Thursday, May 03, 2012

Independent to a Fault

I wrote this on Sunday, July 2, 2006. But I don't think I ever posted it, and on the reread think that it is probably a good pre-Mother's Day post. None of the concepts are new, old time readers have heard them all before. But maybe not the therapeutic suggestion at the end. I'm pretty sure that's new.

A person grows up in a home with sick parents, people who couldn’t attend to his emotional or physical needs. Or a family in which a sibling is sick and needs constant attention. The “healthy” child takes care of himself, makes his own lunch, does laundry—helps out his family the best he knows how. It can go the other way, of course, he might act out to get attention, cut school to go out for donuts.

But if he doesn’t, if he merely tries to make do, keeps hope alive, he might find that he tends not to ask for help. He is used to taking care of himself. Asking for help feels presumptuous, an imposition. He is capable, others are not. Asking for help has been beaten out of him. The answer, clearly, is no. And even if it were yes, it feels selfish to ask.

An independent-to-a-fault child might have watched as one of his two parents nurtured that less-than-healthy child or spouse. Someone else is nurtured, not him. Nurturing is modeled, so reluctance to nurture feels wrong. This wonderful person feels guilty saying to anyone, “No, I don’t really have time to . . . “ Some would surely label him co-dependent, an interesting label for someone who has worked to be independent all his life.

In other families, children are free of responsibility, their parents tend to their needs, quiz them on spelling tests. Children ask parents for help and hear, “Be right there!” and the parent materializes. A certain envy ensues, but acceptance, too. This will never be my life.

For our hero, asking for help is adding to the burden of an already over-taxed family system. He learns the opposite lesson, Take care of yourself; don’t ask for help; you can do this. A cognitive-behavioral therapist, seeking a core belief, might find that deep down this now adult child feels unlovable, believes the only reason people love him is that he is useful, a big help to have around.

His world view, a family world view, is that it is best to be a helper in life. Everyone likes someone who helps out, who seeks nothing in return. The cooperative, socially functional world view, a social contract that implies trust, I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine, is anathema. He doesn’t really feel worth it, asking for a back scratch, stealing another person’s time. There are others more worthy, needier than he.

Independent to a fault, someone will love him, who wouldn't? But he will be difficult to love. He doesn’t understand that the gift is in the giving, and others need to give just as much as he. He won’t accept help, isn’t fond of gifts. Partners, children, find this annoying in a spouse, a parent. They want to give, too, and he denies them the pleasure. It feels good, making other people happy.

Treatment is behavioral, naturally. We suggest tennis*.


*If you don't play tennis, here's how the game goes. Usually, if you play on public tennis courts, there are several courts side by side. If you aren't the best tennis player, or even if you are, you will naturally hit the ball in a such a way that it lands on another court. You have to wait until the players on that court err in play and stop play for a moment. Then you ask, "A little help please?" This is universal tennis language and people who play tennis don't resent chasing down your ball and throwing it back to you. Or they shouldn't.


lisak said...

Oh my, I am married to that person. Very, very hard.

therapydoc said...

You're in good company.

Jenny said...

My therapist and I were just talking this morning about asking for and accepting help. This is a spot on description of me (and half my family). It's actually a little scary just how spot on it is. And all the stuff about denying others the pleasure of giving is what I've told others in my family for years. I'm realizing now that I need to my own (and your!) advice.

Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

kg said...

Oh, and I would feel so bad about bothering those other nice people playing tennis.....I'd rather crawl into a hole than bother them both by my ball ending up in their way, and then needing to retrieve it!
Yes, I have it bad!
This is something I work on daily.
I can fake it, but inside.....not anywhere near there.

therapydoc said...

Thanks Jenny, and kg, I KNOW. It's so embarrassing.

Anonymous said...

OH. This one hits too close to home for comfort. There's another side of being the "too independent helper", too. Feeling as tho' you must suck up the extreme loneliness (and never ever show it; it would be socially unacceptable). And not being able to SEE what's wrong, yourself, is an embarrassment - shameful - because we're too close to all the emotions to see how those behavior patterns reinforce themselves. And it's just not our fate to have that nurturing, mirroring or marking, that others have. Some warped destiny... it's just not to be.

OUCH. (But yeah - I'm used to getting over it.)

Judith said...

This is totally me. It's kind of exhausting with little payout. Good thing I'm in therapy. :)

Kerro said...

Wow, you've just nailed my upbringing and faulty thinking in a nutshell. Thanks, I think. ;S

Liz said...

wonderful post.....thank you

Better Things-- Seeing Ghosts