Is being independent all it’s cracked up to be? Is it something we should even aspire to? Is it how we find abundant life?
My friend Will Van der Haart carries on our Tools for Thriving, Not Just Surviving, series and digs into this question. As you can tell, Will’s a deep thinking man with a pastor’s heart. After he was involved in the July bombings in London 2005 he suffered a nervous breakdown. What came out of that was a passion for bridging the gap between faith and mental health. I’m so pleased to be sharing his wisdom here. He dips into the tools of community and vulnerability as he asks whether we should be aiming for independence.
In 2000 Beyoncé Knowles, Kelly Rowland, and Michelle Williams all threw their hands up in the air in what would be a landmark vocal for female independence. ‘Independent Woman,’ went to the top the Billboard Charts in the USA, but more importantly it heralded the beginning of female empowerment in the possessive genre of R and B music. Beyoncé would go on to be a global superstar and smash the market with statement independence songs like, ‘Single Ladies’, ‘If I Were A Boy’ and the chilling “Irreplaceable”.
However, despite its brilliance, ‘independence R and B’ has struggles to define independence aside from the old motifs of financial independence, relationship independence and life unshackled from the burden of work. Without a positive definition, we are in danger of becoming highly dependent to demonstrate our new found ‘independence’. For example we become dependent upon success to fuel a wealthy and independent lifestyle or we become uncommitted in relationships because we are afraid of loosing the independence we have on our own. I can see that songs titled; ‘Healthily Independent’ or ‘Individual but Connected’ are unlikely to top the charts, but they could be a better goal to aim for.
If we are going to avoid replacing one form of faulty dependence for another we must define terms more clearly. On the negative side of dependency there is definitely something to work away from, in the psychological world this is known as ‘codependency’. Professor of psychology at the California State University Dr Shawn Meghan Burn defines codependency as a relationship in which, “One person’s help supports (enables) the others underachievement, irresponsibility, immaturity, addition, procrastination or poor mental or physical health.”[i]
Both of the individuals in a codependent relationship are overly needy, one to be needed and the other to receive help. Behind their roles within a relationship, the helper’s low self-esteem is fueled by a sense of being useful, whist the recipients low self-esteem is fuelled by being cared for. Codependency is an emotionally damaging behavior that inhibits a person’s ability to develop healthy reciprocal relationships. Codependency is not the same thing as being taken for granted, having a lazy boyfriend or him failing to ‘put a ring on it’[ii].
There is a danger that the popularization of the term ‘codependent’ has legitimized a cultural quest to live without relational responsibility.There is a danger that the popularization of the term ‘codependent’ has legitimized a cultural quest to live without relational responsibility. @vicarwill Click To Tweet
Whilst codependency is wholly negative, God did not intend for people to live independently from each other or him. If we follow that train of thought; all ‘intense’ relationships, honest criticism, accountability or sacrifice can become labeled as overbearing and unhealthy, when they may be the very thing we need most. St Paul describes our life’s purpose as a calling into dependent relationship; “God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”[iii] Christianity requires us to sacrifice our desire for independence from God for complete dependence upon God.Christianity requires us to sacrifice our desire for independence from God for complete dependence upon God. @vicarwill Click To Tweet
What then should we be looking for when it comes to garnering the right balance between independence and dependence in life? Safe to say it has much more to do with who we are than what we do. Healthy relationships are often termed Interdependent, expressing a balance between relational offering and relational receiving. Christian author Joni Ericson Tada was 17 when she was left a quadriplegic after a diving accident. She says, ‘I have an interesting perspective on depending on others. I think it gives people a chance to serve. And I’m not so much big on independence, as I am on interdependence. I’m not talking about co-dependency, I’m talking about giving people the opportunity to practicing love with its sleeves rolled up.’
Interdependence acknowledges that we have both gifts and needs: That others can be both the recipients of our blessings and a blessing to us. It is expressed best in Jesus instruction from John 13:34, ‘Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.’ The love that Jesus offers is not narcissistic, (self-orientated) it is generous and self-giving. This is why self-esteem is so foundation to healthy interpersonal relationships. Clinical psychologist Mary Lamia writes, ‘Optimal self-esteem and a strong sense of agency protect you and contribute to your stability as a separate person.’[iv] Self-esteem is recognizing your true value, your real strengths and your weaknesses, whilst agency is confidence in your ability to take action and responsibility in life.
If codependency and independence are two extremes of scale, interdependence is the center-point at which we are neither ‘needing to be needed’ nor ‘not needing at all.’ In practice, relationships are complex and a balance needs to be worked for, but all of life’s most rich and rewarding relationships are born out of this struggle. We will also need to review and redress our emotional boundaries as we get older and our relationship change. The greatest source of constancy in these fluctuations is undoubtedly an identity rooted in the unfaltering love of God. The best you can do is to, “Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.”[v]
Will Van Der Hart is Pastoral Chaplain at Holy Trinity Brompton and a director of The Mind and Soul Foundation a think-tank dedicated to emotional health and Christian spirituality. Will’s new book, “The Perfectionism book” is released in February and is available from Amazon and all good book sellers. Find out more at www.mindandsoul.info
[i] Psychology Today [ii] Single Ladies, Beyonce Nowles, 2008 [iii] 1 Corinthians 1:9 NASV [iv] Defining Emotional Dependency. www.empower.com [v] Brennan Manning, Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging, NavPress, 1994
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