Why Hyper-Independence Isn't Necessarily a Good Thing

Mental health experts break down how to tell the difference between healthy self-sufficiency and risky hyper-independence.

Hyper Independance
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There's a lot of cultural celebration around the concept of independence, particularly in the United States. People who can take care of themselves receive praise, and the terms "self-made" and "single-handedly" are markers of true, hard-won success. And whether it's a young adult who accepts financial assistance from parents, a parent who hires domestic help, or a romantic partner who is deemed "needy," societal distaste for any type of dependence is real.

Being self-sufficient is one thing, but when this notion is taken too far and you're unable to accept any kind of help or support, it can become unhealthy. The phenomenon is called "hyper-independence," and it can have real negative impacts on a person's relationships, career, mental health, and more. Here, experts weigh in on what hyper-independence looks like, whether or not it's actually a trauma response, and how to address the issue in your own life.

What Is Hyper-Independence?

As the name suggests, hyper-independence is "an over-investment in autonomy and self-reliance," according to Terri Bacow, Ph.D., a cognitive-behavioral psychologist and author of Goodbye, Anxiety: A Guided Journal for Overcoming Worry.

"A healthy degree of independence is [characterized by] self-confidence, in the sense of 'I feel good about my autonomy, I feel good about the things I can do by myself without help — and I can also rely on people when I need help,'" adds Bacow. "I think healthy independence is a blend of knowing when you can do it on your own, and when you need to loop in some other people."

On the other hand, "those who are hyper-independent typically have a fear or extreme discomfort with allowing others to support or assist them, even if it is to their detriment," says Simone Saunders, M.S.W., a trauma therapist.

As for what hyper-independence can look like? It might make someone unwilling to lean on their romantic partner for emotional support at a time when they're "really struggling with the compounded stress of work and extended family crises," says Saunders. Or, a parent of two might feel the need to "do it all," and try "tirelessly to fulfill [their] work, parenting, household, and relationship obligations," while rarely asking their partner or extended family for support, she says.

Is Hyper-Independence a Trauma Response?

"Hyper-independence itself isn't a personality trait, rather a survival trait developed through intergenerational, childhood, or adult adverse experiences," says Saunders. "Some of the childhood experiences that result in hyper-independence are childhood emotional or physical neglect — emotional neglect is when a parent does not respond enough to a child's emotional needs during the brain development period — and parentification, when children assume responsibilities that are developmentally inappropriate, [e.g.,] being a mediator for the family, being involved in financial decisions. These experiences teach the child that their caregivers are an unreliable source of stability and safety and that they need to provide it for themselves".

Living in a culture that praises and promotes independence at all costs may play a role as well, adds Bacow. "I think that if you're raised in an environment where independence is valued, this can be transmitted," she says. "It's a message that can be passed down." A need for control and perfectionist tendencies can be wrapped up in hyper-independence, says Bacow. There's a sense of "If I don't include anyone else, I can have total control over the outcome," she says.

Negative Effects of Hyper-Independence

Being excessively independent can affect many parts of a person's life. In the workplace, a hyper-independent person may reject help, which could lead to mistakes or taking on responsibilities beyond their capacity, according to Bacow.

In interpersonal relationships, hyper-independence can weaken bonds. "Let's say a friend offers to help and [you] reject that offer," says Bacow. "It can damage the bond and relationship. If you double down on an identity of independence, then you don't engage in supportive relationships with friends and family." Hyper-independent people may build their identities around being single as well, she adds.

The ramifications of hyper-independence can be internal as well. "There can be a lot of emotional exhaustion and burnout associated with being hyper-independent," says Saunders. "Hyper-independence can be very isolating, so loneliness is a common complaint of those who struggle with this."

"Hyper-independence can both be the cause and result of mental health difficulties," says Saunders. "At some point in time, it developed as a survival strategy to assist in keeping you safe. However, after the danger is gone, the strategy still exists and persists. Therefore, it creates a negative feedback loop."

Hyper-independence can contribute to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, says Bacow. For example, a hyper-independent person may experience burnout, and burnout can be a risk factor for developing depression or anxiety. At the same time, people who have the conditions — particularly high-functioning anxiety — may also have higher odds of becoming hyper-independent, according to Bacow. For instance, someone with high-functioning anxiety could be hyper-productive or perfectionistic. This may make them take on too much at work without adequate support for fear of failing to please their boss.

What to Do If You Believe You're Hyper-Independent

Both Bacow and Saunders recommend taking small, manageable steps toward allowing others to help or support you.

"I would think of it almost as a phobia — you're afraid to relinquish control and you're afraid to enlist help," says Bacow. "Can you maybe [for example] ask the grandparent to watch your child for one hour and just see how that goes?" From there, you can ask if they can watch your child for a few hours, to give you enough time to run a few errands. Or perhaps you delegate a task to a partner, suggests Bacow. Let them take over the weekly grocery run or meal prep so that you can carve out time for self-care.

"Get comfortable with being uncomfortable," advises Saunders. "When [you] can acknowledge that the process of unlearning hyper-independence will produce discomfort, it can be instrumental in reducing fear. Start small and with close and safe relationships. Ask yourself, 'How can I practice relying on individuals in my support system?' The more that [you] allow [yourself] to experience vulnerability and support, the easier it can get over time."

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