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Hyper-Independence: The Trauma Response We Need to Talk About

“I do it myself.” I heard this phrase from my then 2-year-old daughter on a daily basis. Determined to be independent, and to accept help from no one, she would go through her daily activities, accepting no help even when it was tough. What does this have to do with chronic illness? Everything.

 For me, no phrase more fully encapsulated my life with chronic illness than that simple four word sentence. Diagnosed at 15 with Rheumatoid Arthritis, I thought there were only two choices– push through and maintain my independence or simply become a victim of my circumstances and a burden on everyone else, dependent upon their charity. 

For me, it became a matter of pride. Look what I could do in spite of my physical challenges. It became a way for me to prove to myself and everyone that I was just as strong and good as everyone else. It was a way for me to show that I was not different. But, it did not change the fact that I was. I was putting a pressure on myself that was not realistic, and in my stubbornness, was hurting only myself.

Hyper (or ultra) independence is a very real thing and it is how many of us have reacted to trauma or chronic illness. As people, it is important for us to feel we are contributing and valuable, and many times that happens through what we do. I set up this false notion that I had to prove my value and worth through what I could do, not simply who I was. 

This false choice often caused me not to accept help and to do things I never should have done, thereby, causing me to overdo things and hurting myself in the process. I had also watched my grandmother live while being bedridden with advanced Rheumatoid Arthritis. She was completely dependent on others and watching her, I promised myself I would never let myself get to that point. Enter hyper-independence– my way of coping and dealing with a very difficult diagnosis.  

I pushed myself, many times unwilling to acknowledge my own limitations. I would push myself beyond my limits, hurting my body all in an effort to show myself and others that I was good enough, that I was strong enough and that I could, in-spite of challenges, still do what others could do– even sometimes more. It was something I took great pride in, and until the year leading up to my Parkinson’s diagnosis, was something I did regularly.

When Parkinson’s struck, though, it all changed. Before diagnosis and treatment, it sidelined me in a way nothing ever had before. I watched my body betray me even further, and battled depression in ways I had not before, because of all I could not do. My hyper-independence was crashing down around me and there was nothing I could do about it. 

It was then, I realized the false and dangerous choice I had given myself. I had been operating under the assumption that there were only two choices, when in reality there were actually three:

1. Push through and maintain my independence, no matter what it costs my body.

2. Simply become a victim of my circumstances and a burden on everyone else, dependent upon their charity.

3. Do the things I could, let others help me and accept the help when offered.

You see, there was an actual third choice, and this is one my father helped me see. He one day simply said to me, “Don’t rob others of the benefit and chance to bless you. Sit down, shut up and let others help you. You don’t have to do everything yourself.” It was like being given permission to rest. I did not have to be strong all the time and do everything myself– I could let others help me. It did not mean I was weak. It did not mean I was giving up. It did not mean I was losing my independence. It simply meant I was human and just like all humans, sometimes I needed help.

I wish I could say I lived this perfectly and that I never overdid it, but I can say it is getting better. I am realizing that this hyper-independence did not help me and in many ways hurt me, all because I was simply not willing to ask for or allow help. For me, overcoming this has been a series of small baby steps, one day at a time, allowing others to help me. As I have done this, I have realized that I don’t have to do all of it myself. I can get help from others, while still maintaining my independence. 

If you are struggling with this in your life, start by finding one or two people you can trust and let them know how they can help. Let them help you and begin the process of letting go of your hyper-independence. Once you begin this journey, you may find, as I did, that you feel better, and that you put yourself through unnecessary pain and struggle, all because you would not let someone simply help and bless you. Don’t rob others of the chance to bless you– take a break, and accept help from others. It could be the most physically and mentally healing thing you do as you step into this new year.

Image courtesy of Getty Images