The process of recovering from trauma—whether rooted in your childhood or unfolding in the wake of an acute traumatic event like a car accident—is complex and difficult. And especially when your trauma was inflicted by the hands (metaphorical or otherwise) of people who are meant to care for you, it can be a natural defense mechanism to assume others can’t be relied on.
This sort of trauma response can lead to the development of hyper-independence, which is the attempt to be independent in every aspect of life, even when it is detrimental to do so. Here’s how to tell if you are experiencing hyper-independence, and how to reframe your thinking around accepting help from others.
Where trauma-based hyper-independence comes from
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When you’re recovering from trauma, “it can seem like the safest thing to do is to rely on yourself, and to go it alone,” says Melissa Goldberg-Mintz, a childhood psychologist and author of the book Has Your Child Been Traumatized? If a person grows up knowing they can’t trust the people who are meant to care for them, developing extreme independence can seem like the best form of protection.
But even if it seems like logical response to trauma, this form of pathological self-reliance can cause more problems over time. “It’s a survival technique,” says Kyle Kunkel, a licensed professional counselor with Thriveworks. “It works, but it’s not sustainable.” As Kunkel notes, developing hyper-independence as a result of trauma often means that a person hasn’t been able to develop skills such as conflict resolution or effective communication.
Signs of hyper-independence
As Goldberg-Mintz notes, there will always be people who are naturally more independent, or crave less social interaction. “If it is working for them, that is ok,” she says. Hyper-independence starts becoming an issue if a person wants or needs help from others but is afraid to ask, or if they start taking on too much work themselves, even to the point of burnout, because they don’t feel they can rely on others.
As Kunkel notes, signs of hyper-independence include a hesitancy to ask for help, an unwillingness to open up to others, a habit of taking on too much work to the point that it starts affecting their health; and a tendency to push others away. As she notes, these actions tend to be rooted in fear, usually because a person has learned that they cannot rely on the people around them.
When hyper-independence is rooted in trauma, it can affect multiple aspects of a person’s life, from work to interpersonal relationships. This could include having a partner who needs more emotional support than a person is willing to give; struggling to open up to and depend on friends; or being unable to support a struggling employee.
What to do if you’re struggling with being hyper-independent
If your hyper-independence is having a negative impact on your life, the first (and often hardest) part is recognizing that there is an issue, and that something needs to change. “Self-awareness is our biggest skill,” Kunkel says. One of the first steps is to seek out help, which often includes therapy, whether it’s working one-on-one with a therapist, or enrolling in group therapy.
When hyper-independence is causing tension within a relationship, such as a partner needing more emotional support than a person feels comfortable giving, Goldberg-Mintz recommends trying to reframe your thinking and trying to understand their emotional state and their needs. “It’s about trying to be curious about what is going on in their mind,” Goldberg-Mintz says.
In Kunkel’s experience as a therapist, she finds it’s essential to recognize when feelings of uncertainty and fear are starting to affect your actions, and to develop methods for coping with them—which will hopefully include identifying those people in your life who can offer a degree of support, and finding ways to ask them for help.