“As the price of liberty is vigilance— so the price of independence is self-determination, the price of dignity is self-assertion, and the price of respect is self-respect,” wrote psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Szasz.

Self-determination and self-respect are the necessary keys most unhappy people need to grasp the concept of taking full responsibility for and control over their own lives. Until they find this key, dissatisfied people dream that there is someone else who can make {it better”, who can take total care of them, who can be responsible for them more effectively than they can. This condemns them to searching for the person who can protect and care for them.

Self-Reliance and happiness begins when we realize how false and destructive this dream is; when we understand that no one can take care of us better and that only we are responsible for our lives; and when we start to learn effective methods for doing these things ourselves.

By developing self-reliance and independence, which is the ability to take care of and be responsible for yourself, you acquire:

(1) Emotional Competence: The emotional tools necessary to free yourself from dependency. To be responsible is to be able to make effective decisions and choices for yourself, to weigh alternatives, and to evaluate ethical dilemmas and solve problems. When a problem arises, the independent person has acquired the skills it takes to face it squarely, learns as much as possible about it, considers many options, weighs the possible outcome of each option, and perhaps seeks advice and counsel before reaching a decision. As an independent and self-reliant person, you can ask directly for help, but you remain in charge of how much and what kind of help you accept, and you make clear agreements about what is expected in return.

(2) Inner Role Model:  When you develop self-reliance and independence within yourself, you also are developing the role models that enable you to choose appropriate friends and a suitable mate. The interaction you have with yourself is a role model for all your other relationships. For example, if you criticize yourself frequently, you're more likely to stay around others who are critical, because it feels familiar.

Likewise, self-reliance and independence in yourself also helps you see it in others. When you have a caring, responsible relationship with yourself, you develop an internal relationship model to use as a basis for your friendships and intimate relationships with others. As you become more experienced at identifying healthy friendships, your circle of good friends grows—beginning with your relationship with yourself, expanding to a few new friends, and eventually growing into a supportive “family” of choice who reinforce your autonomy and independence.

(3) Self-Understanding: You gain the understanding that you are responsible for yourself and must learn whatever you need to make your life successful, functional and happy; rather than waiting around for someone else, or trying to gain another's approval.

Taking care of and being responsible for yourself requires skills that are usually learned in early childhood. However, we don’t always get the healthy positive examples we need, so we grow up without the necessary learning. This is not unusual, or entirely the fault of our parents. If you were gradually taught and encouraged to be self-reliant from early childhood, you would learn the necessary skills and attitudes for autonomous living one step at a time. Unfortunately for many of us, our parents were not trained in autonomy either, and could not teach us.

Even the popular idea of parents' “responsibility” for children can be counter-productive. Parents who see their role as controlling their offspring rather than teaching them to make choices on their own, teaches the children dependency rather than independence.

Another reason self-reliance can seem difficult is because most of our society actively discourages it. Media images of love and caring, a parental “I know what's best for you” attitude among helping professionals, religious and political figures, and the generally accepted idea of parents’ “duty” create an atmosphere in which independence appears to be selfish and alien. We are taught to value caring for others to the point of martyrdom, and to regard caring for ourselves as “self-centered” and “egotistic”.

Children who don’t learn caring for others, self-love and self-control (as opposed to guilt and duty) become dependent and insecure adults.

Recovery programs challenge these attitudes by defining caring for others without regard for self as “codependency” and “enabling”. Twelve-Step programs such as ACA and Al-Anon have popularized a concept long established in psychology theory: that it is unhealthy to be too dependent on another. However, while all these have indicated that dependency is unhealthy, they haven't yet learned to value self-reliance.

Contrary to what you may think, self-reliance and independence actually enhance relationships with others, and allow giving and receiving to be truly unconditional. Only a person who is fully able to care for him or herself can be free to love and give freely; deprived people give grudgingly.

High on Learning
As children, our natural curiosity is powerful. In fact, young children are small “learning machines”. Their whole being is focused on learning through their five senses. Research shows that children are “turned on” by situations in which they can learn. Their bodies produce hormones such as adrenaline and endorphins—natural substances that produce a “natural high”—the body’s own, internal motivation and reward system for learning.

When faced with a new experience, as long as they feel safe and unthreatened, young children are highly motivated to explore and learn. Secure toddlers are irresistibly drawn to bright colors, new sounds, and new experiences—they find your jingling car keys fascinating. To a child who has supportive, loving, functional parents, the world is a fun, safe place to be, and learning is exciting, and exhilarating. Children who feel secure are compelled by their joy in learning to venture forth, to begin to take small risks, and begin to act independently of their parents. It is in taking these risks, under parental supervision and support at first, and increasingly independently as the child grows older, that the necessary skills of self-reliance are first learned.

Independence grows out of these healthy learning experiences. Through taking risks, we learn how to solve problems, and also how to deal effectively with disappointment and failure. When we have learned these skills, our experiences with life are successful, producing confidence that we can rely on ourselves to experiment, to solve new problems we encounter, and to comfort our disappointment and correct our mistakes. When we know these things, we know we can take care of ourselves.

Frightened, insecure children, on the other hand, are dependent on the adults around them. Their world is too insecure to risk, and they look to others to solve their problems and care for their feelings. Being unaware of your motives, feelings, wants and internal dialogue leaves you out of control, unable to figure out how to satisfy yourself. It is, indeed as though you don't own your life, as though someone else must run it.

A solid sense of self means knowing your sensitivity and capacity, being realistic about it, and acting accordingly. My newest e-book, The Real 13th Step, teaches the skills and attitudes that lead to self-reliance.

Excerpted from: The Real 13th Step: Discovering Confidence, Self-Reliance and Independence Beyond the 12-Step Programs  

©  2015 Tina B. Tessina

Author Bio: Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. is a licensed psychotherapist in S. California since 1978 with over 35 years’ experience in counseling individuals and couples and author of 13 books in 17 languages, including It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction; Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage, Dr. Romance’s Guide to Dating in the Digital Age; The Ten Smartest Decisions a Woman Can Make After Forty; Love Styles: How to Celebrate Your Differences and her newest, The Real 13th Step.  She writes the “Dr. Romance” blog, and the “Happiness Tips from Tina” email newsletter.

Online, she’s known as “Dr. Romance.” Dr. Tessina appears frequently on radio, TV, video  and podcasts

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All material ©2017 Tina Tessina. All rights reserved.