Our Impossible Goal: The Myth of Independence
So many people have independence, particularly psychological independence, as their goal; it is seen as the logical and inevitable end-point for the maturation of an adult. However, this ideal – and what ‘independence’ might actually mean – is worthy of some critical examination before we pursue it.
Being our own person
We would certainly like to be our own people. As adults want to be accountable to ourselves and to be able to have our own thoughts and feelings. We don't want to be judged for them or criticised or forced to act in ways which we don't want to act. Moreover, for those of us that have been dominated in the past by other people, the need to establish independence is primary. It is only when we have this independence to think, feel and act that we start to live our lives for ourselves.
Our history of dependence
Yet there is something of a paradox here. When we are infants we are almost totally dependent on our caregivers. We need them to meet many if not all of our physical needs in our early months and years. We would not survive without them. However, our caregivers are crucial to the development and maturation of our psychological selves. The relationships with our caregivers are critically important as it is largely through relationship with another that we learn about ourselves. So how does this happen?
We learn about other people through intense, mutually responsive interactions with our caregivers, in many cases our mothers. Baby and its mother will gaze intently at each other, each responding to the other, and each seeing that the other responds to them. Through many such interactions the baby learns and develops.
Our lives are intertwined
This is the start of a pattern that continues throughout life, as we continue to learn and develop. We almost always do this in conjunction with other people or in indirect response to other people. These relationship experiences “are absolutely necessary for facilitating, consolidating, expanding and sustaining the development of individualised selfhood during the entire life cycle” (Brandchaft 2010 p.76). A life without other people is a life of stagnation.
An alternative goal for many people might be interdependence. This is where we are free to think and feel whatever we like we like, but we also recognise that our world is made richer through our relationships with other people.
– Tim Hill
Brandchaft B., Doctors S. & Sorter D. (2010) “Towards and Emancipatory Psychoanalysis” Routledge, New York
Great post, Tim, thank you!
So very very true Tim. I like the idea of a goal being ‘interdependence’ rather than independence. Another favourite word of mine is ‘co-regulation’. We think that people are ‘self-regulating’ when they deal with the rise and fall of emotions in relatively healthy ways, but actually it is possible (likely even) that people who seem to genuinely handle emotions well are co-regulating… like in relation to/with other people even if they’re not actually speaking to them. Tuning into themselves and other people and then themselves again. Somatic practitioners do this in their work. So it’s understandable if you didn’t have a reasonably healthy environments growing up- as you’ve commented on here about what we do as babies, completely reliant on caregivers- you might not have an innate ability to co-regulate, or to be interdependent in relationships BUT we can all certainly learn how and then pass on better ways of being with people. That’s one of the loveliest parts of our work as counsellors I think.
Hi Nicole, the point you make about co-regulation is very important. Like you say, not only do we do it with people who we are with, but we also do it with the representations of people we carry in our minds. I can imagine that this might look like being proud of your actions because they will impress someone important to you, but may also take the form of stopping ourselves doing something to avoid an unpleasant reaction from another person. Or we might be inspired by someone else’s example. Although Freud was such a pioneer in the area of mental health, he gave to much emphasis to what goes on inside a person rather than what happens between people. As counsellors, not only do we need to help people self-regulate but also look for a range of resources outside themselves to use as sources of co-regulation – all the while fostering the idea that we aren’t alone.
Thank you Anna!