Extreme Independence and Trauma: When Doing You, Affects your Relationships for the Worse

I was on Facebook not too long ago, scrolling through my feed when I saw a post about how extreme independence is a trauma response that stems from being unable to trust those closest to you. The cause, they said, was mostly due to experiencing neglect, from those who should have been attentive to our basic needs for love and belonging.

This felt true as I read it, and most of my family has a very strong judgement function, when it comes to attonomy and deciding what’s the best course of action. And further more, this only extends so far as their own needs are concerned. As they arise in context to situations they find themselves in with those closest to them.

This ability to choose decisively how to act in a situation is useful, and gives the added benefit of being seen as someone who is in charge, competent and who knows what they’re doing. But what I’ve come to find out, from my own experiences and those close in to me, is that this is little more than a way to survive. Those who modeled this behavior for me, were acting the part so they could feel as though they were doing what was best for themselves and those they were in charge of caring for. But it was only an act.

They had to keep up this facade of always being seen as in charge, strong, never letting on that they had the same fears, vulnerabilities and worries that everyone else does. They, and I, were playing a part, and one that was void of a large swath of our emotional lives. This lead directly to a lack of there being moments of intimacy and tenderness. There were only stark, contrasting times of polarized ways of being with one another. On an emotional level that usually took the shape of arguments, judgements or just plane making fun of one another.

For example, the good times consisted of the men drinking beer while loudly verbalizing their opinions of whomever or whatever. While the women gossiped about their friends and family. The bad times were usually filled with more loud verbalizing, but of the displeasures of how the men weren’t being heeded, while sometimes being accompanied by shattering dinner wear, while the women spewed hurtful and demeaning messages designed to cut emotional wounds that were mostly left to fester.

What both these examples have in common, the “good” and “bad” times, is that they were both ways to keep others at a distance so as not to seem weak, or rather the distance was to keep others from seeing that they were emotionally wounded in the relationships they were supposed to be enjoying. So why does this happen? I have a feeling it has to do with a few different factors, that we all experience, which shape the ways we see our world and how we build relationships, and starts in childhood, when we bond with our caregivers.

When we first learn to love and trust, it is usually with our parents or guardians. These bonds tend to be tight, and set the stage for the relationships we form well into adulthood. If there is a nurturing bond, one where the caregiver is attuned to the needs of their child, then healthy and balanced relationships are forged. But if the bond is broken time and again by emotional distance, then the child learns that the love they once felt, has betrayed them, trust becomes fickle and the bond they once built disintegrates.

This, I imagine, is where extreme independence is adopted. Not knowing if we are accepted by those who are supposed to love us unconditionally, would add an undercurrent of uncertain fear to our everyday interactions with just about everyone we meet. The lesson learned is that no one is trustworthy, and we need to protect ourselves. So we learn to survive, feeling the only person we’re able to trust is ourselves, and that’s only if we somehow learn to attune to our own needs. Which most likely wouldn’t be the case.

From this perspective, it’s easy to see how trust relates to fear for our belonging, and abuse of this trust by loved ones, the source of our belonging, leads to our feeling alone, like we have no one to rely on. So we rely solely on ourselves.

Extreme independence then, is really a form of extreme isolation. And there’s a difference between isolation and independence. There’s a sense of empowerment that comes with the image of being independent. It’s often romanticized as the loner, striking out on his own, braving the wilderness, armed with only his wits. There’s a sense of being able to handle whatever may come up, no matter how difficult it may be. Which is a trait I feel like we’d all like to embody.

Isolation however, is something that leaves us weaker as an individual, less resilient. It’s used by most societies as the main form of punishment, to separate from the greater whole of our communities. And if we see this type of isolation as punishment, then staying in this isolation is a form of unrealized self punishment, what Buddha called the “second arrow”.

The first arrow is the breaking of the initial trust from the caregivers. Something that we have no control over. The second arrow however is something we do to ourselves, regardless of who we learned the initial lessons from. So if we continue to isolate, after we separate from those who had done the abandoning, then we are continuing to do ourselves harm, even if it’s the only way we know how to be.

This is why isolation is so debilitating, it leaves us with the inability to care for ourselves by being unable to connect emotionally with others, because we feel it’s protecting us by doing what’s in our “best interests”. But also why “extreme independence” is so destructive, when disguised as a virtue, and not seen for the damaging isolation it can be.

For sure there are times we need to take a break from everything, and that’s healthy. Going to your favorite coffee shop to journal, or draw up your monthly budget while sipping on a warm cup of your favorite tea or coffee, can be just the right way to slow down a little and gain some much needed perspective. But when you check your texts, and the last four times you checked in with a “loved one” is on major holidays or a birthday, something’s amiss.

And unfortunately, what’s amiss usually involves more than one person. So even if you realize that you’ve been the one who has been working under the guise of extreme independence, unless the other people in your life are or have been open to building, and fostering a reciprocating relationship, than you may be left with the hard realization that you’re sort of still in the same place.

And this can be a tough place to be. How do you keep the door open, to possibly reconnect, especially if it’s a painful prospect of being abandoned again? I don’t know that I have the answer to that, but I know what helps. Fostering healthy new relationships.

The more healthy, robust relationships we build, that are based in mutual respect and understanding, the more resilient we become to the ups and downs of all our relationships. And by “keeping the door open”, I don’t mean we have to stay loyal to the lessons of ways of being in unhealthy relationships we learned from the past. Unlearning those lessons should be priority. Instead we forge new bonds, learn new lessons, ones that leave us feeling good, about ourselves and others.

Once we have a blueprint, a map on how to navigate a healthy relationship, one we want to be in, then we bring that along with us if we attempt to reconnect with someone who has historically been difficult to connect with. So we don’t fall into the familiar terrain or old patterns of the unhealthy ways we used to interact.

It definitely takes patients, but with some persistence, you may just find yourself surrounded with caring, loving and a healthy support network. So do not give up hope! There are healthier times ahead, we only need go out there and bring them to fruition. And remember, you don’t need to do it alone. Peace 🙂

Image Credits:“THE DARKNESS IS ON THE WAY/ ARE WE GOING TO BE ISOLATED?” by HORIZON is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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