Healthy Autonomy

Prevention Magazine . July, 2005
How to have better relationships with friends, lovers, and family.

I was teaching at a conference center in New York City several years ago. At the end of a long day, I had to pack up all my stuff and schlep it about a quarter mile to my sleeping quarters—and then bring it back to the conference room the next morning. One of the women in the class volunteered to help clean up and bring all my materials back to my room. My response was automatic: “Thank you very much. I really appreciate your kindness, but my suitcase has wheels; I can do it myself.” She burst out laughing. “Joan, this isn’t about your suitcase, it’s about accepting help. You talk so eloquently about kindness. Here I am extending it to you, and you’re turning down my gift.”

She had a point. On the independence scale, I rank right up there with the feistiest 2-year-old who puts her hands on her hips and announces, “I can do it myself!” Growing up, if I didn’t have any needs, then I didn’t have to ask for help and risk being disappointed or even humiliated. Needy people seem so vulnerable. Their happiness is dependent on others, not themselves.

Our tendency to lean toward neediness or too much independence begins when we’re babies. If all goes well, we gradually develop autonomy, an empowered sense of self-worth that is the forerunner of independence. But if your childhood was less than optimal—maybe you moved a lot, came from a dysfunctional or abusive family, or were ill—then chances are that you got stuck somewhere on the journey from dependence to independence.

One of the detours is codependence, a term that used to refer to caretakers of substance abusers; it now refers more generally to people who are themselves addicted to relationships and try to maintain them at almost any cost. Another is counterdependence, a relational style of rigid, false independence that’s like a scab over the heart. These two modes are opposite sides of the same emotional coin—scratch the surface of either and you find a small child who fears rejection, rather than a competent person who trusts herself.

My friends Diane and Steve are a classic case of codependence. They were wildly infatuated at first, but when that initial thrill was over, Diane got clingy. She wanted Steve all to herself, and like an addict, she couldn’t get enough of him. He was her emotional lifeline. When Steve wanted to be alone or spend time with friends, Diane felt rejected. She was most comfortable when Steve was by her side, giving her a lot of attention and positive strokes, but Steve felt smothered.

Most of us aren’t so aloof we can’t maintain intimate relationships. Nor are we like the superneedy who are forever feeling slighted and abandoned, adrift on their own raft of disillusionment and pain. Like me, you’re probably somewhere in the middle, trying your best to balance giving and receiving. Here’s some advice on doing just that in romance, friendship, and family life.

If You Tend Toward Neediness

Phone, e-mail, or write just to say hi and ask how the other person is doing. Resist the urge to complain or ask for anything, including a get-together. If you tend to engage in joined-at-the-hip behavior with a friend, partner, or family member, try to spend a little less time together—and then keep your phone and e-mail conversations short. Most people dread long conversations that are hard to terminate. Time goes by fast, so use your watch. Finally, be honest and to the point, and never use a third party to pass along a message that you don’t want to deliver yourself. (Diane, for example, often conveyed her fears through Steve’s teenage son.) That seems manipulative and turns people off.

If You’re Generally Too Independent

It’s important to monitor your resentment level in relationships and realize that you don’t always know what’s best for someone else. In my 20s and 30s, I tended to collect needy, dependent friends. They made me feel useful and in control.

At that time, I’d never heard the word codependent, but I learned it means you lose yourself in other people’s problems, suffering from the fatal illusion that you can fix their lives. The result is that you end up feeling used, resentful, and exhausted because you’re powerless to change anyone’s life other than your own.

Another tip for the superindependent: Ask for what you need. And because asking for help doesn’t come easily for you, practice. If you begin a sentence with, “Hey, I need your help…” it makes people feel appreciated and valued. Finally, try to accept all compliments, gifts, and offers of help with grace and appreciation. Automatically deflecting them dishonors the giver.

Relationships, like romances, are mirrors of your place on the journey to inter-dependence. If you notice that you’re in a lot of codependent relationships, that’s a good indication that you need to heal your own dependency needs. Intimacy is based on being honest about what you’re feeling, moment by moment, without judgment. When you know what you need, you can either give it to yourself or ask for it. When you’re present to another person, you no longer have to rescue them. That’s called interdependence, the place where two centered people meet in an honest, loving relationship.

Balancing Acts

You’re an interdependent woman if you can…

  • Enjoy spending time alone.
  • Ask for help when you need it.
  • Receive gifts graciously.
  • Be mindful (and unafraid) of even unpleasant emotions.
  • Comfort yourself when you’re feeling anxious or down.
  • Tell the truth, even if you think someone won’t like it.
  • Encourage and inspire through your example.

<< back