Some Thoughts on Independence

We will soon be celebrating a national holiday commemorating 13 American colonies’ declaration of independence from Great Britain.  Although there were many reasons that prompted the American Revolution, the ultimate result was the birth of a new nation legally separated from its “Mother country.”

When we think about independence today, the focus is often on individuals and not countries.  In this respect, the emergence of independence is a developmental process—most notably occurring during infancy, childhood, and young adulthood.  The idea is that during each of these stages the individual begins to engage in separate and independent functioning.  Soon the child develops a sense of who she or he is as well as the nature of their relationship with their parent.

Autonomy or independence is the natural order for the developing child and young adult to separate appropriately from their parents.  Autonomy is often associated with positive feelings of being the one who determines and governs one’s own behavior; thus, giving a person a sense of freedom.  Research has found that the need for autonomy is critical for a person to develop a sense of self and for their overall psychological and physical health.

Yet, not all people are reared in ways that encourage this path to healthy independence.  That is, some parents are so focused on their own needs or standards that they use means of control (like shame, guilt, provision or withdrawal of love and approval) to influence their child’s behavior, which can have dysfunctional outcomes.  For example,

  • Some parents exert psychological control to the point that independence is stifled and the child/adolescent/young adult remains behaviorally and emotionally dependent on their parents.  This type of maladaptive dependence can lead to separation anxiety and depression.

However, other parents who exert psychological control over their offspring by emphasizing too much independence can lead to problems as well.  For example,

  • Some parents expect that their child/adolescent/young adult demonstrate a high degree of accomplishment and independence in order to please and obtain their parents’ love and attention.  In doing so, the offspring may become so achievement orientated that they have to “stand out” from others and consequently fail to develop close relationships and intimacy with people.

Can independence foster dependence?  In some ways, yes.

Gaining independence helps us learn, explore, and evolve; yet, the world can be a scary and unforgiving place.  The need to have others in our lives who we can turn to for comfort, support, and security is essential.  Indeed, such dependence gives us the ability to be independent.  John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist, wrote extensively about the importance of having attachments to others throughout our lives.  Having people who care for us and make us feel safe and protected in times of need as well as being willing and able to do so, helps us become more autonomous.  It gives us a sense of well-being and promotes attachments with others.

When we are young, parents usually fill the role as the attachment figure who encourages our independence.  When we become adults, a romantic partner often assumes this role.  Research has found that when a relationship partner supports the other partner’s autonomy, not only does this help the partner grow and pursue their goals, but it also improves the relationship between the two by promoting and strengthening it.  

Taking a line from one of John Donne’s poem, “No man is an island,” reminds us that we are all dependent on others to give us the strength, motivation, endurance, and security to pursue our goals and independence.  So, as we approach our holiday celebrating our country’s independence, let us not forget those in our lives who have given and continue to give us the opportunity and freedom to grow and attain our dreams.  We should thank them for supporting our natural REVOLUTION.

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