No man is an island. John Donne, 17th century poe
As we approach our annual celebration of our independence from England and of freedom in general, I’d like to briefly consider the value vs. limitations of autonomy, along with its counterparts—dependence and interdependence.
U.S. history, especially in the West, is replete with models of “rugged individualism,” as the fierce quest for personal independence and self-determination has often been dubbed. Ayn Rand, the renowned American author of the early 20th century, championed firm convictions, unique self-expression, nonconformity, etc., without government interference in people’s endeavors. During my 20’s and early 30’s, I confess to being in Rand’s “camp.” I have always valued existential autonomy: each person’s task of finding and acting in accordance with his/her own sense of life meaning and purpose. Very typical of mental health professionals, I also advocate forming healthy boundaries in interpersonal relationships. However, excessive autonomy detracts from caring about, empathizing with, and selflessly serving others; it reflects or leads to selfishness and narcissism—a growing plight in our culture.
As our world becomes steadily more populated, draining natural resources in the process, and continually “shrinks” amidst advances in transportation and ease of international communication, interdependence has become increasingly essential and more valued. In addition to sharing resources and supporting one another, the common results of high-functioning collaboration, as in a family, workplace, team, etc., are synergy, power, beauty and love. Such collaboration is particularly effective when each person or group fulfills its specialized niches or roles. Yet, when the pendulum swings too far in the direction of interdependence, individuality and creative expression may get compromised or diminished.
One of the big psychological buzz words of the 1980’s, that is still often bantered about, is “codependency,” characterized by excessive control and manipulation in close relationships, especially in families. While such behavior proves dysfunctional, I assert that many of us have become phobic of being dependent on others. In actuality, we are continually dependent on one another for physical and emotional support. Virtually everyone encounters times in his/her life in which he is very sick, injured and/or emotionally distraught; at such times, we especially need to let go and temporarily lean on others. As a therapist, I have worked with many children who fear relying on parental support and married folks in which one or both partners emotionally detach from the other for fear of being too dependent and ultimately, feeling terrified that the spouse will abandon her.
In conclusion, there is a place for all three of these “cousins,” and each has its caveats. HAPPY 4th of July, embracing them all!