In the second century AD, the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, wrote to himself in his Meditations: it is your duty to stand straight – not held straight. Aurelius, a Stoic, believed self-reliance, acceptance of what cannot be changed and clarity of thought to be of utmost importance and crucial to a fulfilling life. Much of his writing and the writing of other Stoics served the basis for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and other therapy approaches. Generally speaking, self-reliance to various degrees, has been the Holy Grail of many therapeutic approaches. Whilst self-reliance is believed to be a factor in developing resilience, it can also push people into a life of loneliness and isolation.
Self-reliance is important in developing a solid sense of self and to what psychologists and psychotherapists refer to as healthy boundaries – to me, practically speaking, boundaries are our ability to say no and yes genuinely. Yet, boundaries, if not allowed some permeability to the influence of others can leave us feeling depleted and emotionally empty – we should be able to allow some people to influence us.
Dan Siegel has written substantially about how inescapably relational and interconnected we are, as he has put it and as most research suggests, we have moved from a “single skull” model to the neurobiology of “we”. What we do influences others and what others do influences us.
The author of to Write Love on Her Arms, Jamie Tworkowski writes that we may need many things in life but above all we will need other people and we will need to be that other person to someone else. And when I think of what it is that people grapple most in psychotherapy it is their relationships.
Relationships and friendships have been the subject of many psychology and other social sciences experiments and examinations and we now know that they keep us mentally and physically healthy. Good relationships can also improve our immune system, enhance our creativity, can drop our blood pressure, ward off dementia in the elderly, ward off depression and the list goes on.
There are many ideas I appreciate in Stoicism; self-reliance is not one of them. To me, the problem with self-reliance is that it is mostly an illusion. Whilst I believe that there is some degree of self-reliance, for example the ability to comfort and soothe ourselves, we are very much dependent on other people for love, acceptance, care, growth, warmth, physical contact, belonging, feeling significant, having meaningful exchanges and knowing that we can influence others. Our ability to self-soothe is a learnt one and as we grow up we depend on others to “teach” us how to do it. Even setting personal boundaries requires other people to share these boundaries with us.
One of the best strategies in developing resilience, as I see it, is not developing more self-reliance abilities but developing richer, more meaningful and enduring relationships. To care for and be cared for by others seems to be what we humans have evolved to do.
Developing relationships can be quite a challenge for some people; studies show that if a person grew up in a non-caring, non-loving environment and have had little experience of closeness, he or she could have difficulties in seeking closeness with and support from others. Yet, studies also show that we can change that and develop a stronger sense of trust and belonging, which in turn can help reduce stress and anxiety levels and isolation.