All. By. My. Self.

Can (and should) we really do anything on our own?


When we enrolled my son in a Montessori school, I was concerned that they would manufacture him to be an introverted puzzle builder who memorized the sequence of pi to the 75th integer and braided whips for leisure. And while a couple of my Montessori hang ups may remain, there is no question that my son’s time in this program has inspired independence and self-confidence.

Video evidence:

Did you hear that at the end? “All. By. My. Self.”

He takes so much pride in it. HE did it. HE mastered those pesky buckles. Right now he has an omnipresent desire to do all things by himself. He wants to get his cereal in the morning. He wants to carry his own bag to school. He wants to wash the car. He wants to dump the pee from his little potty into the big potty and give his father a heart attack. All. By. Him. Self.

And while ABMS (All By My Self) is liberating for him at the age of three, I find myself going the opposite direction. I’m recognizing I cannot do (and perhaps have not done) anything all by myself.

In my undergraduate psychology class, which I attended at least twice, I was introduced to two words: Codependence and counterdependence

In a nut shell (my therapists friends will forgive me for my brevity)…

  • Codependence: impaired autonomy, fear of separation
  • Counterdependence: over emphasized autonomy, fear of connection

And while codependence is certainly a reality for many, counterdependence is my thang.

And it is a thang that seems highly celebrated in our culture. Psychologists say that you may be counterdependent if you have difficulty being emotionally and physically close to others, have a strong need to be right, expect perfection in self and others, require intensity at all times, and have a difficult time resting. We idolize the Strong Independent Woman, the entrepreneurial 70hrs/week founders, the manic savants, the boot strapping fore fathers, and even give our vote to the brash, workaholic, egomaniacs. We celebrate counterdependence.

New Yorker columnist Joshua Rothman puts it like this,

“In the past few hundred years we have put autonomy at the center of our lives, economically, politically, and technologically; often, when we think about what it means to be happy, we think of freedom from our circumstances… we regard any situation — a movie, a conversation, a one-block walk down a city street — as a kind of prison.”

Rothman’s words are strong but seem to reflect the ABMS glee that my son feels.

As a culture we love stories of the against-all-odds-under-dog, rising up, and using strength and wit to find success. But we don’t always have the same reaction to the story of a pack of dogs or a community of people or a team of employees. There is something romantic to us about autonomy. In fact, publishers are now finding that putting a face on a book cover will help it sell, but put more than one face on the book, and it will not have the same spike in sales.

So are we hard wired to desire extreme autonomy? Is my son’s ABMS celebration evidence of what we are created for?

In our family we have the aforementioned curly topped three year old, and twins (Eve and Ezra) that are turning one in September. Recently my wife and I sat down to create a guest list for the twins’ birthday party. Our criterion for the invite list was simple: who helped us this year. We began with the grandparents, the neighbors, and the life long friends. But soon we were listing names of ex-coworkers and people we had met off of Craigslist. So much kindness.

As we finished the list of 100+ people, one particular evening came to mind. A friend who I had not seen in three years was to come over to our house with his fiancé to drop off dinner. I dread small talk and catching up. At the time I gave very few shits about what was going on in their life and was hoping for a quick hello, a baby photo op, and a thanks for coming.

The doorbell rang. My wife answered the door. She screamed to me “Babe, can you come down here? We need your help bring this stuff upstairs!” They had brought four boxes of diapers, five wrapped gifts, and enough take out to feed an entire dorm. I typed their names on the invite list. My eyes filled with tears.

When you have three kids under three you quickly learn, that even if you feel as though you have up to this point, you cannot do it ABMS.

And this sentiment does not appear to be just personal or anecdotal.

  • Recent research says that you can be stoked on an epic, legit, hella-tight experience, but unless it is shared with others, it brings you little joy.
  • Scientists say that just 30 seconds into our 13.8b history years, particles decided they needed to bond. Not even PARTICLES find lasting value in ABMS.
  • And In Social his book on the neurobiology of relationships, Matthew Lieberman says “It’s hard to find meaning in what we do if at some level it doesn’t help someone else or make someone happier.”

So it sounds as though we were not designed for ABMS. But are there not success stories out there of immeasurable strength and individual contribution? And should we not attempt to do the same?

Even my son, who seemingly did those buckles all by himself, did not really do that by himself. His teacher created the scaffolding for him to do that work. His parents pay for him to go there. We were hired and are paid by managers who could have hired more qualified others. Do you see where I am going?

You cannot overcome your depression without a close friend. You cannot restore a marriage without a therapist. You cannot revolutionize an industry without the wisdom of those who have come before you. You cannot buy a house in the Bay Area without help from your family (or an absurd start up success which requires geniuses beyond yourself). You cannot get a record deal without a lot of someones believing in you. AMBS is a myth.

Yes, ABMS serves us well for a season. It is a skill we need. We need some level of autonomy. We need a sense of self that is not hinged to others (without it we move towards codependence). We need an inner resilience and can do attitude (especially in times of hardship or trauma). But as an adult, ABMS is an illusion created by our egos. Spiritual teacher Richard Rohr calls this mirage the “Imagined Individual Self.” So perhaps in this age of autonomy idolization, what we really need is not increased individual fortitude but a deep gratitude. Gratitude for the ways in which our wellbeing is deeply tied to the efforts and generosity of others.

I know I need this.

Celine Dion (you’ve been singing it already, haven’t you?) says in her song All By My Self “When I was young, I never needed anyone.” It serves us well as we begin to define who we are. But with luck or intention we age and realize we are a mouse in a mansion. We grow up and discover we need pretty much everyone, regardless of whether we want it, recognize it, or appreciate it. We realize that forever

And for this lesson of life, and for all that you have done for me (or anyone else, ever, anywhere), I am grateful. I could not have come to this conclusion…All. By. My. Self.

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