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. Most of my family has a very strong judgement function. Usually when it comes to autonomy and deciding what’s the best course of action. And further more, this only extends so far as their own needs are concerned. Not usually taking others into consideration. Hence the fear of connecting with one another. So what do we feel the benefit is, of acting so independently?

Extreme Independence and Acting the Part

The ability to choose decisively how to act in a situation is useful. It usually gives us the added benefit of being seen as someone who is in charge. A.k.a. someone who is competent, 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. They chose extreme independence so they could feel as though they were doing what was best for themselves. Also for those they were in charge of caring for. But it was only an act.

They had to keep up the façade of always being seen as in charge. Strong, never letting on that they had the same fears, vulnerabilities and worries that everyone else does. We were playing a part. 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 in our relationships. There were only stark, contrasting times and polarized ways of being with one another. On an emotional level, this usually took the shape of heated arguments, judgements or just being mean to each other.

The Fear Under The Act of Extreme Independence

For example, the good times consisted of us drinking, while loudly verbalizing our opinions of whomever or whatever was around. The difficult times were filled with more loud verbalizing. Only this time, focusing on how the men weren’t being heeded, while sometimes being accompanied by shattering dinner wear. This happened while the women spewed hurtful and demeaning messages. Words designed to cut emotional wounds that were left to fester.

What both these examples have in common is, the “good” and the “difficult” times 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. Nursing these wounds in the midst of the relationships that we were supposed to be enjoying. So why does this happen? I have a feeling it has to do with a few different factors. Ones that we all experience and shape the ways we see our world and how we build relationships. And it starts in childhood. While we’re bonding with our caregivers.

Forging Our Attachments

When we first learn to love and trust, it is usually with our parents or guardians. These bonds tend to be tight. These bonds 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, neglect and abuse, 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 or loved by those who are supposed to love us unconditionally would add an undercurrent of uncertainty and fear to our everyday interactions with just about everyone we meet. The lessons learned being that no one is trustworthy and we need to protect ourselves from everybody. So we learn to survive. Feeling that the only person we’re able to trust is ourselves. And that’s only if we somehow learn to attune to our own needs! In my experience, this most likely comes in the form of pleasure seeking. And pleasure seeking is not substitute for attunement.

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. As though we have no one to rely on. So we rely solely on ourselves.

The Difference Between Isolation and Extreme Independence

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. Or romanticized as braving the wilderness, armed with only our 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 to some extent.

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 those from the whole of their communities. And if we see this type of isolation as punishment, then staying in this isolation is a form of unrealized self punishment. Or 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 in extreme independence. 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.

Isolation Doesn’t Only Effect those Isolating

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. This is 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. But it also hurts those who care for us as well.

If we’re isolating all the time, then when someone does get close enough to do something that hurts us, or rubs up against an old wound, our reaction is to neglect the other relationships in our lives as well. Those that remind us of our initial hurt. And what triggered our initial isolation. Also, the ways we act aren’t solely relegated to our own worlds. They have a ripple effect that touch almost every other aspect of our lives.

Knowing When to Take Healthy Breaks

For sure there are times we need to take a break from everything when it gets to be too much. 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.

When We Realize We Need to Change But the Other Doesn’t Want to

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 and 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 can bring that along with us when we attempt to reconnect with someone who has historically been difficult to connect with. So we don’t fall into familiar territory 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 🙂 and thanks for reading.


Author: nolabelsliving

Social worker by day, blogger by night. I have a lot of lived experience which is why I started my blog. I was not given any direction when I started out on my journey, but have been blessed with some amazing support and guidance along the way. Just want to give back a little of what I've received : )

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