June 28, 2019

Toward a Healthy Independence

By Robert Musser, Ph.D.

It’s that time of year again when we Americans celebrate our independence.  As with so many of our celebrations, we’re probably not so healthy, and our customs are far removed from the declaration of those colonial signatories.  Our American myths tell us to be rugged individualists independent of anyone else, yet politically those colonists recognized that this was a mutually supportive endeavor.  Ben Franklin is famously credited with observing, “We must hang together, or we will surely hang separately.”

As it is with political independence, so it is with other kinds of independence: complete isolation, “dysfunctional detachment” as one psychologist calls it,[1] is not healthy for our well-being.  If you search OVID for articles on independence, you will find that this concept is an issue for older adults, for patients with impairments, and for person with limited economic resources.  In each of these cases the healthiest approach is a balance between self-reliant autonomy and recourse to social support and even assistance from other persons, institutions, and technologies.  It is clear from research that either overdependence on others or compete detachment is not productive of our mental health, our success in life, or our ability to relate to others around us.  A healthy independence requires both some autonomy on our part and some reliance on others.

When we think about the social markers of independence in our development in this culture, we will recognize that there was both a measure of our own achievement and the encouragement and training provided by others.  As youngsters a big step in our independence was toilet training in which we were guided to take care of our own “business.”  Later, driving an automobile became a sign of independence, and again we were taught and modeled, and in due time we took the wheel ourselves and practiced until skillful.  So too with our education and our career development: we have both leaned on others, and we took independent initiative on our own.

Certainly there are some common barriers to independence: lack of empowerment, coercion from others, our own attachment to the needs of others (when unhealthy it can become co-dependence as we are well-aware), and economic limitations.  We do well to recognize these barriers, to limit their influence on us and other people as much as possible, and to be realistic about their presence.

Here in the Student Success Center we want to be part of this process of your healthy independence.  We have resources and insight that can assist you toward better academic achievements.  We want to help you soar on your own independent flight of discovery.  Let us hang together in these tasks of becoming healthy, independent humans.

[1] Bornstein, Robert. Healthy Dependency: Leaning on Others without Losing Yourself. New York: Harper Collins, 2009.