25 Ways You're Borrowing Self from Others

Learning to rely on your own thinking can help you manage anxiety.

Posted Jan 26, 2020

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Relationship systems are small economies. Look closely at your family, or your workplace, and you’ll see that there is a good amount of borrowing, lending, and trading of what Dr. Murray Bowen called “self.” 

When people close to us are in distress, we lend our abilities, our calmness, and our confidence. And when we are anxious, we borrow them from others. This system of borrowing and lending can be very effective at stabilizing relationships. But the constant, automatic borrowing of self takes its toll.

I often marvel at how much “self” a person loses when they get married. When I lived alone, taking out the trash was a manageable chore. Now that my husband handles this task, it feels like a Herculean effort when he’s traveling. I can navigate well when I’m driving alone, but put him in the passenger seat, and I might ask his opinion on the route. What is it about adding another person into the mix that can weaken our calmness and capacity?

I think we lose self in relationships because our anxiety wants to fix our distress as quickly as possible. And it’s more efficient to borrow the thinking and abilities of others than to access our own. If you have friends who will reassure you, teachers or supervisors who will praise you, and experts who will tell you what to do, why wouldn’t you just borrow their thinking?

Here are 25 ways you might be “borrowing self” from others:

  1. Relying on your partner to wake you up or tell you when to go to sleep.
  2. Asking someone to eat dessert with you so you don’t feel guilty.
  3. Automatically relying on passengers to direct you when you drive.
  4. Not finishing a task because you know someone else will do it.
  5. Borrowing societal definitions of success, beauty, etc. w/o considering your own.
  6. Asking someone to remind you to take medicine.
  7. Relying on a friend or romantic partner to calm you down. 
  8. Creating a very busy schedule to feel that you are important.
  9. Asking for dating advice before defining your own thinking. 
  10. Relying on a child to reassure you that you’re a good parent.
  11. Following the advice of self-help experts without thinking for yourself.
  12. Using social media “likes” to boost your confidence.
  13. Peppering your speech with requests for reassurance. (“I’m not crazy, right?” “That makes sense, doesn’t it?”)
  14. Asking someone to relay a difficult message for you.
  15. Not paying attention to instructions because someone else is.  
  16. Using your spouse as a buffer at family gatherings.
  17. Asking a parent to update you on a sibling’s life (or vice versa).
  18. Needing a teacher’s or boss’s praise to boost your productivity.
  19. Asking your therapist for advice.
  20. Using an impressive job title to boost your confidence.
  21. Not learning important life skills because your partner already knows them.
  22. Relying on family members to remember important dates.
  23. Adopting the political opinions of others without using your own reasoning.
  24. Adopting the religious beliefs of others without using your own reasoning.
  25. What else comes to mind for you? 

Borrowing self isn’t good or bad. We’re social creatures, and we often need each other to solve problems. But ask yourself this question: What is the long-term cost when borrowing self becomes my automatic way of calming down?

One big cost is that borrowing self can turn your mood and functioning into a roller-coaster ride. You’ll feel amazing on the days when people are praising you or fixing a dilemma for you. But when those people are absent, or unwilling to reassure you, your mood and functioning will take a nose dive.  

Observing how you borrow self can highlight opportunities for what I call building up self.

Building up self looks like:

  • Strengthening your ability to problem-solve.
  • Increasing your ability to calm yourself down when distressed.
  • Creating relationships that don’t rely on constant reassurance. 
  • Being self-motivated rather than powered by praise or attention.   
  • Living a principled life, directed by your own interests and beliefs.

So the next time you want to ask a friend for advice or let your spouse fix a problem, ask yourself these questions:

  • Could this be an opportunity for me to work on building up self?
  • What is my own thinking about how I can navigate this problem?
  • How can I sit with the discomfort that comes with managing my own distress?
  • How might taking responsibility for myself in this situation benefit my life and my relationships?

Facebook image: stockfour/Shutterstock


Bowen, M. (1978). Family therapy in clinical practice. New York: Aronson.