to something like 'primal panic.'"
  • Dan Goleman, in his book Social Intelligence, describes this necessity of ongoing, interactions and attachment to others as a "neural duet" which helps integrate the brain and is essential for emotional balance and regulation.
  • Louis Cozolino writes (in his book, The Neurobiology of Relationships) that "the brain depends on interactions with others for its survival." If you isolate one neuron in a Petri dish, it won't survive very long; it needs the connections with other neurons to survive. The same is true if we, in effect, isolate our brains by hiding out from interdependent connections. 
  • Long before neurons were living and dying in Petri dishes, Buddha listed an interconnected community (sangha) as one of the three refuges of the heart.


Happy family

Having a hard time navigating the waters of interdependence is one of the most most common, core issues I see in my psychotherapy office. There are many ways to understand it, but so often it boils down to how secure (or insecure) one's attachment was in early childhood. If you had a healthy, secure, abiding attachment to a parent when you were a kid, you're better able to find your way between the rocky shores of gonzo individualism on one side, and wimpering overdependence on the other. Thanks to that healthy attachment, your brain wired up the integrated connections that allow for healthy, interdependent relationships in adulthood.

So does that mean you're stuck if you didn't have one of those great attachments in childhood? (And, by the way, research suggests that 60% or more of us here in the US didn't, so you've got lots of non-optimally attached company -- ironic, eh?)

Nope, you're not stuck. (Whew!) Getting to healthy interdependence does require work, though. You need to be able to change those old childhood patterns and those old neural pathways. Otherwise, you're likely to repeat the patterns of avoidant independence or clingy dependence which are so familiar, choosing to trust people who don't merit it, picking emotionally unavailable people to be in relationship with, and so on.

Your brain's capacity to grow new pathways, and even new neurons, continues throughout your life -- and experience can change your brain for the better. One brain-rewiring experience you can start with (on your own, even, for those who are starting out in the emotional Land of Independence) is mindfulness practice. It's a simple, brief, regular practice (no religion or "joining" is required) and you can move your neural circuits in the direction of balanced, healthy interdependence.

Now that's worth some fireworks.

 

Marsha Lucas, PhD is a psychologist / neuropsychologist in Washington, DC. Learn more about rewiring your brain at ReWireYourBrainForLove.com, where she offers a free mindfulness meditation download and a monthly e-newsletter with meditation tips. You can also follow @DrMarsha on Twitter, and join her on her Facebook page.

© 2010 Marsha Lucas. All Rights Reserved

About the Author

Marsha Lucas Ph.D.

Marsha Lucas, Ph.D.is a psychologist and neuropsychologist, and the author of Rewire Your Brain For Love (2012).

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