Monthly Archives: January 2016

Mutual Dependence

Independence. There are so many experts out there telling us how important it is to be independent. Babies should be independent and able to self-soothe. School aged children should be independent and able to do their schoolwork on their own. Teens should be independent and able to make decisions about their health on their own. Twenty-somethings should be able to be financially independent and live on their own. The elderly should be able to live independently (alone), with as little help as possible for as long as possible. Independence, referring to the ability to take care of oneself, is certainly a desirable quality, and is linked to high self-esteem. We feel good about ourselves when we can do something on our own. However, it seems to me that we have, as we do in so many things, taken this to an extreme. There is so much talk about the need for independence that we seem to have forgotten that we are mammals, and by our very nature we are social animals who depend on the group for our survival.

Independence is defined as freedom from outside control or support. The question is, from a human perspective, is this independence truly possible? If it is, is it desirable? Complete freedom from outside control is a frightening concept to me. Could society function without traffic rules, health codes, sanitation codes, monetary regulations, car safety regulations? Would we really be better off without the Bill of Rights? We might argue regarding the degree of regulation needed, but (hopefully) no one is arguing that all laws should be abolished. Control, including self-control, is an important part of happiness. With each step towards self-sufficiency we take, a certain sense of accomplishment and contentment follows. Yet, very often, hidden behind that step toward self-sufficiency is the physical or emotional support from someone else that enabled that step to be taken. When a toddler takes a first step, the support of a hand is welcomed. A young adult recovering from an accident welcomes the support of a physical therapist. An elderly person welcomes the offer of an arm to hold to cross a street.

On a daily basis, I see the power of emotional support. A word of encouragement, a shoulder to cry on, a person to laugh with – all of these make a huge difference in our lives. With emotional support, people get through unimaginable tragedies – the death of a child, the devastation of war. They get through more common tragedies – the loss of a job, the end of a relationship, the loss of health. People who go through such things will often say that friends and family members enabled them to do so “just by being there.” When I see the power of such support, I question this movement toward the idealization of independence. Why would we want to encourage people to opt for independence, from freedom from support, when support is so powerful? Complete freedom from outside support separates us from each other and from our humanity and only adds to our pain.

So why is independence held out as such an important quality to achieve? I think, in part, it comes from a misunderstanding of the word dependence.   Dependence refers to a quality or state of being influenced by another. Somehow influence has come to mean that we are not independent thinkers; that we do not think for ourselves. But being open to what others have to say is important; it allows us to grow. It allows new ideas to be introduced to us. The other “problem” with dependence is that it often refers to addiction and the overreliance on someone or something. So, people will encourage us to “never need anybody” and “you have to be able to take care of yourself”. We say these things but never ask why this needs to be so. We rarely question why it is considered better to be independent than to be able to live in the comfort of being dependent – of being able to rely on or trust in someone other than ourselves. Why is it considered unhealthy to know that we can count on someone else? We have created an ideal of independence and self-sufficiency that is both unrealistic and, in my opinion, unhealthy. We have come to think that any sign of needing others is a weakness to be avoided at all cost.

It seems to me that we need to recognize the importance of both independence and dependence. And we need to recognize that depending on someone, being able to depend on someone, is very different from being dependent on someone or something in a weak, needy, “crutch-like” way. Knowing we can count on each other is fundamental to our strongest relationships, and is part of the very essence of friendship and love. We need to recognize what we can do, and enjoy doing, for ourselves. We need to embrace the joy of doing for others. We need to appreciate the gift we give someone when we accept their support. We need to recognize that we cannot truly survive without the support of others. In reality, having someone we can depend on, count on, is the most important source of stress reduction that exists. Knowing we can call that friend to tell us what the homework is because we lost our planner, or give us a ride to school/work because we missed the bus or our car won’t start, or to share a joy, a heartache, a wish, a dream – these are the moments that matter to us. Isolation is not the goal, sharing is. I prefer striving for interdependence, which means “mutual dependence.” This phrase reflects a healthy balance between independence and dependence. It signifies a state of mind where two emotionally healthy people know they can take care of themselves, but choose to take care of each other as well. Mutual dependence reflects the ability to function with limited outside control or support along with a willingness to be open to the influence of another and a trust that you can rely on them. It takes courage to admit we depend on someone. It means we have to let down our guard, show our vulnerability. Mutual dependence means the other person does the same. No one holds back, attempting to gain power or control.

In the physical world, we recognize that when one installs a supporting beam, the entire structure is strengthened. Perhaps we would all be happier if we recognized that emotional support strengthens us as individuals and as members of our family and friendship network; it strengthens our humanity.

~ “Being vulnerable is the only way to allow your heart to feel true pleasure”

Bob Marley ~

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The Key to Keeping Resolutions

When the clock struck twelve, we entered into the New Year, bright-eyed and eager to pursue our New Year’s resolutions. The first few hours, days, and possibly weeks are filled with absolute determination. We chant to ourselves: We will succeed this time. This year will be different. This is the year I maintain the change.

Sadly, for many of us, the determination to keep our New Year’s resolutions fades. As a result, we become disappointed in ourselves, leading to a belief that our intentions were “hopeless” and we feel we will never accomplish the goal we set. We’re often left feeling like trying is a waste of time and effort.

I believe the reason we become discouraged and, ultimately, give up on our resolutions is because we don’t recognize that “slips” are a part of human nature. Every psychological theory has to deal with that fact. If we can accept the fact that slips happen, then we can pick up and begin again. Our determination can be fueled by the idea that every day is a new day to restart our resolution.

Let’s focus on the “slips” for a bit.

In order to understand how Freudians would understand the slips, we have to understand that for them, our behavior is the result of a battle between our id (our pleasure center), our superego (our conscience), and our ego (the mediator who tries to balance those two extremes). Our ego constantly seeks to make resolutions to please both the id and superego. Our id wants pleasure, so it seeks to eliminate our resolutions; our superego wants to minimize, if not eliminate pleasure, so it is the source of our guilt when we break a resolution. When we break a New Year’s resolution (or any goal), we need to defend our ego; we have to justify why our ego could not maintain a proper balance and protect our ego from the “failure” to control the id and expose us to the criticism of our superego (either our own conscience or the criticism we think we will receive from others).

For Freudians, we use ego defense mechanisms to protect us from feeling too badly about our inability to maintain our willpower and about ourselves. Freudians would likely see these slips as regressions, or returns to earlier behaviors that we exhibited in the past that were appropriate for a different age or time or place. For example, a regression may be that a person handles impulses more like a child than the adult he or she is. Freud had another term, retrogression, to refer to a return to less appropriate behaviors that we ourselves never did in the past, but that we are going to try out now. So, if we eat that cake, rather than having one piece, we just binge on it like a child eating out of the cookie jar. If we break our vow to be patient with our loved ones, rather than just yelling, we have a total temper tantrum and, like a child, feel exhausted afterwards. If we want to succeed with our resolutions, we have to embrace our “id” – our childish pleasure center – and recognize that sometimes we will behave that way. We also have to recognize that the superego – our adult conscience – will chastise us and that, eventually, our ego – the balance between the two extremes – will encourage us to return to our path. It will restore our willpower.

For a Humanist, the cause of our “slip” is the incongruity between our real and ideal selves. If the ideal self is very different from who we are at the moment, then our journey to our ideal self is fraught with concern that while we try to get there, we run the risk of losing those we love. We worry that our loved ones will find out that we are not as great as we want to be and stop loving us because who we are falls so short. So, if we vow to lose weight, and then eat that cookie, we think to ourselves, “I should not have done that”, then feel guilty, and then prepare ourselves for the “fact” that others will think less of us because not only “should” we be thinner, but also more determined to get there. Again, if we break our vow to be patient with our loved ones, not only are we certain that our relationship will fail, but also should fail because we are not worthy of being loved. If we want to succeed, we have to recognize that managing this fear takes a considerable amount of energy—energy that is better placed in keeping our resolution, in maintaining our willpower, than in protecting us from the fear of the loss of love.

For cognitive theorists, the cause of our “slip” is our irrational thoughts. Irrational thoughts are characterized by extremes, such as “always” and “never”, and cause us to exaggerate the potential consequences of our irrational beliefs. So, if we say, “I always give up” or “I never follow through”, then the slip becomes a “fact” about who we are and about our permanent limitations. So, if we eat that cookie, it is not because we felt like having one at the moment, it is because we always give up and we never have any willpower. If we break our vow to be patient, it is because we never have patience, we never stay calm, we always yell. If we want to succeed, we need to learn to avoid those extreme words and concentrate on the moment – we ate a cookie, we yelled – we can do something different/better/more rational in the next challenging moment. We are not rational or irrational; rather, we are often rational and sometimes irrational.

If we are Behaviorists, we see the “slip” as a spontaneous recovery of an extinguished response. That sounds like a mouthful, but it is a simple and elegant explanation of the setbacks we all experience in our resolutions. For Behaviorists, extinction is when we “stop” responding because a reward is withheld (for example, we do not eat the cookie because cookies are not available). The word stop is in quotes because, for Behaviorists, extinguished responses are never really gone – they just appear to be gone because the response drops to a very, very low level that it simply looks like it is gone. Spontaneous recovery tells us that an extinguished response will return – even if a reward is not offered. For example, we can continuously avoid eating cookies; we can stop ourselves from eating them at the holidays, at parties, at restaurants. When we are in our own home and someone we live with eats cookies in front of us, sooner or later, we will not only want cookies, but we will have them. Once we do and we have a doughy reward, it becomes even more difficult to extinguish our response. Similarly, we can continuously avoid yelling; we can hold our tongue at work, at home, with our friends, but eventually, something will trigger our yelling response; it will spontaneously recover. If it results in our getting something we want (our significant other does what we “asked”, for example), then the yelling will continue to increase and make extinction even more difficult for us. If we want to succeed, Behaviorists would tell us to reduce our behaviors, rather than trying to eliminate them entirely. From the outset of our resolution, they would tell us to manage our willpower by allowing ourselves to have a cookie once a week, or admitting to ourselves that we will yell sometimes. This helps to avoid the extinction–spontaneous recovery cycle and helps us to maintain greater control over our behavior.

When we talk about maintaining our changes, maintaining our determination, we need to recognize that willpower is a valuable resource that must be used effectively. It is not something we have or don’t have. Willpower is something we have, we use up, and we need to replenish. Recent studies reveal thatif we use our willpower to avoid that donut for breakfast, or to avoid answering our boss with attitude, or avoid telling a friend what is bothering us because we know that they have enough of their own “stuff” to deal with, then we are using up our daily allotment of willpower. That is why for so many people, the resolutions made or remade are broken toward the end of the day – there simply isn’t enough willpower left. So, it might be helpful to track where we are using it up and how we might be able to reallocate it for more effective use overall.

I, for one, occasionally enjoy a piece of crumb cake or a jelly donut for breakfast.

If you are interested in the topic, you might enjoy reading the following American Psychological Association fact sheets:

Harnessing Willpower to Meet Your Goals

What You Need to Know About Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self Control

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