American culture values independence, but sometimes we can take it a bit too far.
For many of us, success goes hand in hand with self-sufficiency. Anything, we are often told, can be achieved through hard work—which usually implies work done on one’s own.
For those raised in the United States, the idea of independence may bring to mind iconic stories about “rugged individuals”—pioneers, mavericks, or resourceful immigrants who built a life on their own terms. But while bravery and perseverance are valuable traits that help us make our way in life, these stories can idealize autonomy, instilling unrealistic expectations of attaining our goals solo—and these narratives also overlook the fact that we benefit enormously from the help of others.
Other People Are Critical to Our Well-Being
From the earliest days of our existence, our dependent state is something we all have in common. Biologically, it is a fact that human infants are born helpless, before our skulls are even fully formed around our brains. We survive and thrive only to the extent that our parents or other caring adults meet our most basic needs. Emotionally, we need to feel that others understand in order to make sense of our own experience.
As an adult, our need for others is a reality we may have to work to accept. Denying it carries professional and personal consequences. Being overly self-sufficient may lead one away from opportunities to exchange ideas, receive inspiration, and deepen relationships—all interactions that foster growth.
New Research on Healthy Dependency
Until recently, mental health professionals often viewed dependence as a weakness. However, recent work by Robert Bornstein and other personality researchers has recast dependence as a trait all people share. Our dependence style falls on a spectrum: It may be balanced (healthy), or we may tend to extremes, seeking too much or too little help from others.
What is healthy dependence? Studies show that people who report the most emotional balance, life satisfaction, and optimism about the future have an ability to lean on and confide in others at times—and also to work independently, as needed.
What is the downside of too much independence?
Researchers have found that people who avoid asking for help may suffer significant social and professional costs. They have a tendency to avoid seeking valuable help from educators or colleagues because involving others makes them feel needy. But by choosing to isolate in order to feel self-reliant, they may put themselves at risk of feeling unsupported or depressed.
The Benefits of Depending on Others
If asking for help does not come naturally, practice.
Give yourself a chance to get over your initial reluctance and experiment. Start slowly, and take time to see how it feels to involve others. You may notice some immediate benefits:
- Lightening your load. To state the obvious, if you are willing to ask for help, your tasks may become significantly easier. This can be an enormous relief.
- Learning more. Some people are abundant resources of knowledge—by asking for their help you may create an opportunity to learn much more than you expect. Many accomplished people are surprisingly willing to share their accumulated wisdom, and find such interaction rewarding. Showing genuine interest and being prepared with questions will enrich the exchange.
- Increasing effectiveness through collaboration. Asking other people for help can lead to collaboration. In addition to gaining the benefit of suggestions you might not have thought of independently, you may find people willing to assist with the refinement of your ideas, thus increasing the effectiveness of your approach.
- Improving relationships. Graciously asking someone for help might actually improve your relationship with that person. It can be an opportunity to communicate trust and appreciation. Increasingly, robust research findings reveal that having a supportive social network is a consistent factor in human health and well being. Some cultures, such as Japanese and Indian culture, promote interdependence, understanding it to be an important dimension of intimacy. In this view, relational bonds are made stronger by reciprocating actual acts of support.
There are signs that our national aversion to leaning on others may be changing: For example, in workplaces and schools, it is increasingly common for employees and students to work collaboratively in teams. Although group processes come with frustrations, sharing ideas facilitates the use of the abilities others offer.
This is a welcome shift since dependence research indicates that balancing independence with healthy, mutual forms of interdependence actually helps people feel better about themselves and their lives. An ability to rely on others can be a crucial component of social, professional, and academic success; it generally leads to feeling more, not less, empowered.
Amy Smith, MA, is a Clinical Psychology Fellow at the William Alanson White Institute and is completing her doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Adelphi University.